I was nine years old when I was first introduced to British music. I can still remember how I felt when I first heard the Beatles. The music was something I had never heard before. I was mesmerized. After that, my sister and I fell into a hole of research on the Beatles and the British Invasion. Not only did we listen to their music, but we also read books, watched movies and interviews, all to understand what British culture was like. We were never the same after that.
My love for British music amplified ten-fold when I enrolled in the Modern Popular Music class at Richmond University – The American University in London. For nine weeks in the summer of 2019, I studied abroad in London. It was my second time studying abroad in London. I thought that my summer would be similar to the summer before. In actuality, the summer of 2019 was more eventful and memorable. One class stood out the most. The Modern Popular Music class was the best class I had ever taken.
London gave me several moments that are now embedded in my soul. For an assignment for the class, we were to go out to a blues bar and write about our experience. I imagined it would be fun but was not prepared for the night I was about to have.
The slide guitar could be heard from the doorway of the club as I entered. Sitting on stage was Dave Ferra, a blues singer and guitarist. I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia, as incredulous as that sounds as I was just a mere twenty-one years of age. How could a blues singer and the bar give me such nostalgia? After all, I had never been to a place like it before.
The songs of my earliest memories were of rhythm and blues, soul, and gospel music from my grandfather. The best memories of childhood were based upon him singing me to sleep in his lap to these songs. The songs that Ferra sang were similar to ones my grandfather sang to me as a child. It was the gospel quality of the songs that spoke to me the most. One of the songs Ferra played also brought me back to my teen years when my sister and I first discovered the Rolling Stones. He played a cover of one of their songs, “Honky Tonk Women.”
Another moment at the blues bar that affirmed my nostalgia was glancing at all the art on the walls. Moving from a poster of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix to Johnny Watson and more. I remember how my breath hitched in my throat when I saw a poster of Sam Cooke. The “King of Soul” sat perched upon the wall, smiling down upon me. Sam Cooke was the first musical artist that I can remember having an absolute affinity for when my grandfather sang me his songs. No other music artist spoke to me the way that Sam Cooke did when my grandfather sang me his songs. And there Sam Cooke was, in my favorite city in the world, on the wall of a blues bar with a talented blues singer singing gospel.
The blues bar was one of many spiritual moments I had in London. Another was when we covered the Beatles and the British Invasion. My inner-teenage self was screaming inside like the little Beatlemaniac that I was. Even with all the research, I have done before on the Beatles, there was still a part of me that felt like I wasn’t completely understanding the whole story.
Being in London and taking that class was part of the missing piece. I never had the British perspective of the Beatles before. My professor, who was originally from Liverpool, shared all his knowledge and inside stories that I had never heard about before. He even localized one of his stories by taking the class on a music tour around Notting Hill. We saw some of the places where the Beatles had gone to perform in their early days. He also showed us where Jimi Hendrix died and where the Rolling Stones formed their band. That tour itself was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The last soul-stimulating experience of the class was watching a video of The Smiths. As soon as I heard Johnny Marr strumming his guitar in an upbeat tune, I felt these chills wash over me. Then Morrissey’s voice came on, singing the lyrics to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and I was in euphoria. I felt extreme happiness to a song that had miserable in its title and lyrics that were just as melancholy. Yet, the song gave me such a rush of dopamine that I hadn’t felt since I was first introduced to Amy Winehouse and the Arctic Monkeys, two other famous British performers. After that class, I dove deep into The Smith’s music. So much so that I bought one of their records in Portobello Market. I didn’t even have a record player at the time, but I needed to hear the rawness of The Smiths on vinyl. I even named my first adopted cat Morrissey a couple of months later when I was back home.
British music had always fascinated me, but it wasn’t until I was immersed in the culture did I finally appreciate the music as more than just a melodious tune. I could feel the emotion of the songwriters, understand why they wrote the lyrics to their songs, and how they combined it with the instrumentals. Music has always been a part of memorable moments in my life. When I hear a specific song, it awakens my memory and I can see that moment clearer than I ever could without the music. This is why music is one of the most important aspects of my life. I know that after taking the Modern Popular Music class, I will never be the same. I can appreciate music with a more open mind.
Check out my playlist of British Music that reminds me of my study abroad experience!