For years Dr. Dale Haskell and his guitar have performed a "musical incursion" just before Dr. Harvey Hecht begins teaching his 19th century American novel class about "Moby-Dick." Haskell is there to sing "Moby Book," a tune about the big white whale book.
"Moby-Dick" may be called the great unread American novel. Haskell comes to offer the students a shortcut to reading hundreds of pages about the whaling industry. "Call me Ishmael," the Steve Goodman song begins. "Ishmael is my name. I served under Captain Ahab, and I sailed the bounding main."
Haskell also is an English professor at Southeast Missouri State University and occasionally sings in his own classroom. To help a writing class understand the meaning of style, he sang the old Temptations song, "The Way You Do the Things You Do."
Out in public
He has been singing and playing the guitar since his days at Central High School 30 years ago. But he started writing songs himself and performing them in public only very recently.
Haskell, whose poetry has been published in literary journals, confesses that he once looked down on lines that rhyme.
"I was a poetry snob."
That's over. He has just released a CD of his own songs. Called "Small Items," the CD is available at the University Bookstore, Hastings Books Music & Video, PMac Music and Grace Cafe in Cape Girardeau and the River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Mo. It also can be ordered at the Web site www.geocities.com/haskellsongs.
The tunes range from portraying the hurt of a son who will never be good enough for his father to the lover who fears he's "not as charming as he thinks" to the neighbor, preacher and boss satirized in "You Walk Funny." In "Mall Man" the singer discovers the secret of avoiding Saturday chores at home.
That's Haskell singing the love songs, but in the others he usually creates fictional characters. His real father was not like that at all, Haskell says.
"I make up a person who has something to say."
Haskell's father, a Procter & Gamble employee, moved his family to Cape Girardeau from Green Bay, Wis., in 1968, graduating from Central High School two years later. He married his high school sweetheart, Marsha Barron.
Haskell received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Southeast Missouri State University. He teaches writing classes, linguistics, the literature of film and during the past five years directed the First Year Experience at Southeast.
"I am the utility infielder for the English department," he says.
Inspired by students
Two of his students who wrote songs, Nick Watts and Dustin Michael, inspired Haskell to try himself. He wrote his first, "Avoiding You," in July 2001 as an exercise in a graduate workshop he was teaching. Now 30 songs have come in a year-and-a-half cascade. "I don't seem to be stopping writing songs," he says.
Last April at the Grace Cafe in downtown Cape Girardeau, Haskell performed for the first time outside a classroom. Since then he has played at the cafe often, three times at the River Ridge Winery in Commerce, Mo., and appeared at the City of Roses Music Festival last fall.
Every time he performs in public now is the world premiere of a new Haskell song.
"I'm puppy-like about being a singer and songwriter," he says.
Kurt Tietz, owner of Sunrise Recording in Cape Girardeau, plays the guitar, cello keyboards and percussion on "Small Items." Others musicians who contribute -- Ryan Harper, Mark Jordan, Tom Eaton and Jeff Overbey -- are either colleagues or former students.
Hecht, known for his own animated classroom presence, was Haskell's inspiration to become an English professor himself. Hecht wryly says he takes no responsibility, but adds, "I'm happy to have had whatever influence on him to get him into education."
Haskell is a great classroom teacher, Hecht says. "He's human, knowledgeable and funny."
For 13 years before his wife, a Southwestern Bell executive, could transfer to Cape Girardeau, Haskell commuted from St. Louis to his teaching job at Southeast. That adds up to 35,000 miles per year.
"I love teaching," Haskell says.
He is enjoying this new part of his life but doesn't have any illusions about his musical abilities.
"I don't have any pretense about having a great voice, and I'm a four on a scale of 10 as a guitarist," he says. "I just try to sing so you can hear the lyrics."
Haskell will perform some of the songs at appearances at noon Wednesday at the University Center Ballroom, at 3 p.m. Feb. 1 at Hastings Books Music & Video in Cape Girardeau and at 8 p.m. Feb. 7 at Grace Cafe in Cape Girardeau.
He also will appear on an April edition of "Your Folk Connection" on KRCU 90.9 FM.
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