26 harmonicas launch Blues in the Schools | TheUnion.com

26 harmonicas launch Blues in the Schools

Thom Myers, president of the Sierra Blues Society, has a vision of seeing an education program in local schools that presents the blues, what it is, where it came from, its influence in popular music today, and how to play it.

To this end, the Sierra Blues Society obtained twenty-six harmonicas for a pilot presentation at their latest event held at Scott’s Flat Lake campground in June.

As he finished his setup for the class, presenter Scott Hickman, harmonica player for local blues band Grease, Grit and Grime reflects, “This music came from what was regarded as the lowest strata of society and yet has had a profound effect on our culture.”

“It is at the root of rock, R&B, and jazz. Rap is a direct grandchild,” added fellow presenter and musician, Jim Gillespie.

After gathering a group of young campers and some curious parents around the stage, Hickman and Gillespie gave a concise and interesting history of how the blues developed from field hollers and work songs sung by African-American field hands and railway construction crews well over 100 years ago.

Using 1930s Library of Congress recordings of archaic work songs, as well as more modern blues recordings of blues icons such as Muddy Waters, the presenters clearly demonstrated that the two forms shared the same rhythms, structure and vocal inflections.

They then had the class directly experience the call and response mode used in work songs and the blues. The presenters would call out a line and the class would answer back in unison.

They followed this with a live demonstration of a song, using vocals, guitar and harmonica, and were met with enthusiastic applause.

The new blues students, inspired by the performance, then allowed themselves to be coached through a song, using their harmonicas and by the end of the hour, to their own surprise and delight, were playing the piece more or less in unison.

“Our goal is to develop programs that are applicable to many different grades, levels, and skills and can be taught by blues artists as well as available teachers,” says Gillespie, who is a teacher as well as a musician.

“This program is good for kids,” says Myers, “as it’s cross cultural and promotes understanding, gives them a means for self expression and self esteem, teaches them how to be a team by playing music together, and can help with learning other subjects. It not only includes history, social studies, and music education, but can involve learning how to research, write, compose … and what’s good for the kids is good for the community. It’s good for blues artists as it creates teaching opportunities for them to share their knowledge and ability and can, through residency programs, create income. It’s good for schools as it can fill the ever widening gap in arts education.”

On the questions of funding, Myers says, “We’ve been studying how to apply for grants and raise funds. This is an important program and we are looking for our first installation of it somewhere in our five county reach, in 2009.” The Sierra Blues Society covers the counties of Yuba, Amador, Placer, Sacramento and Nevada.

For more information, contact Thom Myers at http://www.sierrabluessociety.org.


Robbert Trice is a local artist, musician, and harmonica instructor. He may be reached at http://www.rctrice.com.

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