Magazine Feature

Schoolhouse Blues

An African American art form offers new lessons in harmony.

Rolling off I-40 West where it pours into Sam Cooper Boulevard, in the area of Memphis known as the Central Garden District, one is immediately confronted with the gritty industrial underpinnings of this historic city. Blue-collar workers -- Black and White -- drive old cars and trucks past corrugated-tin supply houses or linger at workshops that line the sun-baked street for blocks.

During the early years of this century, blues music took root here with the migration of Black laborers from rural Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. In the bustling river port, they traded hardscrabble sharecropping and penny-a-pound cotton picking for menial industrial jobs and Jim Crow discrimination.

Today, amid a cityscape still evocative of a blues lyric, Idlewild Elementary School is attempting to make a new reality from sounds and situations of the old. The architectural patchwork of Idlewild School creates cutbacks, ramps and hallways leading circuitously from the 1920s-era front door to the late-1950s music room upstairs, where, one hour a week, Hillary Bruch teaches 6th graders how to listen to and play the blues. Idlewild is one of eight Memphis schools participating in Kids 'N' Blues, part of an intensive school improvement plan initiated two years ago by the city board of education. Students in the program start the year by practicing the basic 12-bar blues structure on simple instruments such as recorders, xylophones and drums. Through the deep research emphasis of Kids 'N' Blues, literature, history and even geography classes bring in information about the cultural and historical experiences that gave birth to the genre.

The district-based Memphis approach is perhaps the most ambitious program in a growing field known generically as Blues in the Schools (BITS). No one seems to have that phrase copyrighted, but most musicians, teachers, blues societies and arts agencies that participate in this grassroots movement use "Blues in the Schools" as its handle.

From its small beginnings 20 years ago, BITS has been shaped in this decade by a variety of individual and cooperative efforts into a rich resource for affirming the cultural heritage and contributions of African Americans and for fostering understanding across racial as well as socioeconomic differences. These like-minded but independent initiatives range from artist-in-the-schools presentations to curricular enhancement by individual teachers to broad-based multidisciplinary programs.


Travelin' On

Like many contemporary blues artists involved in BITS, Fruteland Jackson of Chicago has his own Web site. Visitors to will find a menu of academic content Jackson can present along with his school performances, from the historical and sociological essay "Emergence and Evolvement of Blues Culture in America" to the street-level "Bluz in the Hood," which offers urban youth creative alternatives to violence. Jackson, who is African American and has been playing the blues for most of his 45 years, uses the music to teach Black history, cultural awareness and mutual respect.

"Blues was always a comforter for me, always my healer during difficult times," Jackson says. "The blues is the recognition of human tragedy and an optimism to deal with it."

The cathartic value of the art form, musicians and teachers attest, is elemental and universal. The blues offers a natural way to introduce the ordinarily touchy topic of emotions into classroom discussion.

"Everybody gets the blues," observes artist and festival manager Selby Minner. Selby, who is White, and her husband D.C., who is Black, conduct blues workshops throughout Oklahoma and neighboring states. "Music that deals with the harder things in life validates your own feelings. … You listen to this music and you come to the realization that other people have gone through this -- life is not picking on you."

But she is quick to refute the notion that blues music is downhearted. To the contrary, it is generally uptempo and made for dancing.

"Blues is really party music," Selby explains. "People who work hard will party hard -- kids pick up on that right away. Of course, we don't do any of the double-entendre stuff with the little kids," she says, alluding to the raunchy, libidinous end of the blues spectrum. "With high school kids, we can do just about any kind of blues, because they see just about everything on TV. We still probably wouldn't do 'Cross-Cut Saw' or 'Shade Tree Mechanic,' though," to cite two particularly suggestive examples.

In their assembly presentations and jam sessions with young people, the Minners promote not only the emotionally and socially expressive power of the blues, but also the inherent "freedom" of the guitar, which D.C. considers an underrepresented instrument in most school music programs. As many as 20 students will bring guitars, basses or drums from home to the duo's special lunch-time workshops.

"That's what lets me know how badly they need to start teaching these instruments in schools," D.C. says. "If they had guitar in the curriculum, it would keep some kids involved and in school just as much as the sports programs do for other kids."

In fact, it is often the most defiant teens at end-of-the-line alternative schools who amaze teachers by their triumphs at Friday assemblies where the Minners lead workshop participants in a live blues performance. The satisfactions of punchy rhythm, chord progressions and heartfelt words often break through the toughest cynicism. And, the Minners and others attest, learning about the adverse social conditions that gave rise to the blues offers a special appeal to youngsters facing troubles of their own.

Musician/teachers Debbie Bond and her husband, Michael McCracken, agree that even a brief exposure to the blues idiom can give students a taste for more. Bond and McCracken, both White, operate the Alabama Blues Educational Project, based in Tuscaloosa. Like the Minners, they capitalize on the ease of learning a simple three-chord blues to involve students directly in music-making. Immediacy is important, since many schools will initially allow only a two-hour after-school program or a 45-minute assembly program.

"During the shorter sessions, we still encourage students' participation and try to cover a lot of ground," says Bond. Their introductory programs combine a lecture about the African roots of the rhythms, scale, call-and-response form and storytelling characteristics of blues with a performance built around audience participation. Longer sessions center on songwriting so that young people can see blues as a contemporary art form through which they can talk about their own lives and issues of the day.

From its beginnings, blues has provided commentary -- sometimes veiled, sometimes direct -- on hard times and harsh treatment. Howard Stovall, executive director of the Blues Foundation in Memphis, notes that "Blues lyrics grew out of Black people's experience and sometimes had a double meaning, talking about issues that perhaps could not be talked about openly."

In his BITS presentations -- which he tailors for elementary through college audiences nationwide -- White blues artist T. J. Wheeler helps students "unmask" coded blues messages about African Americans' treatment and position in society. He cites Muddy Waters' "I'm a Man" as a good example. Waters sings:

I'm a man, spell M - A - N.
Ain't no B - O - Y, yi-yi.

"When you listen," says Wheeler, "it's hard for somebody outside the [singer's] social and linguistic culture to hear that. But his audience sure understood. 'Big Daddy' Kinsey, who is sort of a blues elder statesman now, told me: 'Back in the old days, down in Mississippi, we would sing that song to each other to remind each other of who we were -- not who we were told we were.'"

Through his New Hampshire-based national Blues Bank Collective, Wheeler provides residency workshops, as well as preparatory sessions for educators. "I have a teacher's conference before the residency begins, sometimes as much as a month or two before," he explains. "Then, I go into different classes to see what teachers might be teaching that may be relevant to me in passing on insights into Black history." Like other BITS presenters, he stresses the importance of doing sufficient groundwork before asking young people to "get the blues."


Blues by the Book

"This is a White suburban high school," says literature teacher Art Tipaldi of Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham, Mass. "My students were missing a whole lot of musical references in the August Wilson stuff we'd read, or the Langston Hughes poetry, or Zora Neale Hurston short stories. So I thought, 'Well, gee, music is the hook. The kids dig music; they listen to it constantly.'"

Tipaldi, a widely published blues historian and critic, serves on the education committee of the Blues Foundation, the national organization of local blues societies in the United States. Six years ago, he developed a curriculum for his English classes that has led to an elective course called Blues in Literature.

"I got the idea that in order to get my juniors and seniors to understand African American literature, they should know about African American culture," says Tipaldi.

'Living in a New World'

Students at Banks Middle School in Birmingham, Ala., captured the spirit of the blues in "Living in a New World":


Changes gotta start somewhere
There are brothers who are dying and mothers who are crying
I live in a place called the ghetto where people are shooting all night
I used to gang bang and gamble all night long
Losing my money and I can't go home
Now tell me what Black people are supposed to do
We need to start a new life, living in a new world …

©1998 by Alabama Blues Educational Project; used by permission.

Two weeks before a guest blues artist visits his classroom, Tipaldi has his students read an excerpt from The Promised Land, Nicholas Lemann's history of the northward migration of Blacks from Mississippi. The first chapter, entitled "Clarksdale," describes the life of Delta sharecroppers in the 1920s and '30s. Tipaldi uses the PBS video companion to the book as a supplementary resource.

"As we talk about the hardship and hard lives African Americans lived," he explains, "we bring the music in as a way people could escape that life. I ask them what function music has for them today -- it 'psychs' them, lifts them when they're depressed, it livens up their parties -- and I circle back to blues music and the fact that it came from the same needs that the kids have.

"At that point I introduce them to Robert Johnson, who took raw rural blues and 'modernized' it. Now, when Fruteland Jackson or Hawkeye Herman comes in and says, 'Let me play you a song by Robert Johnson or [fellow Mississippi bluesman] Eddie "Son" House,' my kids know who that is. Hawkeye can tell them things they are familiar with already, and he can build from that."

At Friends' Central Lower School in Wynnewood, Pa., teacher Don Denton finds that younger students can also tap into "blues power." He recently expanded his "Blues You Can Use" program for 4th graders with a grant from Teaching Tolerance.

"I always introduce blues songs in the context of African American art or African Americans in U.S. history," Denton says, "so that it's not so much for musical entertainment as it is a source of a culture's voice."

"Blues You Can Use" approaches the blues as folk balladry, a source of story songs Denton uses to illuminate episodes in American history. For instance, in a unit about the early decades of this century, he suggests playing off the movie "Titanic." After a class discussion about the sinking of the ship, he tells about the life and times of Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, legendary Black musician who was famed for having sung his way out of a Louisiana prison in the 1930s.

"Then I play Leadbelly's version of the [unattributed] song 'The Titanic,'" Denton explains. "I say, 'You all saw the film that shows one perspective on this story. Here's another vision of that tragedy by a group of people whose perspective is not often heard.' Leadbelly's version gets into segregation on board that ship and how Jack Johnson [heavyweight boxing champion in 1912] was not allowed to sail on the ship because he was a Black man. When he learned that the ship had gone down, Jack Johnson did the Eagle Rock, a popular dance of the time."

Such details, according to Denton, encourage students to question the "official" narrative of our nation's past. "With blues music you have a vast repository of historical material that was made by Blacks for Blacks," he says. "It gives voice to a whole segment of society that has traditionally not had a voice in approaches to teaching history."


A Blues Mecca

In her Memphis music room, Hillary Bruch selects a basic rhythm track and traditional three-chord, 12-bar blues from her Band-in-a-Box computer program. To refresh her students' memories after a week away from their instruments, she lets them listen or play along on recorders. Then she puts on an advanced boogie-woogie, Louis Jordan's 1946 recording of "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie":

You reach your destination but alas and alack
You need some compensation to get back in the black
You take a morning paper from the top of the stack
And read the situations from the front to the back
The only job that's open needs a man with a knack
So put it right back in the rack, Jack
Choo Choo, Choo Choo Ch'Boogie
Woo Woo, Woo Woo Ch'Boogie
Choo Choo, Choo Choo Ch'Boogie
Take me right back to the track, Jack

Vaughn Horton, Denver Darling, Milt Gabler © 1946 Rytvoc, Inc. (ASCAP)

Students have a ball answering questions about the lyrics.

"What does the singer want to do?" Bruch asks, eyes twinkling with gaiety, as this song is full of 1940s African American hep-cat jargon and a happy-go-lucky attitude to match the swing.

"He wants to catch a train to the city and find a good job," several shout back.

"And when he gets there, what does he find?"

"He can't get one because he doesn't have a 'knack.'"

"And what is a knack?" asks the teacher, stumping the class.

Bruch begins to explain something of the poor educational opportunities for sharecroppers' children in that era, and the consequent lack of manufacturing job skills and other "knacks." Having already hooked them on the music, the fun and the dissection of the lyrics, she presents a window on a time and culture even the African-American students know little about.

For Ashley Giles, an 11-year-old African-American student, learning to use the blues to express her own feelings has enlivened and deepened her appreciation of her cultural heritage as a Black Memphian. "My mom used to go on Beale Street where they sell tapes," Ashley recalls. "She'd bring me back a tape and I'd listen to it. I didn't like blues at first because I thought it was boring, but now I see what it's like. We can write blues!"

Mattie Henderson's 12-year-old granddaughter, Kenya, participated in Kids 'N' Blues last year. "I'm 62 and I lived a lot of that history," Henderson says. 'The children didn't know about it at first. When they study it, learn to play it and then write it, then they appreciate it more."

Across the country in Massachusetts, Art Tipaldi faces an even greater "history gap" with his all-White classes. He finds that students previously oblivious to racism and discrimination can find in the blues a window on hard truths of the past that still challenge us today. Through the work of Tipaldi and his Blues in the Schools colleagues, the urgency expressed in Langston Hughes' poem "Night and Morn" is awakening new perspectives in classrooms nationwide:

Sun's a settin',
This is what I'm gonna sing.
Sun's a settin',
This is what I'm gonna sing.
I feel de blues a'comin',
Wonder what de blues'll bring?

Explaining the Roots of the Blues

The first written references to the blues appeared in the 1890s, and the publication of W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" introduced the music to a commercial audience in 1912.


Oral history and the music itself, however, suggest an earlier origin in the African American field hollers, church singing and popular music of the mid-19th-century South. Musicologists point out that several important features of the blues, including its characteristic tonal shadings, call-and-response structure, repeated refrains and use of the falsetto voice, derive from African musical tradition.


Social, economic and cultural factors fostered the development of three regional styles of early blues. Mississippi Delta musicians Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines and others used percussion-like strumming and bottleneck guitar accompaniment with a vocal style that combined singing and speech. In Georgia and the Carolinas, blues artists such as Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell drew upon ragtime and popular music to shape a crisp melodic and rhythmic style. The guitar picking and high vocals of Blind Lemon Jefferson are probably the most celebrated example of Texas blues.


From the 1920s, blues recordings brought Black female artists Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and others to national attention. Around the same time, the migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities during the Great Depression gave rise to distinctive urban styles in Memphis, Atlanta, Kansas City, St. Louis and, particularly, Chicago. The best-known Chicago blues artists from this period include Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie and "Sonny Boy" Williamson.


Beginning in the late 1940s, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and others took traditional blues to an even wider audience. The jazz, soul, rhythm and blues, and rock music of subsequent eras continue to show the powerful, elemental influence of the blues.

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