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Finding Context

Josh Friedberg ’10 says he’s been able to put to good use a lot of what he has learned at Earlham and in life.

Having just completed a master’s in English, Friedberg volunteers at a community radio station called CHIRP Radio and tutors college students with disabilities.

“This is a specialty that’s close to my heart because I have Asperger’s syndrome,” he says. “I struggled at Earlham with time management, perfectionism and deadlines.

“As the Registrar’s Office will remember, I’m sure, I had a revolving series of majors at Earlham, in large part because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on academically.”

His experience in two first-year writing courses instilled a love of the craft in him.

“My experience at Earlham as an English major most directly affected my love of writing, including for popular audiences. Writing music columns, reviews and opinion pieces at The Word, Earlham’s student newspaper,  also energized Friedberg and helped him hone his writing skills.”

His thesis “Racializing Rock: The 1960s and the White Sounds of Pet Sounds,” was published online at the web journal PopMatters. It examines how 1950s, somewhat hybridized rock ‘n’ roll became 1960s, more white-dominated rock and how the Beach Boys’ masterpiece, Pet Sounds, fits within that history.

“Studying music in relation to race can help raise awareness of the importance of social context for all different kinds of texts, including musical performances,” says Friedberg, who admits that in high school he reacted negatively to the idea that social context was needed to evaluate music as either “good” or “bad.”

“But now, after having taken AAAS classes at Earlham and graduate classes in cultural studies, I’m much less concerned with judgments of quality than I am with questions like, ‘What are the social uses to which this art is being put?’” he says.

He grew up listening to a wide variety of older American music, from rock and soul to country and jazz, but it’s especially through learning about jazz that he developed an interest in race and music. In high school, he came across Craig Werner’s A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, and the book opened his eyes to a new way of thinking about the music he loved.

“I took several classes in African and African American Studies at Earlham so it became my minor, and music was what initially drew me to the field.”

Friedberg says that causing larger social change takes more than awareness.

 “I think it is an important step, though, to recognize art and surrounding discourses are always political, including when they are ostensibly neutral.”

On campus, Friedberg sang and played music by other people at open mics, but in March of 2009 he sang his first original song “Some People Say” at the Genesis women’s shelter benefit concert.

“My life changed,” he says. “Everyone stood up and cheered in droves for a song that I wrote about me and my life that people told me they could relate to. I never thought that could happen in a million years. People have told me since then, ‘Josh, that is the only thing people will remember from that concert,’ and the laughter and the tears that other people had because of my song was something I’ll never forget. I wrote it about having Asperger’s syndrome, but being told how many people find it applicable to their lives was such an incredible gift.”

He says he’ll also never forget graduation day.

“Seeing and hearing hundreds of people stand up and cheer for me when I walked at graduation a few years ago, I’ll never forget it,” he says. “After all I’d been through growing up, that day made it all feel worth it.”

Josh Friedberg

Josh Friedberg 2010

Major at Earlham: English

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