Middle Tennessee State University professor Greg Reish made history come alive through the sound of music as a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico.
Reish served as the Fulbright-García Robles U.S. Studies Chair at the University of Veracruz, where he taught classes in the North American Studies Program — which focuses on U.S.-Mexico relationships — for five months during the spring semester.
“Music exists in a context, and it’s a nice, inviting pathway into learning about a topic,” said Reish, a musicologist and director of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music. “It gets them to think about, not just the facts of history, but how history interacts with artistic expression and how it interacts with everything else.”
The Fulbright Program is the United States’ international educational and cultural exchange initiative that offers grants to students and scholars to study, teach and conduct research in more than 160 countries.
More than 1,700 Fulbright fellowships are awarded to academics and professionals each year, enabling 700 U.S. scholars to go abroad and 900 visiting scholars to come to the U.S. to lecture and/or conduct research in a wide variety of fields, or to participate in seminars.
“The basic idea behind the Fulbright program is that the more we do this kind of cultural diplomacy, it’s going to lead to a more peaceful world,” said Reish, whose trip earlier this year was his second Fulbright Foundation grant.
For his first Fulbright award, Reish spent a year living in Rome, Italy, while studying Italian music before earning a Ph.D. in 2001.
After establishing himself as an authority on 20th-century Italian music, Reish now focuses on old-time country, bluegrass, South Texas conjunto, and other traditional music of the South.
While music has been a lifelong passion, Reish became keenly interested in Mexican music in 2016.
“Part of that came from my desire here at the Center for Popular Music to expand our archival collection and our activities with Spanish language music both inside and outside of the United States,” Reish explained.
Established in 1985, the Center for Popular Music is one of the world’s oldest and largest research centers devoted to the study of American folk and popular music. There are over one million items related to American vernacular music traditions in formats that include sheet music, song books, sound recordings, videos, manuscripts, photos, periodicals, posters and catalogs.
Veracruz is known as a hotbed of traditional Mexican music and dance and Reish became entranced and entrenched in the culture before garnering the Fulbright to teach at the University of Veracruz.
An accomplished performer, Reish used music to teach students in Veracruz about American culture and history.
“I felt very fortunate to be able to come to a place I’d already grown to love in my previous visits, a place whose culture and people I loved and admired,” Reish said. “It was a privilege for me to be able to share my music — from Tennessee, from the South, from the U.S. generally — as a performer. But also as a scholar of popular and folk music and be able to share that with people.”
In addition to teaching, Reish became engaged in the music scene in Veracruz.
At a jazz club, Reish played a Bob Dylan tribute alongside Ramón Gutiérrez, a “very respected and influential” musician who plays son jarocho, a traditional music from Veracruz.
“He played in such an inspired way that I was very honored and flattered, and had a great feeling of gratitude,” Reish recalled. “When we were done, we looked at each other and we both had these huge smiles on our faces. I don’t think I’d ever been happier than in that moment, sitting on a stage in a venue in Xalapa playing Dylan songs next to maybe the most prominent musician in the whole city. That was super cool.”
One of his most memorable experiences was on stage where he performed folk songs and ballads from Southern traditions for a packed house that included a handful of his students.
“Some were old English or Scottish ballads, a couple of African-American ballads. Some were composed by known figures and some were popular songs,” Reish said. “I was able to share my own interpretation of these songs and give some history and background. Some (audience members) had heard about Appalachia but being able to hear an Appalachian ballad played on a banjo, they found that experience very moving.
“To me, it was an unforgettable moment of how lucky I am to be there and to be doing this in the community of people I just love dearly.”
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)