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Robert Cataliotti's Lifelong Passion For Music and Literature Fused Into An Academic Career

Christopher Myers

By Petula Caesar | Posted 2/6/2008

Robert Cataliotti presents his Smithsonian Folkways CD project On My Journey: Paul Robeson's Independent Recordings

Coppin State University Tawes Center, Feb. 11 at 2 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information contact Ursula Battle at (410) 951-4200 or

Little should be surprising during a historical moment when an African-American and a woman are making serious bids for the White House, but Robert Cataliotti is. He is a 52-year-old white man who teaches African-American literature at Coppin State University, a historically black college, and he has done so for 15 years. And he willingly discusses his situation as a member of the majority who is an expert on African-American culture. "I do this little narrative when I'm teaching at Coppin about how I got here, about hearing this music and how it reached out to me and drew me in," he says while sitting in a small eatery on a very cold morning. He sounds very much like a college professor as he sips his tea. "To me it was a way of building the bridge between black and white cultures. The music does that, and I wanted to explore that."

It's what Cataliotti has explored ever since earning his doctoral degree from the State University of New York in American literature with an emphasis in African-American literature; his doctoral dissertation discussed how African-American writers represent music in their writing, and black music has never been far away from his pursuits. He says he spent 10 years as a freelance journalist covering "African-derived music-everything from jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, gospel, and Caribbean." He's traveled "to all the hot spots for African-American music-the Mississippi Delta, Chicago, Memphis, New Orleans"-and has written for numerous alternative weeklies, music magazines such as Down Beat and Wavelength, and for Newsday. He has also worked with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, producing the two-CD collection Every Tone a Testimony: An African American Aural History, which includes recordings from W.E.B. Du Bois and Nikki Giovanni, among others, and On My Journey: Paul Robeson's Independent Recordings.

And he just celebrated the release of his second book, The Songs Became the Stories: The Music in African-American Fiction, 1970-2005, an expansive, scholarly text that documents and underscores the role of music in black literature.

Cataliotti's familiarity with musical greats such as Wynton Marsalis and Charles Neville is showcased throughout the book, and quotes from various interviews he has conducted are interspersed throughout the text. Cataliotti also demonstrates astonishing depth of knowledge not just about well-known black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison; he is just as adept at analyzing Ishmael Reed and John Edgar Wideman. The Songs Became the Stories also includes a discography of recommended artists that includes everyone from Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sun Ra to Alberta Hunter, Mahalia Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Public Enemy, and Jill Scott. It is researched with loving care and devotion to the subject matter, and written with such academic reverence you can almost see Cataliotti presenting it on some African-American cultural altar someplace.

He's not disingenuous about his interest in African-American music and culture. You hear the passion in his voice when he discusses the music and books he loves. You see it in his expressive dark eyes and his broad creased face. There is a lack of pretense in his demeanor, something almost frighteningly down to earth about him. Cataliotti is a big man, but he is not overpowering or intimidating. His salt and pepper hair is cut short, his solidly built frame is clad in jeans, casual shirt, and jacket. He smiles and laughs easily and often, the type who is comfortable anywhere. He makes it clear that he is comfortable with his fields of study when he tells his students that "as an academic disciple, anyone who comes to [African-American culture] who is serious, wants to do the hard work, and has respect for it should be able to engage in serious study with the material. . . . I do a lot of enthusiastic hard work for it."

Just how did he get here? Music started pulling at Cataliotti at an early age. He remembers going "to Woolworth's in Brooklyn with my father when I was in third grade to buy `I Wanna Hold Your Hand.'" But he took it a step further, even then.

"I'm a research-oriented kind of person, so when I hear these musicians that I like-say, B.B. King, Ray Charles, James Brown, the Shirelles-I wanted that," he says. "I wanted Johnny Lee Hooker, I wanted Muddy Waters. I wanted to find out, Well, who are these people?

"That whole blues world and jazz world was very appealing to me," he continues. "I wasn't particularly comfortable in white middle class, and growing up in the '60s, the whole counterculture started drawing me away from the Leave It to Beaver experience. And there was a certain `insider' kind of hipness knowing that world."

After earning his undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1978, he started freelance writing about music and musicians. Soon, he realized that he needed a steadier income. He earned a master's degree in English education at Long Island University in order to teach, and then decided to earn his doctorate so he could teach at the university level. That was when music and literature came together for him.

"I was an older doctoral student," Cataliotti says. "And professors really tried to guide me on connecting my musical background to the literature degree I was pursuing. Then I had one of those light-bulb moments reading Frederick Douglass' narrative for the first time. I read this passage when he talks about as a young man, as a slave, hearing the spirituals."

What Douglass wrote-"Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains"-pointed Cataliotti toward what he wanted to pursue. "I was interested in the idea of how he represented music in his writing," he says. "I said, `Let me try to look at how African-American music shows up in literature.'"

It may sound obscure, but as evidenced by his 257-page book on the subject, it's really huge. "There are all kinds of examples of this idea of a black writer injecting music into the writing," Cataliotti says. "I began reading different writers looking for these examples of black writers that have music in their fiction, and how it functions for them both in terms of the writing and what they were saying about the subject matter or the culture or whatever they were writing. . . . One of the things that you start to realize is that music is pervasive throughout African-American culture, and it functions on a lot of other levels than just mere entertainment."

The final result was Cataliotti's Ph.D. in American literature, "with this kind of particular specialty in African-American literature related to music."

His postgraduation job search landed him a position at Coppin as an associate professor in 1993. "I sent in an application, came down here, they offered me the job, and it's been 15 years," he says.

At Coppin, he has learned to deal with the demanding teaching load, the extensive committee work, and the perpetual underfunding. He also understands the wide range of students that attend Coppin. "Some students come with tremendous skills, and it's really great that they can challenge you academically," he says. "Another segment hasn't had the best academic training. They haven't been exposed to a lot of different styles of writing. But they all are open to an African-American literature class."

And in the classroom when there is the occasional resistance to the literary works he is trying to teach he responds with righteous indignation: "How dare you-show such disrespect for the ancestors."

Currently, Cataliotti has some musical projects in the works, and he says he's "looking for other writing projects. I think I'd like to try my hand at fiction."

Might he ever make some music of his own? "Not really," he says. "A couple of years ago someone sent me a guitar. . . . I fumble with standard blues changes. People have always said to me, `You're so into music you should be a musician.' One of my standard smart-aleck responses is, `You don't have to be a cook to know how to eat.' I'm really just a listener."

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