Charleston Post and Courier
18 August 1996

Guitarist a teacher at heart

By Jonathan Sanchez

Of the Post and Courier staff

             It’s not often that you’ll hear a rock guitarist say, “I think if all I did was play music, I’d be unhappy.”

            But it’s not too often that you’ll meet a guitarist like John Cusatis, who, before he starts to play at Backstage on South Market Street asks the crowd, “All right, we need a tambourine player.  Let’s get the band together!”

            A successful summer has made Cusatis a Market Street fixture, for he also appears at Mesa Grill, Crossroads and Charleston Sports, performing his unique brand of “barroom rock-n-roll.” To say audience participation is key would be a gross understatement, for, while Cusatis plays, audience members accompany him on washboards, bongo drums, maracas, kazoos – there’s even an open microphone for back-up singers.

            “Summer – I’m glad it’s only three moths long,” Cusatis said with a sigh before going on Sunday.

            The shows are only on the weekends now and will be ending early on Sunday nights because Cusatis is not quitting his day job anytime soon, which is teaching English and journalism at St. John’s High School on John’s Island.

            “I had been teaching at a suburban, wealthy school district in Pennsylvania, but (at St. John’s) there’s a lot more challenges,” he said.  “It’s a lot more rewarding because there’s a lot more that needs to be done,”

            There was no school newspaper to speak of before Cusatis joined the faculty.  The track team he coaches has gone from last to first, winning the state championship in 1995.

            “It was all just motivation; the talent was there,” he said.  “I remember the first practice I had like 50 kids sign up, and one show up.”

            No student from St. John’s has ever received college credit from an Advance Placement English exam, but Cusatis has high hopes that his students will stand and deliver this year.

            “My A.P. class from last year (junior English) grew pretty close, and I had six or seven kids come and meet me every Wednesday night because I live right behind the school,” Cusatis said.  “We’d get pizzas, and it was a real casual atmosphere.  We got more out of those night sessions than we would during the week in class.”

            It was the same casual approach to poetry that led to the self-taught guitarist’s music career.  The first song Cusatis sever learned was Bob Dylan’s “Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.”

            “I used to listen to Dylan just to listen to the lyrics, and after a while I started wanting to play them myself’ said Cusatis, who, like many college professors were doing, teaches Dylan in class.

            “I think ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is a perfect example of Romantic poetry because it’s all about seeing the world in an imaginative way – it’s an escape.”

            Judge for yourself.  Compare Dylan’s exhortation to his Tambourine man:  “Take me disappearin’ though the smoke rings of my mind, Down the foggy ruins of time … Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow,” with Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale:”

            “Fade far away, dissolve and quite forget / what though amongst the leaves has never known, / the weariness, the fever, and the fret.”

            The 32-year-old Hazleton PA., native came to Charleston three years ago to teach at St. John’s and also because of an interest in Lowcountry island dialects.  Cusatis, a Penn State grad, has his master’s in English.  He wrote his thesis on teen-age slang and how it distinguished different social groups at the Lancaster, PA., high school where he taught

            He was offered an assistantship at the University of South Carolina this summer to study Gullah, and he quit his job with plans to move to Columbia and work on his doctorate.  His success in music on the Market and the pleas of distraught students convinced him to say, though.

            “He’s the best teacher I ever had,” said Joe Roberts, a 1995 graduate of St. John’s who enlists in the Army this fall and is working for his old teacher as a roadie and sometime rubboard player.

            “Let’s give it up for Zydeco Joe!” Cusatis hollers as Roberts launches into on of his two-knife solos, a popular part of the show.

            Cusatis said the USC professor who offered him the position was also “Kind of glad I wasn’t leaving so I could stay as a resource.”  Many of the students at St. John’s are children of Gullah speakers, and this way Cusatis can study speech patterns and different bits of language.  “Gullah is kind of dying,” he said.

            After hearing students ins in a little gospel choir at school, Cusatis enlisted them to sing on his recently-released four-song CD, “People Call Me Bubba,” featuring “Reggae Bubba,” an original song that gets air play on 96 WAVE.  Many local artists are on the recording, including Hawke Morffi of Big Stoner Creek, Cotton Blue and graham Finch of the Tropicools.

            “When everybody comes here they kind of become a ‘Bubba,’ so ‘Reggae Bubba’ is about a Rasta who comes from Jamaica to Charleston,” Cusatis said.

            “I used to smoke one or two, / now I spit and chew,” goes one of the lyrics.

            Cusatis lists his favorite songs as ranging form Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata to the Rolling stones’ “Let it Bleed.”

            In fact, it was the Rolling Stones that led to the “I’ll bring the instruments, you bring the band,” gimmick.

            “I was playing ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and I thought, “this would sound really cool if I had a cowbell.’ Pretty soon the show was taking on a whole new … I don’t know what.  It’s really one big party instead of my show,” he said with pride and the touch of resentment you might feel from any artist whose celebrity has gone beyond him.

            Performing Sunday night, he was at once teacher and musician, stopping at the beginning of “Blister in the Sun" by the Violent Femmes to “learn the cowbell player when to come in.”

            “I have a very high appreciation for any form of expression,” Cusatis said before the show.  “I love language and I love art.  The greatest thing in the world is to create something, or to inspire someone else to create.”

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