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The music man

June 08, 2016

In an Ohio State classroom, President Michael V. Drake uses his love of music to teach first-year students about the Civil Rights era.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Supreme Court

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As a college student in northern California in the late ’60s, President Michael V. Drake came of age during a volatile time in our country’s history — and at the very epicenter of rock and roll history.

As a teenager, he worked at the original Tower Records in Sacramento, just two miles from his home. He and his friends camped out before the notorious Altamont Speedway Free Concert in 1969, headlined by The Rolling Stones and featuring Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And he saw some of the greats in music history – many at The Fillmore in San Francisco – including Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream, The Who, B.B. King, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.

Two years into his tenure at Ohio State, Drake’s appreciation of music is evident in some of his extracurricular activities. He’s dusted off his guitars — including a Les Paul and Telecaster — to sit in on some musical gigs, including a fundraiser for Mid-Ohio Foodbank and a jam session to celebrate the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he sits on the board of directors.

He’s given multiple presentations on music history at the university and in the community, most recently discussing the intersections of jazz and art for a United Way event.

And he brought his love of music history to the classroom during spring semester, co-teaching a new course at Ohio State, “The Civil Rights Movement and the Supreme Court” with Moritz College of Law Dean Alan Michaels.

"President Drake had a wonderful vision for this class’s rare combination of subjects: studying the legal and social debates of the Civil Rights Era and the music of the period," Michaels said. "That vision enabled the students to learn about two normally distinct fields and see parallels, contrasts and cross-influences that would be lost in the study of either subject on its own."

Music and the Civil Rights era: a perfect fit

In one class, Drake led the students through the Civil Rights era using visual images, song snippets and historical photographs from the 1960s. He covered the political — exploring, for instance, the impact of the Kennedy assassination — while also discussing cultural phenomena such as The Ed Sullivan Show.

The course combined Drake’s passion for music with his focus on advancing diversity and inclusive excellence at Ohio State — part of his 2020 vision for the university.

“The central premise that we have is that art just doesn’t come from the sky, but really evolves from the social, political and personal circumstances of the artist.” — President Drake

In the course, he uses his excitement for music to teach students about crucial moments in the Civil Rights movement. Artists like Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and Chuck Berry are the background music for a teaching jam session that flows naturally for Drake. One class included a visit by Mary Wilson of the Supremes (pictured above), who shared an inside look at her journey as an artist during the Civil Rights era.

A meaningful connection with students

Drake says he finds “great joy” in taking time from his hectic schedule to teach some of Ohio State’s youngest students.

“It is wonderful to be in the classroom with our students, who are remarkably bright and energizing,” he says. “I’ve always found that the ability to be involved with students keeps you relevant and keeps you young.”

It’s an equal thrill for the students who enjoy the spirited dialogue with the man who heads their university.

“I think President Drake does an amazing job of linking and showing the progression of music itself,” says first-year student Jahnavi Murali. “He goes back to stuff we’ve talked about earlier, and talks about how it evolved and why it evolved.”

Teaching assistant Vanessa Tussey said Drake has worked diligently to create an atmosphere in which students could contribute to a thriving conversation.

“To have freshman students who feel comfortable sitting down next to the university president and law school dean is kind of a tall order, so making it an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable is a credit to both of them.” —Teaching assistant Vanessa Tussey

The president's hard work paid off, Michaels said.

"President Drake’s skill in engaging our students in critical thought and respectful debate on these subjects made the class an honor for me to help lead," the law dean said. "It was plain that the students felt the continuing relevance of these subjects in today’s world.”

Follow President Drake on Twitter: @OSUPrezDrake

Drake's playlist

Aretha Franklin, “Respect,” 1967
"As you listen to the song 'Respect,' listen to the very beginning of it and how it announces her presence in the song. It’s not like, 'Hi, I’d like to be respected, please.' It’s a, 'What you are going to do is respect me, now.' It turned out to be an anthem for black power as well as the women’s movement—that women deserved to be respected."

Lou Rawls, “Dead End Street,” 1967
"There were a number of songs that talked about the pride of black people and black neighborhoods. This one by Lou Rawls is a guy talking specifically about who he was and where he was from and what it was like....It was more than, 'Don’t stop me'; it turned into, 'Let me celebrate myself,' and 'I have an active right to be here.'"

Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” 1964
"He wrote this song after hearing Bob Dylan's 'Blowin' in the Wind' and having a difficult time in 1963 on a tour of the South. It was at the interface between being an extraordinary pop headliner and having to go through the sidedoor. It’s a song that really painfully and beautifully captures that edge.”