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Studying the Beatles: Historians analyze the band’s cultural effect

Posted 3:47pm on Saturday, Feb. 08, 2014

How far have the Beatles come since that fateful night in 1964? One indication of their continuing impact on American life and culture is It Was 50 Years Ago Today!: An International Beatles Celebration, being held this weekend on Pennsylvania State University’s Altoona campus.

The three-day academic conference (full disclosure: I am moderating a panel there) is intended to celebrate the Beatles and the anniversary of the Ed Sullivan appearance and to bring together professors, students and the public to take a closer look at how the Beatles changed the world.

“I want to have something that is fun, because the Beatles are, at a certain level, fun,” said Ken Womack, associate dean of academic affairs at Penn State Altoona and organizer of the conference.

“But I also want it to be contemplative so that we can think deeply about their music and their achievement and try to understand it.

Indeed, John, Paul, George and Ringo are no strangers to college classrooms. Womack noted that courses on the Beatles “have become commonplace.” A university in Liverpool even offers a master’s in Beatles studies.

“Our students are keenly aware of the Beatles,” said Womack, 48, who got to know the band’s music by watching Beatles cartoons as a child in Houston.

The keynote speaker at the event is Mark Lewisohn, a British music historian who is considered one of the foremost experts on the Beatles. He recently published Tune In, the first of a planned three-volume biography of the Beatles, The Beatles: All These Years. To give you an idea of how exhaustive Lewisohn’s research is, the tome comes in at a hefty 932 pages, and it covers only up to the end of 1962 — more than a year before the band played The Ed Sullivan Show.

Topics and papers to be discussed at the conference include “The Beatles as Lyricists,” “The Beatles’ Revolutionary Musical Poetics,” “The Beatles in the (Contemporary) Material World” and “From Analog Ashcans to Digital Diving: A Comparative Analysis of Research and Storytelling, from Pre-Internet Age to Digital Overload.”

“Hopefully, we’ll have a good crowd of folks coming together and they will have a few ‘aha!’ moments,” Womack said, “and maybe a few instances where they can see something in themselves and in the Beatles.”

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