Belfast man teaches seniors rock isn’t necessarily music of the young

Posted June 14, 2012, at 6:41 p.m.
Neal Harkness
Neal Harkness

BELFAST, Maine — Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin are all in their 70s, and Brian Wilson will be 70 next week, so teaching classes about their music at a senior college isn’t as incongruous at it might seem.

Neal Harkness has been doing just that, leading popular classes on The Beatles, Dylan, The Beach Boys and Motown music at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, where the Belfast Senior College offers its classes to those 50 and older.

Though Harkness, 57, had never been a teacher before, he believes that almost 50 years of passion for the music of his generation qualifies him.

“I was the kid with the transistor radio under the covers,” he said with a laugh, remembering growing up in the Detroit, Mich., area, listening to the birth and maturation of rock ’n’ roll.

His wife, Cheryl Fuller, is a Jungian therapist who has taught classes at senior college, and it was she who encouraged Harkness to take his passion for music to the classroom.

“I’ve never been a teacher,” he remembers protesting, but she reminded him of how he had recently explained to her the phenomenon of punk rock, playing records to explain the context from which the new sound sprung. Teaching a class in the same manner would work, she said.

A proposal to the curriculum committee to cover the entire history of rock music was rejected, and instead, he was urged to take on The Beatles, which he admits was better suited to the six-week classes.

“Everyone has a relationship with The Beatles,” he said, and offers as proof of their ubiquity that a trip to the Hannaford grocery store likely will include hearing a Muzak version of a Fab Four song.

“When The Beatles hit, especially, you wanted to know everything about these people,” Harkness remembers, and believes that interest is shared by fellow baby boomers.

Cover songs The Beatles recorded early in their career by artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, he remembers, sent him back to hear the originals to understand the artists who influenced the lads from Liverpool. It’s this approach to understanding music that informs his classes, rather than playing the hits only.

“How in the world did delta blues become Radiohead?” is the rhetorical question that drives his examination of the scope of popular music from the early 1950s through the 21st century. And that question led to his class, “The Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which spanned the period from the early 20th century through the 1950s.

His class on Bob Dylan was especially popular, drawing as many as 50 students, more than the 30 he averages with the other classes. Given the breadth of experiences people 50 and older have had, and given the midcoast’s draw for people from around the country to retire, Harkness wasn’t surprised to find that some of his students had first-hand experiences with his subjects. Some in the Dylan class had actually met the singer back in the early 1960s, he said.

Other class topics have included The Beach Boys and the history of reggae, both the subjects of one-day long seminars in the summer, appropriately enough, he said. This summer, on Aug. 9, Harkness will teach a class on Elvis Presley. Presley wowed his 70-year-old grandmother when he burst onto the music scene in the mid-1950s, he said, further proof that rock isn’t necessarily the music of the young.

Though not everyone was engrossed in music the way Harkness was, he witnesses powerful recollections when he plays recordings by early 1960s artists such as Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye, songs not often heard on the radio.

“I see their face change,” he said, and explains that the songs may bring them back to a high school dance or a drive around town with friends. “They bring personal experience.” Yet at the same time, he cautioned, he doesn’t want the classes “to just be a nostalgia trip.”

He also stresses that though “I’ve done research, I’ve got facts, that doesn’t mean my opinion means any more than anyone else’s” about whether a particular artist or recording is good or bad.

After a career working in food service businesses in Detroit, Harkness moved to Belfast in 2005 and now drives a bus for the local community action program. He also hosts a show focusing on post-1980 music on the community radio station WERU-FM (89.9 along the coast, 99.9 in the Bangor area) which airs starting at 10 p.m. on Wednesdays.

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