I was born within sight of the Empire State Building and spent most of my young life hanging out in New York City’s Greenwich Village during the great folk music revival of the 1960s. It was there I had the great opportunity to see and meet such blues giants as Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and to take guitar lessons from Rev. Gary Davis. This immersion into African American music and culture has pretty much informed the rest of my life as I’ve never stopped loving and studying the blues. Although I won a scholarship to art school, and even had the enormous good fortune to apprentice with Willem deKooning, the dean of American abstract expressionist painters, for a summer, I was far more interested in music and dropped out of school when I was 20. I spent the next eight years performing music with people like Dave Van Ronk and appearing at folk festivals and clubs like Gerde’s Folk City and the Bitter End. As I neared the end of my 20s I decided it would be a good idea to complete my B.A. and went back to school. There I met a wonderful teacher – Emily Waters – who opened up the worlds of folklore and ethnomusicology to me. Realizing that there were professional fields in which I could do what I loved I got accepted to Indiana University where I completed a PhD in both of those subjects, specializing in American and African American studies and music.
In 1990 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (still only an idea) began looking for its first curator. I applied for the position and after a year’s worth of interviewing on both coasts I was offered the job in early 1991. It was my chore to work with all the musicians who either were already in the Hall of Fame, or who were important to rock’s history, and to acquire memorabilia for the still unbuilt facility. I had the opportunity to work with people like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, the surviving Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Yoko Ono, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many others. In some ways it was like a dream come true, but the politics of the job were daunting, so when the building became a reality I left to return to teaching.
I am an award-winning author, educator, ethnomusicologist, folklorist, lecturer, musician, curator, cultural consultant. All of my experiences, along with my academic training, enable me to bring unique insights to my writing, teaching, lecturing, and performing. With regard to my teaching, this resulted on my university courses being among the most popular at the University of Michigan, and in 2012 I was awarded the "Golden Apple" as that year's most outstanding professor - a rare honor.
Throughout all these endeavors I had the opportunity to successfully train and supervise staff, manage budgets, develop exhibits and educational programs, bring my knowledge to an extremely diverse audience in many ways and formats, and become an in-demand lecturer and workshop leader.
I have produced two award-winning albums of early African American folk music and two award-winning books dealing with African American culture and history.
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