ALUMNI PROFILES — Summer 2005
   

 
Sid Selvidge, M.A. '68

Still Digging for Musical Treasures

Sid Selvidge gave up an academic career in anthropology many years ago for a chance in the music business. But after more than four decades as a musician and radio producer bent on uncovering musical artifacts, one might think he never really gave up on anthropology.

Selvidge, M.A. '68, now 61 and a Memphis institution, has made a life excavating obscure blues and folk songs and preserving them in concert performances, recordings, and radio shows. Memphis lies at the heart of it all.

"The music that I explore is basically what is now referred to as 'American roots' music," says Selvidge, "but what I'm most interested in—because I live in Memphis—is the collision between Appalachian, Delta, and African-American cultures. Those kinds of musical questions have always intrigued me."

Selvidge was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and attended Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes) College before coming to Washington University in 1965 to pursue a master's degree in anthropology. Already an accomplished musician who had befriended aging blues legends such as Walter "Furry" Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt, he split his time in St. Louis between studying and performing at various clubs in the city's renowned Gaslight Square.

"There was a real bifurcation in my life, and it was a good one," he says. "I kind of led two lives for a while."

He completed his graduate degree in 1968 after finishing a thesis titled "Little Willie and the Hand Jive," an analysis of nonverbal communication with an emphasis on the signals of truck drivers. After graduation he returned to Memphis as assistant professor of anthropology at his alma mater and taught for three years before coming back to WU to pursue a doctorate, which he never completed.

"I wasn't equipped in terms of chemistry and math to be an excellent scientist, but I thought that I was equipped to be an excellent musician," says Selvidge, who still teaches occasionally at the Memphis College of Art. "The two things I miss about academia are free books and summertime."

He launched himself headlong into the music business in 1969 with the release of his first album, Portrait, on the Enterprise label, a subsidiary of the legendary Stax Records. His next two recordings—1976's The Cold of the Morning and 1982's Waiting for a Train—have been reissued by his current label, Archer Records. Like his 1993 recording, Twice Told Tales in the Elektra/Nonesuch American Explorer series, his 2003 release, A Little Bit of Rain, emphasizes a mix of rarely heard blues, traditional folk, obscure pop, and a few originals. His latest release on the Archer imprint is a two-disc CD/DVD titled Sid Selvidge-Live at Otherlands.

These days, Selvidge is still in demand as a veteran of the blues and folk scene, playing at venues as diverse as the Barbican Center in London and Carnegie Hall, as well as blues festivals, coffeehouses, and folk clubs.

Ever wearing two hats, Selvidge also is executive producer of Beale Street Caravan®, a weekly hour-long music show that is nationally syndicated on the public radio system.

"Basically it's a live music show," he says. "We go out and record blues, or what I like to call Memphis music and its derivative forms. It's an exploration of what the music was and how it has evolved."

Each program features two artists along with "intellectual candy," such as commentary by anthropologists and documentary material written by Selvidge and narrated by the likes of Memphis native Cybill Shepherd.

Selvidge can still talk like an anthropologist, too: "This is all about bringing something forward that's an archaeological artifact, if you will, and giving it some freshness, so that people will go back to the source material and learn."

—Steve Givens


 

Laila Halaby, A.B. '88

Storyteller Shares Tales of Duality

Author Laila Halaby was in Irbid, Jordan, on a Fulbright Fellowship, studying local folklore. Through a warm-hearted Palestinian Bedouin family who "adopted" her, she gained access to Palestinian refugee camps. She began working in their schools, helping out in the classrooms, attending special events—and collecting their folktales.

"I really wanted to see what stories the children kept," she explains. She also wanted to give expression to these small victims of large geopolitical forces. "Palestinian children in refugee camps are not voices you hear often," she points out. "I really want to introduce those voices to American children."

In truth, Halaby, A.B. '88, hopes her writing will introduce many people across cultural, ethnic, and geographic lines. Her first novel, West of the Jordan (Beacon Press, 2003), brings together four young women, cousins, one living in Palestine, one in Jordan, and two in the American diaspora.

"A lot of my writing goes back to identity and perception," Halaby says. "One thing can happen and everybody sees it differently." West of the Jordan captures this reality in a kind of split-screen approach that has each woman telling overlapping versions of events in her own voice. The technique permits developing each character from the inside, intimately; it also reveals how culture, gender, education, and location all color our understanding.

"There is comfort to be in my own house, to wake up in my own language," says the novel's Americanized Hala, back in Jordan for a visit, "but all those faces I've carried with me for so long wear suspicion in their eyes as they greet me. I have walked so far away from them." Her cousin Mawal lives in a Palestinian village. Of relatives returning from America, she observes: "[T]he minute they got here with their eyes that had been trained to see glitter, they criticized their old houses, and they grumbled about the old ways of the village. ..."

The daughter of a Jordanian father and an American mother, Halaby grew up in Tucson, Arizona, but with a foot firmly in each culture. "From the time I was in high school many of my friends were Arab," she observes. "It was always a large part of my life. It was as though I were two different people."

The experience gave her a broader view of perceptions in both East and West. And as terrorism has bred stereotypes, suspicion, and conflict, Halaby hopes her own writing and that of other Arab-Americans can contribute to greater understanding.

"I am so amazed at peoples' perceptions" in the United States, she muses. She regrets "the inability of many people to see Arab, Muslim, Palestinian cultures without preconceived notions." She hopes readers of her book might sense a connection to its characters and want to know more about these communities.

Halaby is working on a second novel and hopes eventually to base children's books on the Irbid folktales.

She and her Palestinian husband, Raik Zaghloul, want to immerse their own two sons, ages 9 and 5, in their Arab heritage. "We live a very American life," she acknowledges. Though her boys understand Arabic, she would like them to be fluent. More important, she would like them to know the Arab community from which they sprang.

Halaby herself is fluent in Arabic and Italian, which she studied at Washington University, and Spanish. She credits Peter Heath, then professor of Arabic languages and literatures, with encouraging her to seek the Fulbright Fellowship. "He gave me phenomenal advice and helped me focus on what I wanted to do," she recalls.

After her Jordan sojourn, she earned master's degrees in Arabic languages and literatures at the University of California at Los Angeles and in counseling at Loyola Marymount University. She works as a counselor, helping smokers give up cigarettes. "It's quite a good fit," she says. "I listen to peoples' stories all day."

But writing is at her core. "I've always written. It's really how I process the world and make sense of it."

—Betsy Rogers



Mark Solovy, B.S.B.A. '93

Entrepreneur Moves from Cleanups to Startups

For Mark Solovy, it all began with dirty laundry.

As a freshman at Washington University, Solovy decided he should spend his time studying and enjoying college rather than waiting to use the laundry machines in the basement of his dorm, Umrath Hall. So he signed up with Wash-U-Wash to have his laundry done. Yet by the time he graduated four years later in 1993 with a business degree, Solovy had taken on other people's laundry as co-owner of the student-run company.

And owning Wash-U-Wash was just a first stop along his business cycle, which now spots him as a co-founder and manager of a venture capital firm.

Based in Chicago, Solovy and business partner Jon Goldberg oversee the Israel America Discovery Fund (IADF). As its name implies, the $40 million venture capital fund seeks out investment opportunities with technology-oriented companies in Israel and the United States.

Solovy came to IADF through a roundabout experience in the corporate and legal workforce, starting with another on-campus venture, the creation of the annual "St. Louis Community Guide," which highlights local businesses and attractions. He went on to earn a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 and worked as a corporate attorney for several years in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Then he joined a venture capital firm in Chicago, where he focused on technology and met his partner, Goldberg.

Being Jewish, the two were interested in Israel, and they recognized the country's potential, Solovy says. They saw that Israel was becoming a growing hotbed of new technologies, partially because of its mandatory military service, which exposes much of the population to these new ideas.

"What Israel is really good at is developing core technology. Then they take it overseas," Solovy says.

In early 2001, IADF was born. The partners originally wanted to focus on Israel, Solovy says, but that was complicated by the changing political climate in the Middle East. So IADF opted to look at U.S.  companies as well. It joins with companies that are just starting or ones about to go public.

The partners also realized they could create a niche within the venture capital world by giving individual investors access to alternative opportunities they otherwise may not have. Solovy explains that many top-tier venture capital firms raise most of their money from institutions, such as corporations, rather than individual investors. But Solovy realized that many individuals had a growing appetite to fund new venture opportunities as well, so IADF became a way for them to co-invest with so-called "top-tier" funds.

Solovy says he goes to Israel about four times a year to see the latest developments. He and Goldberg also maintain contacts within domestic industries to find the greatest deals and newest products.

"It's incredibly exciting to hear about the latest technology. You're really on the edge of what's coming out," Solovy says.

For example, IADF is connected with a new Israeli-developed product that helps melt snow, ice, and all types of dirt off cars with little effort. A chemical within the window-washing fluid heats it and aims it so that anything on the windshield melts right off, he says.

Although the company is helping Israel, Solovy stresses IADF is not a charity. The bottom line is still making a profit.

"We feel good about the fact that money goes to Israel, and that it helps the country and the people," he says, "but, ultimately, we're in it for financial results for our investors."

—Emily Rose, A.B. '02