William Ellis is sitting in his barely furnished office in the McCarthy Arts Building on the St. Michael’s College campus. A guitar lies on top of a case on the floor, across from a bookshelf adorned with a handful of tomes. Boxes are tucked in various corners of the room, most unopened. Outside his second-floor window, fresh-faced students bustle to and from classes along a quad in the midafternoon September sun.
“It’s kind of weird,” he says, turning his gaze from the window. “A lot of these kids were hardly born when Kurt Cobain pulled the plug on himself.”
Ellis is the newly minted assistant professor of American music at St. Mike’s. He is describing some of the issues he faces getting his students to comprehend the breadth of what he admits is an increasingly unwieldy subject: the history of American rock and roll.
“There is a lot of distance even between now and then for these kids,” he says. “Cobain’s death still feels fresh to me, but it’s obviously not for them. So the challenge is how to make something like that feel relevant to their lives. Hopefully, they are able to better appreciate the music they already like because they can see it in a broader context of where it came from.”
Ellis, who moved to Vermont with his wife and daughter from Memphis, Tenn., two weeks ago, says he’s still getting his bearings, but ultimately hopes to expand the music department’s focus on the history of American music. He’ll begin with a course on the history of rock and roll this semester, and a course on the history of jazz in the spring. He’ll also offer courses on music theory and writing on music this year. In future semesters he hopes to include classes on a variety of American music styles, including gospel, blues, soul and hip-hop.
Ellis has a PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Memphis, where he taught a number of similar music history courses. His specialty is Southern American music, an interest inspired and cultivated by his father, Tony Ellis. The elder Ellis is a well-known banjo and fiddle player who performed with, among others, legendary bluegrass icon Bill Monroe — Monroe is William Ellis’ godfather.
“I grew up with banjo and fiddle music in the house from as far back as I can remember,” says Ellis. “It’s always been a part of my life. So it makes sense that when I went off to study in college that I would do something in music, as opposed to, say, chemical engineering.”
Ellis has a master’s degree in classical guitar from the University of Cincinnati, a discipline that he cheekily claims to have “summarily forgotten.”
“I discovered acoustic blues at that point,” he says. “And it was like being knocked over the head with a brick. So I did an about-face and went straight into that.”
Ellis is an accomplished blues performer. In 2007, his solo album, God’s Tattoos, won the Australian Bluestar award for “Best International CD Release.” He recently shared the stage with comedian-cum-banjo-star Steve Martin on “Late Show with David Letterman.” This summer he played at the U.S. Library of Congress with his father.
“I tell people I’ve made hundreds of dollars in the music business,” jokes Ellis.
Kidding aside, his extended résumé is impressive. In addition to his performing accolades, Ellis is also a highly regarded music journalist. He has covered the Grammy Awards and was a music critic for the Memphis daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal. He also wrote for two Japanese publications while living and teaching in Japan in the early 1990s. In other words, Ellis practices what he teaches.
“I tell my kids I’m the only professor they’ll have who has been on the road with Three 6 Mafia,” says Ellis, referring to the Memphis-based hardcore hip-hop act. He adds jokingly, “That’s how I get my street cred.”
Through both his academic pursuits and performing professionally, Ellis certainly has a broad understanding of the winding course of American music history. In the classroom, he invites his students to dig deep in order to put rock and roll into proper historical context.
“You can’t see in front of you until you know what’s behind you,” he suggests. “As my kids will discover, we spend a lot of time on pre-rock-and-roll styles and trends.”
He’s not kidding. Ellis says he gets medieval on his students. “We start with minstrel singing and work our way up. … We may even get to Metallica.”
Though his courses are history classes, Ellis stresses that his students’ connection to the subject matter should run deeper than merely memorizing dates and names.
“Music, as much as anything else, is about a search for identity,” he points out. “So I want [students] to take bigger things away from these classes.”
Specifically, Ellis says he hopes to help his kids understand the ongoing dialogue between Anglo American and African American cultures that he says has been shaping American music for centuries. But he also hopes to deepen his pupils’ personal connection to the music they love.
“Music is communal. It’s healing. And it’s entertaining, too,” he says. “But there are so many layers to music. It’s one long passage. So, ultimately, I want my kids to walk away with more questions than answers.”