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January 8, 2009

Faculty duo to play the blues at Hillman Library

Two talented Pitt professors will pick up guitars, bass and harmonicas next week for an hour-long set of blues and more in the Cup and Chaucer Café in Hillman Library.

Chemistry professor Steve Weber and English professor Phil Smith are stepping out of the classroom to perform at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 15 as part of a free Emerging Legends concert series jointly sponsored by the University Library System (ULS) and Calliope: The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society.

The series was launched last November and continues with a total of six free concerts featuring local and nationally known artists throughout the academic year. (A full schedule is available at

Their audience can expect a mix of blues, ragtime and gospel styles, as well as covers of Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Peter Rowan tunes, the professors said.

Smith and Weber, both Calliope board members, have presented educational programs to enhance the experience of students attending Calliope events through the Pitt Arts program, such as teaching a roomful of students to play a simple harmonica tune as a precursor to a blues concert. But, they never have played together on campus in a concert setting.

Now instead of solely enabling students to attend Calliope shows, the folk and traditional music can be brought to them as well. “It’s a wonderful way to bring music to the campus by bringing it to the Cup and Chaucer,” Smith said, noting that fellow Calliope board member Rush Miller, ULS director and Hillman Librarian, helped make the new concert series at the library possible.

Weber said he enjoys the opportunity to showcase what he calls “handmade music.” Without knocking technologic advances, he noted that it’s fun to expose students to the simple pleasures that come with acoustic styles.

Smith and Weber owe their acquaintance with one another to Calliope. They met through Calliope teacher Bill Weiner, with whom both studied guitar. They also have attended summer-camp-style blues workshops together and, with a handful of fellow attendees at the blues week offered by Davis and Elkins College’s Augusta Heritage Center, 11 years ago started their own blues week held each summer in Millwood, Va.

The group of 15-18 musicians each summer invites several professional musicians to instruct them. The week concludes with a house concert. “It’s been a wonderful part of summer,” Smith said.

Smith and Weber don’t play together regularly, although they do get the chance to jam each summer in Millwood.

Both professors grew up loving music — Weber was inspired by Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie; Smith enjoyed Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte. Both played guitar in high school and college before the pressures of graduate school and new careers in academia forced them to set their music aside.

In 1991 Weber went on sabbatical to Sweden and on a whim packed his guitar. As fate would have it, his neighbor there played as well and his love of the music was rekindled.

Smith’s return to playing came in the late 1980s and early 1990s when his wife encouraged him to take up music again as a way to unwind from the administrative tasks associated with being a department chair.

He found Calliope’s group classes — “I just wanted to go someplace to play and learn something,” he said — and has continued ever since.
Likewise, when Weber returned from Sweden in 1992, he discovered the Calliope guitar class.

Smith has incorporated music into his classes. He teaches a Ballads and Blues class; one section is being offered this term. As an English course, the class focuses on lyrics and how traditional oral expression is passed on by memory, then finds its way to written form. Students are welcome to write and present their own ballads as part of the class. Smith’s guitar makes appearances in the class as well.

Weber admits there is less opportunity to incorporate music into his chemistry classes. Because electromagnetic oscillation correlates with the colors of the rainbow, some principles of optics can be illustrated roughly with the guitar. But he uses such illustrations infrequently. In the science domain, musical principles might better mesh with a materials science course to study, for instance, the factors that impact the making of a fine violin. “For chemistry, it’s tough,” he admits.

“My musical life is not high-profile here,” he said. The responsibilities for a lab and 15 graduate students mean music definitely has to take second place, although Weber does play with the Monongahela Sheiks. The band has opened for Calliope concert headliners and played such local venues as Club Café on the South Side.

Smith plays with Smokestack Lightning, a folk group with roots in Pitt’s history department that performs songs related to American labor.

Academic duties precluded the duo from rehearsing their Cup and Chaucer set together until just a few weeks ago, after final grades were completed. While the fall term was in session, the acoustic professors relied on technology — exchanging recordings or computer files for each other to play along with — as they prepared to showcase their old-style music.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 9

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