Senior Fellows Rocks
Honors program hosts singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave to honor Woody Guthrie's legacy
As the introductory course to "Senior Fellows," the honors program housed within the College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin, Dave Junker's symposium class is an initiation into the program's culture of critical inquiry and open dialogue.
"The mission is to get students to ask 'why' about what they find interesting or puzzling or horrible – to foster free and rigorous debate – and to arm them with some critical tools for understanding the questions they find important," said Junker, Senior Fellows director and lecturer in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations.
This fall, the focus of symposium joins a critical conversation via American folk singer Woody Guthrie, who would be celebrating his 100th birthday this year. Across the country, conferences and concerts have paid tribute to Guthrie's influence and legacy to mark his centennial.
Through Guthrie's music, writing and activism, the singer-songwriter critiqued big issues in American life: democracy, social and economic justice, the role of war, the nature of American character, individual freedom and communal responsibility, and material versus spiritual value.
Of the more than 1,000 songs Guthrie wrote, "This Land is Your Land" is his most famous. Guthrie was and remains controversial, considered by some a loud-mouthed leftist whose hometown of Okemah, Okla., for years refused to honor its native son based on charges that he was a communist.
"By focusing the class on Woody, my students can be part of this current effort to better understand his contributions to American culture," said Junker. "He's also a fascinating character whose body of songs provide an array of entry points for talking critically about the issues of our own day."
Austin folk favorite Jimmy LaFave, a Guthrie expert, has been bringing Guthrie's work to the masses for more than ten years as the creator of "Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway," a roadshow tribute to Guthrie's life and music. The show features modern musicians interpreting Guthrie songs strung together by narrated writings of Guthrie himself. The shows are performed at venues ranging from stadiums and elementary schools to bars and college campuses. The show has spun off an album featuring LaFave and an all-star cast of musicians, including Pete Seeger and Eliza Gilkyson.
"Woody is a major American character that I feel should be moved more to the forefront of what we study in our history classes," said LaFave. "I hope—when I do these talks and sing these songs—that students come away with something tangible."
In discussions sponsored by Senior Fellows, individuals such as LaFave share their special perspectives and give the program a seminar style of teaching similar to that found in graduate school settings.
"In seminars, learning flows in a number of directions: from me to them, from them to me and between each other," said Junker. "That means there's an element of spontaneity, of risk and reward that you just can't get in a lecture-style class. It's also interdisciplinary, as students come from all majors in the College, which has the effect of cross-pollinating the growth of ideas and perspectives."
The Senior Fellows program is hosting more free, public events this fall that dovetail with the topics of symposium and the other two seminars that are part of the program's curriculum. On Oct. 22, renowned Hip Hop scholar and cultural critic Tricia Rose will give a lecture on "Hip Hop, Mass Media and Racial Storytelling in the Age of Obama." Visit the Senior Fellows website for a full schedule.