In April 2012 and again in 2014, the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association presented a series of classes entitled “The Evolution of Bluegrass” to a group of students enrolled in the Center for Lifetime Studies, a program sponsored by Marist College. This course will also be given again this coming April.
Eric Rosi-Marshall participated in the 2012 classes and was the lecturer who led the 2014 course.
Since moving to the Hudson Valley in 2010, Eric has conducted music enrichment courses for toddlers and pre-schoolers, immersing them in the experience, language, and joy of music-making. His weekly parent/child music & movement course literally includes newborns (“get ‘em early” he says). Eric also teaches formal guitar and bass lessons at a regional middle school and offers private lessons in his home studio to people of all ages. Eric’s students range in age from grade school students to adult retirees who are finally returning to a passion and ambition they may have set aside decades earlier. His guiding principle is to encourage people of all ages to appreciate and participate in live music as a way to enjoy themselves and connect with others.
Eric also maintains a busy schedule as a performing musician. He is the bandleader of the highly regarded group, Long Steel Rail, which plays a full range of acoustic and semi-electric Americana. Eric is also a talented songwriter and an in-demand sideman, playing guitar and bass with numerous prominent regional acts.
But all this gives short shrift to his more formal training as a scholar and educator. After attending college at the University of Chicago, Eric worked in the research and production of the two-volume academic reference work, “The International Dictionary of Black Composers.” He earned a Masters in American History from the University of Georgia and was a classroom teacher at both the elementary and high school level.
I caught up with Eric Rosi-Marshall to get a better understanding of the path that has led him to become such a powerful musical influence here in the Hudson Valley.
JA: Eric, music seems to be buried deep within your DNA. Does an interest in music run in your family?
ERM: Yes. My earliest recollections of growing up in a musical household are fond memories of my parents making music together. My mother was a music teacher and my father was a music scholar, a professor at the University of Chicago. And they both played music. You could say they were both accomplished amateurs—he on piano and she on flute. I recall as a young boy, perhaps at the age of five or six, I’d sleep in on Sunday mornings but would come downstairs later and find them playing classical duets together in the front parlor. At the time, hearing them play was just background to my life, something that perhaps I took for granted as normal but now, as the years have passed, these have become cherished memories. It has taken me 30 years to realize the gift they had given me and how their love of music has influenced me.
JA: Tell me more about your childhood.
ERM: This was in Chicago, the Hyde Park neighborhood. My dad taught music history, graduate courses in Bach, Mozart, and Baroque music. I suppose that’s where I get my scholarly approach to music. When I was seven we moved to West Berlin, Germany and lived there for two years. He was doing research on Bach at the State Archives at East Berlin. We would go as a family to East Berlin. My mother was still a German citizen. My dad, sister, and I would go through Checkpoint Charlie, the American crossing, but being German my mother would walk through a different gate. We’d separate and would have to rendezvous later on. As a kid I was impressed by the German guards with machine guns and how they’d use mirrors to look under cars for contraband.
JA: What was it like being an American kid in Germany?
ERM: We got there at the beginning of summer and I went out and met other kids. We rode bikes and played soccer. I spent second grade in a local German neighborhood school and soon became fluent in German. Later my parents enrolled me in a bilingual school so that I would not forget my native English! My dad’s sabbatical was extended to a second year. We were really enjoying our stay in Germany.
JA: What are your musical memories from Germany?
ERM: My only musical memory was attending the East Berlin Opera. The director wanted to impress my dad. He gave us very good seats and hosted a reception for us before the opera.
JA: Well, obviously you came back to the states. How was your reentry?
ERM: I do remember feeling out of place when I returned, like I had to relearn the ropes. We lived in the same house and I returned to the same friends. I had to pay extra attention to pick up on the things I had missed.
JA: What kind of things?
ERM: Pop culture things. I felt out of touch culturally. My friends would go through great lengths to fill me in about the latest trends in music, like what bands were popular. For example, I didn’t know who The Police were. I was raised on classical music and almost to this day I’ll excuse any gaps in cultural knowledge on my time away. But I’ve never been one to follow pop culture trends.
JA: At some point your musical tastes must have changed, right?
ERM: Very much to my dad’s credit, he introduced me to records. “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles was a favorite. But what I really latched onto was early jazz. Louis Armstrong. Jelly Roll Morton.
JA: How did your dad, a classical music scholar, become interested in jazz?
ERM: When my dad was growing up in the Bronx and he got to know Gunther Schuller who gave him records. That was before my time. My dad respected Gunther Schuller’s taste in music. He got to know Gunther who was the principal French horn player at the Metropolitan Opera, took lessons from him, and he introduced my dad to jazz. In addition to playing at the Met, Gunther also played on the “Birth of the Cool” sessions with Miles Davis. He was a big proponent, in fact the originator, of Third Stream Music, which is the synthesis of jazz and classical music. (Author’s Note: Gunther Schuller passed away in June 2015 at the age of 89.)
JA: What other kind of records did your dad have?
ERM: My dad had a few other non-classical records. I think Gunther Schuller’s interest in jazz gave my father “permission” to have non-classical music in his collection. The later Beatles’ records were actually quite sophisticated and worthy of his time and attention, had musical “standing” so to speak. I recall four Beatles records: “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Abbey Road.”
My dad also had a couple others on the Vanguard label: “Best of Woody Guthrie,” and Pete Seeger. I remember watching a “Weavers Reunion” special on TV with my dad. We enjoyed it so much that he bought the sound track, a two or three record set. He had Vanguard records because its owner, Maynard Solomon, who was committed to documenting the folk revival, was also a highly-esteemed classical music scholar. Gunther Schuller and Maynard Solomon were two of my father’s guiding musical spirits.
JA: So, tell me more about your early musical tastes.
ERM: I would record early jazz records on cassette tapes and fell asleep listening to them. To this day those songs are burned into my mind. I was mainly into classical music and the Beatles. But jazz provided a spontaneity that couldn’t be found in other genres. Bluegrass, I think, was modeled on early Jazz, although I can’t find documentation for that.
JA: I agree! Early Western Swing in the 1930s had much in common with Jazz. In fact, Western Swing is often described as country music that swings in a big band context. Bluegrass and Jazz both rely on highly improvised solos where each musician takes a “break” while the rest of the band provides musical support.
ERM: Jazz just knocked me out. I love it all, New Orleans, Chicago, and of course it’s bluesy and up-tempo.
As a teenager I started getting into rock. The Beatles at first, then acoustic and electric blues. I tuned into the low end of the radio dial, the college radio stations. Once I spent enough time with the blues that I got into Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. It was a classic white boy rock music education.
The mid-80s was an interesting time to find new music. CDs were produced that reissued older music. I bought the Robert Johnson box set. And records were becoming dirt cheap. There was something I enjoyed about the hunt that made it rewarding to find new music, or a particular tune. I read all the liner notes and that helped me seek out other music.
JA: Well, obviously you made the transition from a listener and a serious aficionado to an actual musician, right?
ERM: Throughout college, and even after college, I played bass in mostly rock bands.
JA: How did you come to take up the bass?
ERM: In high school I had a friend in another town with a bass, so I had access to the equipment. I had two friends who played guitar and drums. During my junior year in high school I started playing in a garage band. I loved figuring out the music and coming up with my own arrangements. The idea that we were making music ourselves was just thrilling. Being a bass player, I was able to understand what made the music work, the chord progressions particularly, and it all made sense to me. Blues-based rock was simpler and on bass I played the foundational instrument. I was sitting on the hub of the song.
JA: What particular songs stand out in your mind?
ERM: “Johnny B. Goode,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash, and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by Bachmann-Turner Overdrive. At the time I was in high school in Newton, Masachusetts.
JA: Then after high school?
ERM: When I graduated I enrolled in the University of Chicago and studied American History. I specifically chose UC because I wanted to study Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. But I also wanted to study there because it was a great Blues city. Once I arrived, it felt like home. I immediately met Jim Germain, who became my best friend in college. He was a good guitarist and we formed a rock band and also an acoustic duo. I played harmonica and sang.
We played a fair amount of blues and things like “Mr. Bojangles,” Peter Paul and Mary, etc. That gave me a toehold in acoustic music. The band was called The Seventh Sons.
I took a couple of harmonica lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music. It was a storied institution. Studs Turkel had been a founder and Big Bill Broonzy was a cornerstone there. There was a guitarist, Moses Roscoe, I just loved him and I played harp over his records. But mostly I played rock at the time. It was an era of grunge rock and bands like Nirvana and Phish were influences.
After I graduated, Jim and I formed a 10-piece R&B/Soul band called the JD Express. It had a three and sometimes four-piece horn section and vocals just like the Blues Brothers or The Commitments. There’d recently been a nine-CD Stax reissue and I would comb through it for material. It was great music from a bassist’s point of view. It was all the fun of being in a big band but you didn’t have to carry the music.
Our rock trio was the core of the JD Express and other musicians were added. The music was antithetical to grunge. We wore suits and looked sharp but it was incredibly lively and made people want to dance. The music was tight but it gets you loose. That was my dream after college, but from a scheduling standpoint it was tough keeping 10 people together.
For about a year the JD Express held a weekly gig at the Checkerboard Lounge—a famous Southside blues club close to the University of Chicago. Since we were UC students we had a following that would come out to drink and dance. It was a thrill to be playing at that hole-in-the-wall club. That’s when I knew why I loved sharing music. I was excited about the music and wanted to share it with other people so they would be excited about it too.
JA: What was next?
ERM: Next was graduate school. I sold off all my equipment so I could live a respectable life as an academic. I didn’t want to be distracted with music. I went to the University of Georgia. I specifically chose UGA because I wanted to study Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. There was a good CD store and a blues club. Soon I had my eye on an acoustic bass. I thought if I at least had that I could play along without schlepping a bass amp. But I didn’t buy it.
I went to a blues club and asked to sit in on bass. Emma, who is now my wife, convinced me that I should have my own bass. (Author’s Note: Thank you Emma!!) So I bought it. I still have it and now my daughter Mathilde plays it.
ERM: Yeah. I knew that since I was in the American south (Athens, Georgia) I was in the heart of good country music. A friend of ours gave me Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). Again it was the liner notes and personnel list that gave me lots of ideas. Doc Watson and Mother Maybelle Carter floated to the top. The real breakthrough for me was when I bought the Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads album.
JA: What was it about that album that grabbed you?
ERM: It had all the vitality and soul of the best blues, but he’s a white guy. So, I knew that was something I could do. I felt like I could feel authentic singing and playing that music.
JA: How did you make the transition from bass to guitar?
ERM: Right around 2000 we were expecting our first child and I wanted to be able to sing and play for her. After all these years of making it a point of personal pride that I didn’t play guitar, I took up the guitar.
JA: What was your first guitar?
ERM: I knew I needed a guitar because I’d feel foolish singing lullabies while playing bass. My dear friend Jim gave me a guitar. This was his first acoustic guitar, the same one that he played when we when we played together in college in the 1990s.
JA: Where have you gotten some of your material?
ERM: And then out comes O Brother Where Art Thou? So I started learning everything from the soundtrack. The record had the authenticity, immediacy, and energy that I had always valued. That and I got a copy of “Rise Up Singing.”
JA: You’ve been instrumental in the HVBA’s Evolution of Bluegrass. Tell me about that.
ERM: The HVBA invited me to teach this through Marist College’s Center for Lifetime Study. I taught it twice, the second time being the primary lecturer providing an overview of Bluegrass from the pre-20th Century roots to the present time. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the course was that it also included guest musicians each week demonstrating their proficiency on instruments. The classes are videotaped and available online.
JA: What do you find that surprises people the most about Bluegrass?
ERM: That it’s a rather recent musical form, having been named in 1947 after Bill Monroe’s band the Bluegrass Boys. I like the dual nature of Bluegrass. It’s a traditional genre with ancient roots, but it’s also modern, being of the mid-20th Century.
JA: Perhaps you are best known as a bandleader in Long Steel Rail. Tell me about your approach to the band.
ERM: That’s what I love to do. Perform. Long Steel Rail is a stable of talented musicians. The lineup is not always the same. But that’s what I love about it. Our performances are collaborative based on each gig’s personnel, yet I lead it and take responsibility for it how the music comes across. Our live performances are not scripted. You experience music that’s made in the moment.
At a Long Steel Rail performance, song selection and arrangements will be based on not only who the musicians are, but who is in the audience. I like to have a wide variety of musicians to draw from. It’s definitely not a traditional bluegrass group.
JA: How has it been, moving to the Hudson Valley, bringing your music here, and meeting new people?
ERM: Music has always been the setting where I have deepened many friendships. Within a couple of years of moving to the Hudson Valley I started going to open mics and Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association jam sessions. I started meeting people that way. In fact, that’s how I met you. I’ve always found music, especially the making of music, a passport to new places and new people. You can always tell a lot about a person by how they behave and play in a group setting. My musical endeavors are not based on ego or being the center of attention. I play music because it gives me pleasure and I love go share that joy with an audience.
JA: Finally, Eric, tell me about your daughters and what it’s like to play music with your family.
ERM: Whether they like it or not, my Mathilde and Alice have been the guinea pigs for my ideas about musical education. From the earliest times, I enjoyed accompanying them on guitar. We started playing fiddle tunes but now they have their own group, the Buffalo Gals, and have expanded to play Jazz, Beatles, Johnny Cash, Gospel, and Bluegrass. They are frequent special guests at Long Steel Rail performances. My oldest daughter, Mathilde, is working her way into the regular lineup on fiddle, and Alice can sing a blues like nobody’s business! There is nothing better than making music with the people you love. And that all ties back to my earliest musical memories with my parents in the parlor.
JA: It’s clear to me that your path has led you to a good place—a place that brings much joy and happiness to others, through your music.
ERM: Thanks, Jeff.