WATERLOO REGION — Brent Hagerman plays guitar, alto saxophone, writes music books and teaches one of Wilfrid Laurier University’s most popular courses, The History of Rock Music.
“I hate to say this, but I would teach this class even if they didn’t pay me because it’s so much fun,” Hagerman said.
This is an investigative course, covering rock music from 1950 to the mid-1990s. He first developed the course nine years ago and has taught it to classes at Max since. One of the main themes of the course is the blending of African and European musical traditions.
“If you think about rock and roll in the 1950s, what Elvis Presley was doing and what Chuck Berry and Little Richard were doing, in a lot of ways it was R&B, it was African American music “Hagerman said.
In the mid-1950s, he became rock and roll. The course shows the Afro-American influence on all popular music. It covers black church music, gospel, early blues as well as early country music that mixed western swing and delta blues.
“And so, we’re looking at this kind of dialogue between European ideas about music and African musical ideas, and how they come together,” Hagerman said.
He has also been part of the music scene for years.
Hagerman was a member of the reggae and rock band The Jolly Llamas. For years he was part of a trio called The Winnebago Blues Band with Matt Osborne and Steve Toms and he was also part of the Baudelaires, a band influenced by reggae and ska.
Hagerman is also part of a singer-songwriter group City in Eastern with Paul McInnis and Scott Wicken.
“Lots of fun ways to express myself musically,” he said.
He comes through his love of reggae honestly.
When Hagerman was eight, his parents moved the family to Bermuda. He spent the next decade there immersed in Caribbean music, listening to a lot of dance hall and roots reggae.
After earning her doctorate in religion and culture, Hagerman landed a teaching job with Wilfrid Laurier. He has published academic articles on reggae legend Bob Marley and published a book in 2018 titled “Bob Marley: Everything There Is to Know About the King of Reggae”.
“Later this year, knock on wood, I have a critical biography of a reggae musician called Yellowman coming out with the University of West Indies Press,” he said.
His research and teaching have a deeper resonance since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. For more than 100 years, white record company executives have ripped off African-American artists.
One of the most egregious examples is the song “That’s Alright” by Delta bluesman Arthur Crudup. Crudup recorded this in 1946.
It was the first song recorded and released by Elvis Presley in 1954 and launched the career of the Memphis truck driver who became known as the king of rock and roll and one of the most important cultural icons of the 20th century.
Led Zeppelin, George Harrison, The Beach Boys, Oasis, Robin Thicke, Katy Perry and Madonna have all found themselves embroiled in charges and/or lawsuits.
Harrison, for example, had to pay over $1.5 million because the melody of his 1970 hit song “My Sweet Lord” was just too close to the Rags’ 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine.” Harrison was found guilty of “unconscious plagiarism”.
In addition to “The History of Rock Music,” Hagerman teaches a course called “Cultural Studies of Popular Music” which focuses on the racist and sexist roots of popular music.
Popular music is a great way to learn about modern history, the exploitation of African Americans, the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s, and the blending of African and European musical traditions, a he declared.
“If we talk about the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ+ community, and the marginalization of that community, we can see a certain emergence of voices within those communities in the history of popular music,” Hagerman said.
It seems his personal and professional lives mesh so well that it’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends.
None of this was easy though. He played alto saxophone for years before taking up guitar at 18.
“I didn’t feel like a musician,” Hagerman said. “I wanted to learn to play by ear and I wanted to learn to improvise. So I did it on guitar. My goal was to be able to play with anyone without any sheet music, just play along. I finally got to this point.
“I’m a musician,” he said. “My professional research is all based on music and I’m a big fan of music. So spending that time preparing for each lecture and listening to music is great fun for me, but sharing that passion with students is also fun, and students come to this class because they love music.