American Studies Professor Had a Passion for Pop Culture

Jim Salem
Jim Salem

He was known for his laid-back Age of Aquarius demeanor, his delight in American culture, and the cards he sent to friends far and wide each year on Valentine’s Day.

Dr. James M. Salem, professor emeritus in the Department of American Studies, died unexpectedly on July 6, 2012, following routine surgery. He served the department for more than 40 years and continued to teach in the College following his retirement from The University of Alabama in 2008.

Salem joined the College’s faculty in 1967 as the first professor in the newly formed Department of American Studies. Under his leadership — he was chair for 30 years — the fledgling department grew into one of the most successful American studies programs in the country.

Salem loved to teach and took great pleasure in igniting a passion for learning in his students. His skill in making his classroom experience both educational and memorable was recognized in 1998 when the UA National Alumni Association honored him with its Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the prestigious Mary C. Turpie Prize from the American Studies Association, the flagship professional organization in his field. The prize is given periodically to “the candidate who has demonstrated outstanding abilities and achievement in American Studies teaching, advising, and program development at the local or regional level.”

The Late Great Johnny Ace and the Transition from R&B to Rock ’n’ Roll, Salem’s critically acclaimed biography of the early postwar rhythm and blues artist, was a Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award finalist. But his greatest honor came from University of Alabama students who, in 2008, selected him as speaker for UA’s Last Lecture series. In an auditorium packed with admirers, he delivered what would become his legendary explication of composer Don McLean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie.”

Students, colleagues, and friends recall his passion for popular culture in general and popular music in particular, interests he pursued inside and outside the classroom. His course offerings included classes on the Beatles, American popular song, and the pop culture of 1950s America. He was a lifelong sports enthusiast, and the Crimson Tide held a special place in his heart.

According to Dr. Lynne Adrian, chair of the Department of American Studies, as teacher, adviser, colleague, and friend, Jim Salem enriched the lives of a wide array of people who cherish his memory and honor his legacy. A memorial fund has been established in Dr. Salem’s honor. Donations can be made to the American Studies Jim Salem Memorial Scholarship, The University of Alabama, Department of American Studies, P.O. Box 870214, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0214 or by calling Kathy Yarbrough, director of development, at (205) 348-0696.