Harmonica, 2000-2003

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A whimsical tale: Born under the crescent moon and palmetto trees of Charleston, South Carolina, Big Dave McCurry took up harmonica at 16 after watching a guy on a street corner play south of San Francisco in the late sixties and thinking, "hey, that's for me." Hours of solo practice in acoustic stairwell heaven to Lee Oskar and War, Canned Heat, John Mayall, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Corky Siegel while Mom, Dad, and now famous older brother were off to church on Sunday mornings.

After surviving suburban hell in the SF bay area, Professor Dave teamed up with various college players in California, adding his folk and blues harp in 12 string duets to tunes by John Prine, Hoyt Axton, and a host of country/rock favorites. Santa Cruz College band Sweet Release provided R&B and Rock distraction from psychology degree with weekend gigs, playing Curtis Salgado, Sam and Dave, Sons of Champlin, Allman Bros., The Band, The Dead, out in bars and campus parties, and opening an outdoor festival one night for Tower of Power.

A voluntary 3 years in The Gambia, West Africa later added juju, palm wine flavor and more crescent moon spirituality to the musical brew. More degrees, more education, more distraction performing and recording with political folk tooney Tom Neilson and Mark Lynd in happy valley Massachusetts off and on the years since. more Africa (this time in Malawi) - Kwela, and lots of High-Life and Reggae in between then and now.

Last time back from Africa in the former South-West (Namibia), playing with the Flying Hippos while battling the remnants of evil apartheid and aiding reconciliation to present day New Jersey (with evil remnants of township segregation and no reconciliation), falling in with The Mighty Accents and Phatman with Sam Cooper and Jefferson Starship Trooper Slick Aguilar. Big Dave joins The Professors with fellow Monmouthkateer, Chad Dell.


From Radford, G. P., Cooper, S. D., Kubey, R. W., McCurry, D. S., Millen, J., and Barrows, J. R. (2002). Collaborative Musical Expression and Creativity Among Academics: When Intellectualism Meets Twelve Bar Blues. American Communication Journal [Online] Volume 6, Issue 1, Fall 2002.

Edward Lueders, an American poet, author, professor and one-time chair of the English department of the University of Utah, once described to me a writing project he was working on. Something novel in length (he has written and published poetry through most of his life) which involved his reflections on experiences in World War II as part of the troop entertainment services (he was, and is, an accomplished jazz pianist as well). The main storyline was set on one of the troop transport ships that carried thousands of soldiers and sailors back from the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations at the end of the war (see Lueders, 1989).

The interplay of the characters and depiction of people going about their business was to be based on the metaphor of a jazz group, improvising their individual parts, moving from solo to rhythm, combining in duets, separating in constructive dissonance, all the while pursuing their interpretation of a familiar melody.

I remember listening to this description in my parent’s living room, on a break from college, over 20 years ago. Edward Lueders is my uncle, on my mother’s side. All of this was particularly interesting to me at the time since I was pursuing a psychology degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and, perhaps more significantly, trying to balance as best I could that and the experiences of playing harmonica in a rhythm and blues band. Balancing a professional academic career and the seemingly pedestrian pursuit of “playing in the band” has enriched my teaching, and my life, for a long time now.

Like many musicians of that time and geographic space, the influence of the unique improvisational style of the Grateful Dead saturated many “jam” band experiences. The ability to improvise was a necessary part of playing the music we enjoyed. Improvisation, the way we experienced it in those times, was something that bordered on the spiritual. We fleetingly believed that communication was possible in paranormal ways, foolish us. By day, we read existential texts such as Martin Buber’s I and Thou (1970) and explored concepts such as “transpersonal psychology.” By night, music allowed transcendence beyond normal communication boundaries in the group.

We came to understand that there was something beyond the usual, direct speaking and exchange of mundane ideas. It was all confused with emotion and thought. It was disturbing. It was ego and non-ego at the same time. At one time soloing (“sometime the light’s all shining on me” - see Hunter, 1970), and then sublimating the music to the group totality. Stepping out front to solo and being noticed, your band mates supporting you with the rhythm and harmony, falling back to join the security of the group (strength in numbers); raising your hand in class, speaking out, or just falling back and listening; the chronosynchronous experience of performance (of knowledge and skill) and learning. Communication, as expression of the individual, was rearticulated as group expression - what “we” have to say.

I think that is why the concept of “band” has been so important for young creative minds, especially for men, although I am not sure what the gender implications are. I suspect women likely have an easier time of competently communicating within small groups of their own gender, but I’m not sure why. It is still a mystery. It would seem entirely likely that academics (men and women) in all kinds of fields find creative expression both within and outside of their “normal” milieu.

The model of my uncle, accomplished as an academic and author, performing and enjoying jazz, persisted and made such expression permissible in my mind. The two always seemed compatible to me. The “academic as artist” is a well-known archetype in our cultural history. It was no coincidence that his earlier work involved the study of Carl Van Vechten, critic, author, and photographer of the Harlem Renaissance and urban cultural landscape of the 1st half of the twentieth century (Lueders, 1955). We study culture, and we create it (Freire, 1998).

Rock and Roll, the sweet release (our band’s name) of physical liberation and rhythm. These were the influences in our times, back then. In music, we found meaning, we communicated, and we communed. We escaped what we felt to be a repressive cultural history (most of us were middle and upper-middle class, white kids from central California and had no idea what repression really was) if only for short periods of time by indulging in Roszak’s (1995) “counter culture,” using music and performance as escape velocity vehicles from the gravity of normalcy and cultural assimilation. Creative minds, creative times.

Music as a metaphor for communicating seems all the more relevant now. True to the duality of popular culture and counter-culture in American society over the past 50 years, today’s music seems similarly fractured into Britney Spears Pepsi commercial sex rock rhythm and blues pop mélange and punk-grungemetal-ska counter rebelliousness, streaming silently from house to house over the new electronic communal pathways in blatant disregard of commercial copyright. A safe and silent rebellion, our communication has both increased and fractured our existence. In the midst of all this, I cautiously found myself involved, again, with a group of musicians who would pull me away from my usual duties. This time though, they were not fellow students, or casual acquaintances. They were colleagues.

A music ensemble metaphor can prove a useful framework for small group communications (Purser & Montuori, 1994), especially in the process of learning. In a society and time that screams for the individual to be heard, we as professors often must orchestrate listening space in our groups of students. Who is the soloist? What is the rhythm in the group’s pattern of communication? What is the melody that they all have in their heads? What are “they” saying? Does all this have anything to contribute to our academic pursuits, or is it just avocational relaxation?

With graying hair, we play our own familiar melodies in a group called “The Professors” (as that path seemingly chose us), balancing the fun of music with more serious pursuits. Our historical concepts of “professing” seem rooted, like so much of communication theory, in the outward articulation of ideas, dominated by foci in the communicator. In advertising, like politics, the focus is on “getting the message out.” We hone the effectiveness of our communication through public speaking, for all intents and purposes, a one-way process. But communication, we remind ourselves, is not always about the communicator. Playing music, especially music that involves improvising, requires listening. Hearing others and the self. Hearing the self in the context of others and, for all-too-brief moments, hearing the others in the self. (What are they saying?) Perhaps that is why we are drawn to it. Academics are, mostly, creative minds. We are scholars, researchers, communicators, teachers, musicians, and our choice of multiple channels for expressing ideas, concepts, feelings and perceptions is not to be an unexpected thing. I don’t think it diminishes our profession in the eyes of our students. Hey, my professor plays in a rock band! Why not? At least I know a few of them are listening.

This page last updated July 6, 2013 by Gary Radford.
Many thanks to Kurt Wagner, Marie Radford, and Jon Oliver.