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Blues in the Schools: A Different Way to Learn PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Wednesday, 31 January 2007 03:45

Debbie Bond Nancy Schricker, the music teacher at Wilson Elementary in Davenport, arrived to greet us with six students in tow. Debbie Bond - the guitar player and bandleader for the the Alabama Blues Project, the group that the Mississippi Valley Blues Society (MVBS) brought in for a "Blues in the Schools" residency last November - told them, "Some of the equipment will be heavy."

"Sweet," exclaimed one little boy, already won over for this prestigious "work," as they followed Debbie to the van to unload what was needed for the afternoon's performance. Soon, the Alabama Blues Project had its school-kid "roadies" participate in setup by hauling plastic tubs that would be used by classmates as drums.

The Alabama Blues Project uses that kind of student involvement at every school it visits; it prepares the students for the communal participation that will be required for their "blues education."

Each year since 1998, the MVBS Education Committee has set up five residencies during the year and selected artists with proven educational track records to bring free blues education to Quad Cities schools and the community. The MVBS doesn't charge for the programs because of sponsorships from the Riverboat Development Authority and the Iowa Arts Council.

The MVBS is one of only a handful of blues societies that have a regular Blues in the Schools program, and for that it's been nominated for a "Keeping the Blues Alive" award from the national Blues Foundation. According to Larry Tierney, who recently stepped down as MVBS Education Committee co-chair, the Blues in the Schools program reaches 3,000 to 5,000 people with each of its residencies. (I am a member of the MVBS and have served on many of its committees.)

Next month's residency will feature Mississippi-born local harmonica player Hal Reed and Donald Kinsey, lead guitarist of Gary, Indiana's Kinsey Report and son of blues legend Lester "Big Daddy" Kinsey. (See the sidebar for information on public performances.) Through storytelling and musical demonstration, they'll trace blues music's history and culture from its African roots through today.

Back at Wilson Elementary, Debbie Bond said she wants the students to learn "the importance of blues as the roots of music today." First, she asked the assembly, "If you like music, would you please just raise your hand?" Of course, all the little hands went up. Debbie proclaimed that "blues is the root of all American music. They don't play as much blues on the radio, so it's only through programs like this that the blues comes to your school."

What followed was a demonstration of "call and response," led by Caroline Shines singing "Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" with audience participation. Next came lessons on the origins of the country blues and homemade instruments such as the one-string washbucket bass and washboard percussion. During this demonstration, I noticed a boy plucking his own one-stringed "instrument" - a diddley bow that he'd made by pulling his shoelace taut over his shoe and up his shin.

Then Rick Asherson got out his harmonica and along with drummer Willie James Williams started mimicking the sounds of trains. At this point, the "guest percussionists" were selected to come to the front of the room with the band. They included Jared, an autistic boy who claimed afterward to Debbie that he's definitely going to be a drummer when he grows up. The drummers were instructed how to keep the beat, while Caroline showed the rest of the children in the audience how to count out the beat and clap along for a rousing rendition of "Sweet Home Chicago."

Next, backup singers were pulled out of the audience to help out on "Let the Good Times Roll." For this finale, Debbie went into the crowd for call-and-response participation, and with each response the kids got louder, then stood up, clapping and dancing. "I want you to stomp your feet on the floor, twitch on the spot, shake a leg in the air, shake your other leg like you don't care, wave your hands in the air," Debbie shouted as the school became a revivalist camp. I could feel the children's energy buzzing as they left the room.

Afterwards, the nine-year-old backup singers - Imari, Tanisia, and Diamond - were so wound up that they waited to get autographs. Music teacher Nancy Schricker was also excited: "This was way awesome! This was right up there with the best programs we've had, and got the kids and teachers involved."

Ron May, choral director at Moline High School, had similar praise: "MVBS comes every year, and we just love it!"

For May's music class at Moline High, the Alabama Blues Project put blues into a historical context as the music that arose after sharecropping replaced slavery. Besides the lessons on call-and-response and country blues, they also shared information on the blues scale with its bending of notes (or "blue notes"), electrified blues of the big city, blues chording, and other tidbits such as the blues origins of many Rolling Stones songs and how Big Mama Thornton recorded "Hound Dog" before Elvis did.

During a question-and-answer session at the end of the period, Debbie said, "Blues is a great tool to talk about other subjects like history - the impact of African culture on American cultures, or how blues was learned by ear - a different way to learn."

Once the class was over, May told me, "This was a special thing; you saw when the kids left how alive they were. I want them to have appreciation for American art - blues, jazz, country, musical theatre. We need to have a sense of awareness, pride in American music."

The Alabama Blues Project's public performance at Mojo's was just as lively as those in the schools. But this venue allowed the artists-in-residence to break loose and include more songs for a mature audience. One enthusiast was a Rock Island High School student: Steve Moller, 16 and a new member of the MVBS. He brought a German exchange student, who enthusiastically nodded his head to the music.

Steve gave this advice for listeners his own age: "They should stop listening to Marilyn Manson and listen to Buddy Guy. I think they'd find the blues speak to them even when their life is bad. Music on the radio doesn't have the passion of someone like John Lee Hooker. If we could only get Blues in the Schools at Rocky, I think more kids would find this out. You can't listen to [Led] Zeppelin without going back and listening to the blues, the base of the music. And Hendrix got his stuff from Buddy Guy!"

Quad Cities native Michael "Hawkeye" Herman will be one of the MVBS artists-in-residence next year. He's a 20-year blues educator now living in Oregon who came up with his own curriculum before most other musicians had even conceived of Blues in the Schools. In a phone interview, he told me his philosophy: "In France, students of all ages learn about Impressionism and the contribution of French art to the world. In Spain, students are taught that Cervantes wrote the first novel and that they should be proud of their culture for that. But in America we're not taught that blues was the watershed of all American music and influenced our culture and changed all musics around the world. We're not aware of this and proud of it."

Hawkeye has another mission beyond what he conveys to students through his music. After he completes a Blues in the Schools residency in Memphis this week, he'll hold a workshop for musicians who are interested in becoming blues educators. "There are way too few experienced blues educators," he said. "Because the schools have finally discovered that there's a need for teaching diversity and alternatives and for work across curricula that includes blues, there are truly nowadays not enough people to fill the demand. School systems have become aware that they don't know blues history and culture in America because teachers weren't taught it, so they know they have to bring in those knowledgeable from the outside."

Ann Ring, current chair of the MVBS Education Committee, concurred: "Right now we have a limited roster of blues educators that we bring in on a three- or four-year rotation. We hope in the future to tap into Hawkeye's database and work more closely with the education committee of the Blues Foundation to expand our educational offerings, especially to include more high schools and colleges ... .

"We've come a long way from the isolated residencies of the late '80s and early '90s," Ring said. "Our Blues in the Schools program has been hugely successful. But we're also going to be looking into innovative ways to deepen our mission in educating the public about blues-related music; we want to bring our education programming up to the next level."


Public Performances


Hal Reed and Donald Kinsey perform as part of the MVBS Blues in the School Residency


Friday, February 2, 7 p.m., Quad City Arts

Tuesday, February 6, 7 p.m., Bettendorf Public Library

Wednesday, February 7, 7 p.m., River Music Experience

Friday, February 9, 4 p.m., Martin Luther King Center


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