Faculty Profile

Music Faculty

William Ellis, PhD

Assistant Professor of Fine Arts: Music

Ph. D., Musicology-Southern Regional Studies (with Art History minor), University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee; Dissertation, "I Belong to the Band: The Music of Reverend Gary Davis."
M. M., Classical Guitar Performance, University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati, Ohio.
B. M., Classical Guitar Performance, Kentucky Wesleyan College, Owensboro, Kentucky.

Areas of Expertise:

I specialize in traditional and popular music of the American South including blues, gospel, soul and early rock & roll. I also play guitar professionally and write and lecture on self-taught and folk art, notably African-American vernacular art of the Deep South.

Courses I Teach:

  • History of Rock
  • History of Jazz
  • Music Theory I and II
  • Reading and Writing about Music

I have also taught various undergraduate and graduate level courses at other institutions including: World Music, Western Art Music, American Popular Music, Filed Methods in Ethnomusicology, and guitar instruction.

I am currently prepping my dissertation, I Belong to the Band: The Music of Reverend Gary Davis, for publication.

Recent Publications:

1. "Reassessing Winterville," American Archaeology 15, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 26-31.

2. Various entries for The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Folk Art, the Mississippi Encyclopedia, and the Encyclopedia of American Music and Culture (all in press).

3. Liner notes for the reissue of the classic album, Reverend Robert Wilkins, Memphis Gospel Singer.

2011:

Winner of Graduate Document Award for best dissertation, University

         of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee.

         Performed at the Library of Congress and the John F. Kennedy Center

         for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

2007:

Winner of “Best International CD Release – Solo” for the album God’s

         Tattoos, BlueStar Awards, Australia.

2004:

First place Arts & Entertainment winner in the Missouri Lifestyle

         Journalism Awards (a.k.a., the Penney-Missouri Awards).

2002:

Recipient of the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in

         Journalism.

1998:

Award for Community Service, 13th Annual Premier Player Awards,

         National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, Memphis Chapter.

Life Off Campus:

I am a voting Grammys member and serve on the Grammy Hall of Fame nominating committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

William Ellis, assistant professor of fine arts (music), recently wrote a piece for the Sunday Burlington Free Press about his part in a music tour of China coordinated by Vanderbilt and Ohio State universities through the U. S. State Department. Dubbed "The U.S.-China Center Traveling Folksong Revival Workshop," the two-week tour — Oct. 9-23 — gathered five scholar-musicians, Bill included, with personal connections to America's folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Their mission, Bill writes, was “to spread musical good will and to carry forward a consortium established in recent years between the American and China folklore societies.” The trip featured workshops, lectures, and concerts, most centered on African-American and Anglo-American music traditions as they influenced the U.S. folk revival. Appearances included at the Institute of Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou; the American Cultural Center at the University of Shanghai for Science & Technology; and Kunming's Yunnan Nationalities Museum. Read Bill’s Free Press account: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/arts/2014/11/08/heart-art-musician-brings-folk-china/18535317/
(posted December 2014)

William Ellis, assistant professor of fine arts/music, published an article, “Edwin Jeffery Jr.: Memphis Sculptor of Human Rights,” in the Folk Art Society of America journal, Folk Art Messenger 25, No. 1 (Spring 2014): 11-13.
(posted August 2014)

William Ellis, professor of fine arts/music, was curator recently of a group art show titled "This Was Me: Self-Taught Art from the G.R.A.C.E. Gallery Collection," in the downtown Burlington art space New City Galerie, through regional arts organization Grass Roots Arts and Community Effort (G.R.A.C.E.). The show features some 30 works by nearly a dozen artists affiliated with the G.R.A.C.E. program. "This Was Me" opened Aug. 2 (and was to run through September 26) with a reception during Burlington’s First Friday Art Walk featuring a talk by Milton artist Larry Bissonnette,  followed by a screening of the 2005 awarding-winning documentary about him, My Classic Life as an Artist.  Begun in 1975 at the St. Johnsbury Convalescent Center, G.R.A.C.E.  is a non-profit that works with agencies such as Howard Center, serving the disabled and elderly communities of Vermont through the creative lens of the visual arts. Bill also is the author of several entries in two new encyclopedias: The first, which came out in June, is Folk Art, vol. 23 of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers, gen. ed. Charles Reagan Wilson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013). It's part of a multi-volume update of William Ferris's acclaimed Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and Bill wrote six entries: a general essay on Music and Musical Instruments plus the following artists - Hawkins Bolden; Roy J. Ferdinand; Edwin Jeffery, Jr.; James "Son" Thomas; and William Blevin (Billy) Tripp. The second encyclopedia comes out later in September and is a four-volume work titled Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped our Culture, ed. Jacqueline Edmondson (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2013).  In that volume, Bill wrote entries on: Reverend Gary Davis; John Lee Hooker; Edward James "Son" House; Mississippi John Hurt; Blind Lemon Jefferson; Lead Belly; and Gertrude "Ma" Rainey.


William Lee Ellis and Nathaniel G. Lew, assistant professor and associate professor, respectively, of fine arts/music, both attended the joint meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the American Musicological Society, and the Society for Music Theory in New Orleans on Nov 1-4. Bill gave a paper entitled "I Can't Make the Journey by Myself: Blindness as a Transformative Trope in the Music of Reverend Gary Davis" and was courted by Scarecrow Press about book and series editor possibilities. Nat, in his role as Secretary of the North American British Music Studies Association, helped run that smaller society's business meeting and organized and conducted at their reception and musicale.


Music professor, William Ellis, himself a Memphis blues musician, classical guitarist, and ethnomusicologist, recently landed a contract for his book, I Belong to the Band: The Music of Rev. Gary Davis, to be published by the University Press of Mississippi.

Ellis' book on the Rev. Gary Davis, 1896-1972, will be welcomed in the music world as Davis has been regarded as one of the very best guitarists, and as someone who has not been widely understood as the important figure he is. 

Ellis said he chanced upon, "a musician who would change my life: Piedmont blues giant Reverend Gary Davis," while he was earning a master's in classical performance from the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music. He  discovered Davis's intricate finger-picking style, which fascinated the classically-trained guitarist.

"Davis was a great sacred bluesman, and that's a genre I love dearly," Ellis said. "There's combination of the heavenly and the hellish, there are wonderful dynamics… tension and drama."

What other musicians have said about Rev. Gary Davis:

"He was the most fantastic guitarist I'd ever seen." -Dave Van Ronk

"More than three decades after his death, the influence of Reverend Gary Davis can still be felt. As each new generation is introduced to blues, folk, and other forms of traditional American music, Davis’ signature guitar stylings and heartfelt vocals continue to move, entertain, and educate." - Paul Andersen

"Rev. Davis taught me, by example, to completely throw out my preconceptions of what can or can't be done on the guitar." -Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead)

"Gary Davis took you out of playing baby guitar and made you play it like a grown man." -Taj Mahal

"In Davis we encounter a complete musician, a composer aware of all musical details, exploring new possibilities. Davis has not been acclaimed as Robert Johnson, yet he alone brought many traditions to culmination through an artistry which surpassed nearly all others during his lifetime." -Allan Evans

Professor Ellis—a voting member of the Grammys

Professor William Ellis is one of the voting members on the Grammys, serves on their Board of Governors in Memphis, and chairs the liner-note committee that screens contributions and makes nominations. Additionally, he is on the 60-member National Grammy Hall of Fame Committee, which nominates historically important overlooked records. He is currently at work on a chapter on Delta music for a University of Arkansas Press book on The Delta.  "That's the source of all the great blues musicians," Ellis said, "Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, and other greats."

William Ellis resides in Jericho with his wife Julie Coffey and their daughter Jessa.

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