Professor Mark Malvasi started his professional career singing and playing the blues. Now he teaches the history of the blues. His occupation has changed but his goal is the same. He aspires to nothing less than helping his students open a window onto the world and recognize the humanity, yearning, and loss in the experience of others.
“When I was a kid growing up in Niles, Ohio, I had a transistor radio that picked up a station out of St. Louis, which played the blues late at night. I remember thinking to myself, ‘My God, I’ve never heard music like this before. My parents were mystified, but I was captivated.’”
Malvasi set out on a journey to understand this music that stirred his soul. By the age of 14 he was playing saxophone and singing professionally. Later he added guitar to the mix. “I played for five years at the Black horse Tavern near Kent, Ohio, with a woman who was not much of a guitarist, but she sounded like Janis Joplin. We rocked the house every Friday and Saturday night,” recalls Malvasi. “The worst place I have ever played was the Body Shop, an old auto body shop that had been converted to a club that catered to bikers. We played behind a chain-link fence to protect us from flying bottles and other projectiles when the inevitable fight broke out.”
Malvasi’s list of favorite artists is as wide ranging as his historical interests. “For technical virtuosity and sheer emotional power, some of my picks would be Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, the Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie Mc Tell, Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Lightning’Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. But this list is hardly representative.”
Malvasi’s parents were concerned their son would spend the rest of his life struggling in the music business. He appeased them by attending college, where he stumbled upon another bastion of lost souls – the American South.
“As an undergraduate at Hiram College, I read Faulkner, Welty and Robert Penn Warren, and something about their disorientation with the modern world resonated with me as the son of second generation Italian immigrants. I had witnessed the destruction of my world when the steel mills in my town closed and I recognized the profound loss these writers were dealing with and I wanted to understand and discover the history of it.”
As a result of his quest to understand, Malvasi earned his M.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester.
His first book, The Unregenerate South, explored arguments among a group of writers in the 1930s over the meaning of the south. “Their disagreement illuminated an ongoing debate about the nature of southern history and a general critique of modernity,” explains Malvasi. “Thinkers such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Donald Davidson stood together to defend southern traditions such as emphasizing family and community over unrestrained individualism.However, their unity foundered on what kind of society the Old South had been and what southern history meant.”
Malvasi has continued to amass an impressive body of scholarly work. He has published and edited several more books including Slavery in the Western Hemisphere 1500-1888.
He started teaching American history at Randolph-Macon in 1992 where he has earned a reputation as a demanding and dynamic professor and has created a roster of original courses such as The Blues and The Problem of Slavery.
Kate MacKenzie, a fourth year student who is double majoring in history and English, is one of Malvasi’s most enthusiastic admirers. Despite his reputation as a tough grader, she has persisted in taking his classes and improving her writing. As a result, she will be attending Penn State University Law School in the fall. “He is passionate about every subject he teaches and expects the same from me. Last fall, he helped me choose a topic for an independent honors project, but made certain that I designed the course and that I cared about what I was researching. We read several books on Jefferson Davis, and met once a week to discuss them. Sometimes our conversation would drift to current events, politics, or sports – especially hockey. Dr. Malvasi is one of my professors with whom I hope to be in contact with 20 years from now, even if only by way of a Christmas card. I wish him all the best at Randolph-Macon and whatever comes next.”
Malvasi still plays music, mainly for his wife, Meg, and their three dogs and four cats. Whether it is the result of his heritage or vigorous instruction from his mother and grandmother, Malvasi claims that the best Italian food in Richmond comes from his kitchen. He recently added another title tohis string of occupations: that of novelist.
“Last year I published Merigan, a mental and emotional history of immigration based on the history of my family in Italy and this country. I explored the costs of resisting assimilation and what it was like to be a lost soul in the New World.”
Randolph-Macon recognized Malvasi’s dedication and scholarly achievements in February when he was awarded the Isaac Newton Vaughan professorship in history.
Malvasi was humbled by the honor, because in one critical respect, teaching students is a lot like playing the blues. “We have a special responsibility in an age of declining civilization to teach young people about their heritage and how to imagine the interior lives of people who are different from them. With imagination comes empathy. You start out teaching history, and you end up trying to save their souls.”