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February 15, 2011

Artist of all trades: ULM Guitar Festival features Spencer Bohren Feb 14-18

They say a prophet is never recognized in his own hometown.

And a look at the itinerary of New Orleans-based performer Spencer Bohren, where the folklorist, lecturer and artisan is just as likely to be singing and sharing with elementary students in Memphis as standing on a festival stage in south Louisiana, speaks to the old saying's authenticity.

But Bohren's four decades as a "road scholar" means he has much to offer to many different groups of people, and soon the beneficiary of that knowledge will be the University of Louisiana at Monroe, as well as the community that ULM serves.

From Feb. 14-18, Bohren is ULM's Artist-in-Residence, the first such opportunity for Bohren at a Louisiana university, he says.

The idea was born after Bohren's performance last year at Enoch's Irish Pub and Café, a local institution legendary for featuring interesting live musical acts.

"I had taken a new faculty member and her friend to Enoch's to show the best of what Monroe offers in the way of entertainment," explained ULM Associate Professor C. Turner Steckline , who handles the Traveling Scholars Series for the Department of Communication.

The Series brings a wide range of communication scholars to campus each year to interact with students and deliver public lectures to the community.

"Spencer makes an impression on everybody who hears him," said Steckline. "Dr. Peggy Bowers expressed her desire to have him speak to her Mass Communication classes, which triggered ideas of the myriad ways he would work well, not only with our communications programs, but also across the university curriculum."

Soon thereafter, the ULM Speech & Debate Forum, a Department of Communication Student Organization, collaborated with the School of Visual and Performing Arts at ULM to bring the renaissance scholar-artist to campus.

Bohren has developed a performance/lecture/workshop schedule that sheds light on the origins and development of the traditional American music he celebrates with his audiences. He also has created eclectic art work, which will be exhibited at ULM's Bry Gallery during his week-long residency.

His week culminates with a concert, "Down the Dirt Road Blues," that begins at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 17 in the Emy-Lou Biedenharn Recital Hall. Bohren's visit also coincides with ULM's first ever guitar festival, to be held Feb. 16-18.

As a musician and artist, Bohren's ability to translate his experiences into learning opportunities for others is remarkable. It is a gift he shares willingly, even as he acknowledges his attitude is often not shared by musical colleagues.

"There's the cliché that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. But when you are teaching you have a real ability to impact other human beings," he said. "I find you get so much more from sharing your gift. And it will, inevitably, come back to you in a postive way."

If Bohren's outlook leans spiritual rather than post-modernistic, perhaps it's the influence of his rural Wyoming upbringing and a conservative Baptist mother and father who loved to sing.

"My musical taproot would definitely be gospel," Bohren said. "I always joke that my mother wasn't concerned with whether she had boys or girls, just sopranos or altos."

And when the nearest town of any size is miles away, traveling is not just a luxury for an adventuresome spirit, it is a necessity. From September to December 2010 alone, Bohren logged some 16,000 miles in a 26-state tour.

"I enjoy the view through the windshield like some people enjoy the view through their television," Bohren said. "I've been fortunate to travel the world "» But of all the places I've been, the U.S. is still the most spectacular, geologically speaking."

Bohren was hooked into the educational component of his career through a professor at the University of Kentucky, who convinced him years ago he could teach art music history.

"I wouldn't say it was daunting, I'd say it was terrifying at first," said Bohren, laughing. "ULM is discovering the ways I can share what I know across their curriculum, so I'm really pleased with what's happening in Monroe."

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