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On a blues note
by Natalie Higdon

While the city of Memphis has become synonymous with the blues, the University of Memphis' ethnomusicology program has become famous in its own right thanks largely to one man. Dr. David H. Evans, professor of music, was recently awarded the U of M's highest honor to be bestowed on a professor, the Willard R. Sparks Eminent Faculty Award, for his lifetime achievements in studying a genre of music that often echoes suffering and oppression.

"If we are truly a leading research institution of this region, then we must surely have the leading blues scholar on our campus luckily, we do," says Steven J. Ross, a fellow U of M professor and former award recipient who has worked with Evans on several film documentaries.

Evans is no stranger to praise for his work he won a Grammy in 2003 for "Best Album Notes" for the liner notes to Screamin' and Hollerin' The Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, and has received several other awards and grants for his work throughout the years.

David Evans  
Noted U of M professor David Evans is also an accomplished guitarist and singer.  

Evans primarily focuses his writing on the lives and careers of some of the pioneer recording artists of the 20th century.

"It was a time when a lot of new musical genres were coming into being," he says. "They were all in the early stages of development."

Despite being responsible for so much of today's music, many of the earliest blues musicians have been all but forgotten.

"Many of those artists lived and died in obscurity or poverty, and many only caught on with a larger audience after the artist was dead," Evans says. "Some signed disadvantageous contracts, or were ripped off or not paid, and often the rewards were meager at that time."

Although interest in the blues has become increasingly popular throughout the world, much like jazz has, the blues have receded in popularity among African-American audiences.

"It's now really an international music," Evans says. "It still has a special cultural reference within the African-American community, but its importance has diminished as new forms of music have become pre-eminent. R&B, disco, funk, neo-soul and rap have been the dominant forms of African-American music since the 1960s."

Another reason for the decreased popularity of the blues is that the world in which the original music was shaped is a far cry from the way in which most Americans live today, according to Evans.

"It's a time period that has now receded beyond the memory of most living people," Evans says. "These artists were all from the South that way of life and social system is hard for a lot of young people to imagine."

"It's another example of how oppressive conditions can produce great art," he says.
The city of Memphis set the stage for much of the development of early blues music, partly because of its location in the region.

"Throughout the history of the blues, Memphis has definitely been a stronghold of the music, and it continues to be today," Evans says.

Learning about the history of musical genres is also important because of their cultural influence throughout history, according to Evans.

"The rise of blues and R&B and eventually rock 'n' roll in the '50s in Memphis was an example of music being in front of a social movement," Evans says. "It's important for people to know about their culture's music, and increasingly the world's music."

Evan's accomplishments and passion for his work have earned him praise from his colleagues and students.

"With his special knowledge and interest in American folk and popular music and his specific research of blues, spirituals, gospel and African-American folk music, Evans makes a very special contribution that brings international attention to the School of Music and the region we serve," says Dr. Patricia Hoy, director of the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music.

Ross, a communications professor at the U of M, has worked with Evans on three film projects where Evans served as a musicological consultant. Evans even served as one of Ross' film subjects when Ross worked on a 20-minute film on local radio station WEVL, where Evans had his own program for many years.

"Indeed, David is the true 'town and gown' scholar, whose work is widely recognized in respected academic journals, yet is also evident among everyday people attending music festivals, on countless album cover notes, and in music industry publications outside his rigorously academic work," Ross says.

Dr. Kenneth Kreitner, professor of musicology at the U of M, says that although Evans may not seem like an obvious fit for a music department that specializes in training classical musicians, his passion is inspirational to all those who cross his path.

"Of those who do know him, not many are overtly interested in the kind of early blues he specializes in; yet he inspires them [and his colleagues too] for one reason, and it's the most honest reason there is: he's the real deal," Kreitner says. "He has devoted his life to what he cares about, and he walks ahead and doesn't look from side to side, and he produces a steady stream of great new stuff every year."

Dr. Kip Lornell, a professor of music at George Washington University and former student of Evans, says that the U of M's ethnomusicology program is like none other in the country. According to Lornell, who has also won a Grammy for work on liner notes, it's the "proverbial feather in the cap of the University."

York University's Rob Bowman, another former student of Evans' who has gone on to win a Grammy for his work with Stax Records, says that Evans was a major reason he decided to get his doctorate from the U of M.

"There are [other] universities where I could have gone, and I had many scholarship opportunities," Bowman says. "What David had to offer was closer to the certain experiences in music that I cared about, and it was the best decision I ever made."

Evans was not only a factor in attracting former student Dr. Rich Ripani, who now teaches at a public high school in Nashville, but he was also the reason Ripani was able to complete the program at all.

"I had to be able to come over during summers and do a lot of things to piece it together to make it work," Ripani says. "He did stuff like teach me a one-on-one class during the summer."

Throughout his studies, Ripani says he was always fascinated by Evans' knowledge.

"He just is absolutely an encyclopedia of knowledge in American music," Ripani says. "It doesn't even matter what field you're talking about - he remembers everything."

According to Ripani, Evans and the program itself attract students from all over the world to the U of M.

"A signature program like that makes the school stand out every school has a music program," Ripani says. "When you've got something unique, it's good to go with it because it gives you notoriety."

Evans' Eminent Faculty Award came with a $20,000 prize and commemorative crystal vase. The award is presented annually at Faculty Convocation in April.

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