Walter Liniger is an unlikely blues professor. He isn’t African-American and he isn’t from the U.S. He’s Swiss, and his passion brought him here to study under blues legends. In his USC classes, you won’t find a textbook or PowerPoint. Instead, students learn about themselves through playing music.
By Andrew Martin
Dec. 02, 2015
Walter Liniger defied expectations within the blues community when he arrived from Switzerland. He wasn’t black and he wasn’t from the South.
But Liniger would go on to study under blues legends such as James Son Thomas and Etta Baker and become a distinguished USC professor.
Yet you won’t find textbooks or PowerPoints in his courses. Instead, you’ll discover a symphony of harmonicas and a lone guitar conducting the orchestra.
Liniger has learned that not all his students are happy. They are tired of spending all day in labs and looking at PowerPoints. So he teaches differently, using a harmonica to connect to them. He learns from their breathing patterns whether they are stressed.
“He just kind of helps people find what they want to learn and just kind of guides them on the right path,” said Victor Reynolds, a junior in Liniger’s “Echoes in Blues” class, “but doesn’t force them to go down a particular path.”
To his students, Liniger isn’t so much a teacher, but more a mentor – someone who gets them to open up and truly understand themselves.
Liniger’s teaching methods resonate with his students, who enthusiastically say they’d recommend his courses to others.
“Just this class alone has made my honors college experience worth it,” Reynolds said.
Columbia Voice sat down with Liniger to talk about his history with the blues and his current teaching style. This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
(Listen to the full interview.)
And speaking of faces, one of the things that drew you into Lightin’ Hopkins the record was his face, and what drew you into not only the record but blues as a whole?
It went back to the idea that obviously Africanist people were able to create such a magic music. I never thought about this. And the other thing was the wrinkled face. My mother always made me look at old people not with disgust … with interest. She always said these are the lines of life. If you know how to read wrinkles, you’ve got a storybook. So, you know, all these voices that you grow up with that might be irrelevant when you get around 20, they come back to you. They explain certain things, whether correctly or not, I don’t know. …
So in order to get closer to the blues, you moved to America and stayed here for a while before returning back to Switzerland. And when you got back to Switzerland you played music by yourself. Why by yourself and not with other people?
I was too embarrassed to play music. I got kicked out of every music class in school because I couldn’t hold a note, I couldn’t read sheet music. It was a language I did not speak. And to me the blues was sort of like an introverted voice. … To me, it was a given that you play the blues alone. … So it fed two things. It confirmed that I had all the right to be embarrassed about playing music and at the same time I kind of enjoyed what I heard, what I did. And so you’re kind of left alone in your own space where you have to be your own judge. And you know this is the hardest thing there is, to judge your own creativity, to judge whatever you have to say. …
But eventually you did start playing in front of audiences. Like now you play in front of people pretty regularly, right?
Right. It’s just every so often in life you get to an intersection and things change. … We only know what changed in our lives once we get past it. … Every time you’re on your own you are sort of deciding should I go on or not, and you kind of review why are you in it to start with. And every time I did this there were also people that said, “Well, but you’ve got something to say.” And, in order to say it, you’ve got to have an audience. …
But now you’re a teacher, and last time we spoke you said that this was one of the first times, this year, that you really connected with your students as far as writing. What happened?
I just decided I’m done writing about what people can read in books. … For some reason this year, maybe it’s part of my age being 66, I don’t need to hide anymore behind what others have written. I’ve seen things in my life that is in no book, and I’m always thinking a young person might want authenticity. That’s the sense I get from my young students. They want to be authentic. … … So the only thing I can offer authentic about me is my life. …
You also said that you don’t think sometimes that all of your students are either happy with school or life. What makes you think that?
We talk about it. I listen to what they have to say. … But the other thing that I’m sensing is it’s embedded in this “American Dream.” And I think that dream for many students is turning to a nightmare ‘cause on one side they have expectations they think they have to meet. … But, they have a hard time seeing how they can live up to those expectations. … In all the years that I’ve been teaching here at USC, that American dream has not changed. The only thing that has changed is that they would want to wait a little bit longer to get married. … I think there is an increasing discomfort about that dream because they sense that they might never get there. And they chase happiness. Every American chases happiness. It’s probably the only country I know that chases happiness as if it was a goal. …
What else do you want them to learn, as far as from themselves or just from the music or blues as a whole?
Well, it’s the discovery that everybody has a bad day once in a while and that a bad day is not the same as blues. … You can have a bad hair day, you can have a bad test day … but that’s not blues. Blues is on a deeper level, where your hopes are in question all of the sudden. … Now you’re looking at a blues issue. … And the other thing is how much is your self involved in your own problem? It’s easy to point always at somebody else, but I want students to begin to understand … in blues you’re just as much part of the issue as the other guy.