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David VanderHamm
David VanderHamm, Ph.D. 2017

The department congratulates alumnus David VanderHamm, Ph.D. 2017, on winning the 2021 Richard Waterman Junior Scholar Prize by the Society for Ethnomusicology Popular Music Section. Vanderhamm’s winning article “‘I’m Just an Armless Guitarist’: Tony Melendez, Disability, and the Social Construction of Virtuosity” was published in Volume 14 Issue 3 of the Journal for the Society of American Music.

Each year, the Popular Music Section of SEM awards the Richard Waterman Junior Scholar Prize in order to recognize the best article by a junior scholar in the ethnomusicological study of popular music published within the previous year in any publication. A junior scholar, in this instance, is defined by the Society as any scholar, regardless of employment status, who received his or her Ph.D. no more than seven years prior to the submission year.

Dr. VanderHamm noted that article has its roots in his time here at Carolina and the research he began for his dissertation “The Social Construction of Virtuosity: Musical Labor and the Valuation of Skill in the Age of Electronic Media” (under the direction of Professor Mark Katz). “This article draws on the first case study from my dissertation, and it is deeply indebted to the interdisciplinary field of disability studies,” he explained.

“The initial fieldwork for it truly began on the day I defended my dissertation proposal, and that day was in many ways a microcosm of my time at UNC: in the morning I had my proposal defense, where my committee posed questions that challenged me in some very productive ways. I continued mulling over those questions as I drove to interview Melendez, after which I drove back to Chapel Hill because I was chair of CSMC and we had Alex Ross in town giving a public lecture that afternoon. I then hurried back to Burlington for Melendez’s evening performance. It was all a bit overwhelming, but the mix of scholarly debate, fieldwork, and public engagement really shaped how I thought about my project and intellectual labor as a whole. Tony Melendez’s music and reception became central to my whole approach to virtuosity as something that could be at once intensely personal—so focused on the details of one’s individual embodiment—and irreducibly social.”

Reflecting on the accomplishment of receiving the Waterman Prize, Dr. Vanderhamm said that,

“given the interdisciplinary nature of the article, the continued isolating effects of the pandemic, and the fact that my recent professional posts have been in departments of humanities, philosophy, and art history rather than music, it was a challenge through many years of revision to feel that there was an audience for this work. Receiving the Waterman Prize was both an honor and an affirmation of scholarly community.”

Read the abstract for “‘I’m Just an Armless Guitarist’: Tony Melendez, Disability, and the Social Construction of Virtuosity” below.


In 1987, Tony Melendez—a guitarist born without arms who plays the instrument with his feet—played at a youth rally for Pope John Paul II. Immediately after his performance, the Pope kissed Melendez and instructed him to continue “giving hope” through his music. Although the guitar accompaniment of confessional, singer-songwriter music is rarely considered virtuosic, Tony Melendez’s bodily difference makes his ability to sonically pass as what he calls a “common player” an impactful display of skill for his audiences. Because Melendez’s body is treated as simultaneously virtuosic and disabled, his example foregrounds the social construction of both categories and challenges the tendency to isolate either in the individual body. Rather than suggesting a sort of qualified approach to “disabled” virtuosity, this article argues that there is no such thing as unqualified virtuosity. The presumed limitations and possibilities of bodies, instruments, and repertoires always inform our understandings of skill, but we are not always explicitly aware of them. Through interviews and analysis of his performances and their media representations, I show how bodily difference and the complex subject positions of both performers and audiences contribute to what counts as skill, creative labor, and agency within a particular context.

Read or listen to the full article via the UNC Music Library here.

David VanderHamm, Ph.D. 2017, is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Johnson County Community College, where he teaches courses in interdisciplinary humanities. His current research pursues the theme of virtuosities through both fieldwork and archival methods, exploring how wide-ranging displays and discourses of musical skill carry meaning for audiences in the U.S. during the age of electronic media.

Dr. VanderHamm presents regularly at regional, national, and international conferences, and his published work has appeared in Oxford Bibliographies Online, The Public Historian, American Music, The Journal of the Society for American Music, and The Oxford Handbook of Music and Advertising. He is co-editor, alongside Harris Berger and Friedlind Riedel, of The Oxford Handbook of the Phenomenology of Music Cultures (2023).

Read more about Dr. VanderHamm here.

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