April 19, 1999
By Jennifer McNulty
Hanging out in smoke-filled bars and listening to the blues may not sound like classical fieldwork, especially in political science, but that's what Michael Urban will be doing this summer.
Photo: Jennifer McNulty
Urban will be studying the emergence of the blues in Russia, specifically in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He has received a $4,000 summer stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities to pursue his project, "Russia Gets the Blues."
"It sounds like fun, and it will be fun, but it's also really engaging and serious when you think about it," said Urban. "All important political and governmental events have music, and social changes are often preceded by changes in music, but nobody really understands the connections very well."
"On the serious side, I'm attempting to understand how blues fits into the very deep social and cultural changes that Russia has been experiencing in the '90s, and how it contributes to the ways in which its audience thinks about and expresses their relations to that world--the political world included."
As a recent example, Urban points to Eastern Bloc countries, where rock 'n roll was incredibly popular ten years ago. Russia alone had 160,000 rock bands at the time. "Today, rock 'n roll doesn't hold much interest for most people," said Urban, an expert in the Russian political system. "It was a powerful form of protest activity against the Communist regime and has pretty much died along with its enemy."
In Russia's case, where the blues has emerged in the last five years as a separate, identifiable genre of music that has become popular in clubs in the bigger cities, political and musical changes may be occurring simultaneously now.
"It's amazing that they can reproduce this form of music fairly faithfully, given that it is very, very foreign," said Urban, adding that only a handful of musicians are writing their own material. "Like rock 'n roll in the past, the initial phase is only to replicate."
Urban, who has been a fan of the blues for more than 30 years, plays a bit of guitar himself and anticipates sitting in during some performances as a way to gain the trust of musicians and others he intends to interview. As part of his research, he will also talk with club managers, owners of record shops, promoters, and music reviewers.
But Urban will have to buy a new guitar before he heads to Moscow in June. "The only one I have is quite old, and it's worth too much money," he said. "I can't imagine taking that guitar to Russia and eventually being able to bring it out again."
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