School of … Blues
Blues For Youth Comes To Cleveland Elementary
The fifth graders at Cleveland Elementary have just finished performing at a school assembly, the culmination of the Santa Barbara Blues Society’s Blues for Youth program. While the boys spill across the auditorium floor to roughhouse, the girls form a circle around Valerie Johnson to ask if she is married to Al B Blue, the partner with whom she has given the students a seven-week crash course in blues music. As word ripples around the crowd of girls that indeed the two are married, one sighs, pirouettes, and falls on her back.
That Johnson and Blue (who refuses to share the name his mother gave him) have so strongly endeared themselves to the kids in six 45-minute sessions is almost as impressive as the fact that they actually taught them how to sing and play blues music.
They downplay the accomplishment, however. “Kids are sponges,” says Al. “If you don’t tell kids something is hard, they just do it,” adds Johnson.
The Santa Barbara Blues Society — whose members love to point out that, founded 1977, it is the oldest in the country — first won grants to do educational outreach in 2005 which have since been bolstered by matching funds from the Santa Barbara Bowl.
Johnson and Blue, along with Cleveland’s teachers, tied the blues lessons into the fifth grade U.S. History curriculum on slavery. “I date the blues to when the slaves were stolen from their villages and sold on the auction block,” Johnson says. She explains that the call-and-response format central to African-American music and religion began with a “field holler” when new slaves, who did not share a common language, would call out to each other with guttural sounds to express their pain and sorrow.
The Cleveland students read aloud a short play about the history of Harriet Tubman before they performed a song about Tubman to the tune of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” (Yes, Tubman was “born a slave.”) Building on the theme of the Underground Railroad, they also sang a medley of spirituals made up of “Run Mary Run,” “Way Over in Beulah Land,” and “Wade in the Water.” Johnson explained to her audience—the rest of the school’s students—that Beulah Land represents freedom and that when slaves directed runaways to enter a body of water, it was so that they could hide their scent from hunting dogs.
The slavery lesson over, Cleveland students also sang an original tune called “The Walls Shake,” before Johnson lilted a call and response song called “Little Red Rooster” where students cock-a-doodle-dooed, wolfed, and howled. She finished with, “Let the Good Times Roll.”
Al B Blue played lead guitar on his cream-colored Fender Stratocaster throughout, but he was accompanied by students on lap steels, guitars, washboards, a drum made out of an old cheese roll and homemade diddley bows fashioned out of two-by-fours and decorated with stickers.
Blue and Johnson, Nipomo residents, both sport impressive resumes as performance musicians, but they’ve been working with kids all over the country for 15 years. Johnson says that, even though blues might not be the most popular genre on the radio, kids can dig on it because, “Blues is about how life is, not how you want it to be.” In fact it’s so much about real life, says Blues for Youth Coordinator Rosemarie Keller, that it’s sometimes hard to find songs with appropriate lyrics for young children.
ANN ABOUT TOWN: Proudly Singin’ the Birthday Blues
Break out the birthday candles—the Santa Barbara Blues Society is turning 35 next month.
As the oldest blues society in the country, SBBS has been bringing the party to town in the form of concerts and performers all these years, and like a present to the community, is now cultivating and educating a new crop of young fans, thanks to the support of a matching gift from the Santa Barbara Bowl Educational Outreach program.
With its Blues for Youth program, SBBS is reaching out to local elementary and junior high schools, helping the students to grow and appreciate the African-American blues tradition, rich with powerful meaning, strong beats and guttural grooves.
“This is the first time that we’ve done it with elementary school students,” said Blues for Youth Coordinator, Rosemarie Keller. “And we’re doing fifth grade because it fits in with their American history [curriculum] and the living theater, as you’ll see,” she said at Cleveland School’s assembly presentation on March 1.
Two classes, MK Littman’s and Lisa Minotto’s, sat in nervous anticipation on stage at one end of the cafetorium, while the rest of the school buzzed with excitement as they filed in and sat on the floor in front of a sprinkling of parents, community members and guests.
“Listen up! Listen up!” alerted music instructor Valerie Johnson, at one point, asking the kids to close their mouths and quietly take their seats.
Over the course of six weeks, one 45-minute session a week for each classroom, “Miss Val,” as she’s called, a
nd her partner Al B Blue, taught the close to 50 fifth graders about the blues, its history, and breathing techniques for singing. Additionally, the students learned to play instruments, such as the guitar, lap steel, diddley bow (a traditional one-string instrument used in the blues), washboard, makeshift drums out of a box and a wooden cheese wheel, shakers, and the bones (fashioned out of wood, rather than two customary rib bones).
“Val understands kids so well and they’re just enraptured by her,” whispered Keller’s friend Debbie Talmage, next to me in the audience.
Indeed, she captured the attention of everyone in the room as she told of the blues being a way of expressing feelings and coping with life, especially a tough one, like that of a 19th Century slave.
“One of the teachers here [Littman], really, really went all out and she got in touch with the Harriet Tubman Museum in New York, so they sent their brochure and were in communication [even Skyping online] with the students,” said Keller, who’s going to be sending the museum a copy of the video being filmed from the back of the room, of Littman’s class reciting a readers theater on how Tubman’s Underground Railroad series of safe houses and routes helped U.S. slaves escape to a life of freedom.
Then, led by Miss Val’s “a one, two … a one, two three four!” both fifth-grade classes set about singing old blues and old gospel-style call and response songs, including a compilation of Run, Mary, Run (about escape), Way Over in Beulah Land (finding freedom), and Wade in the Water (evading tracking hounds).
Audience participation was a big hit in Little Red Rooster, a song that called out “crow,” to a responding “cock-a-doodle-doo”; “and the dogs begin to bark,” to a comeback of “woof, woof, woof”; and “the hounds begin to howl,” the audience answering, “ahrooo!”
Each class even wrote and performed their own 16-bar blues song. “It’s all on their own; they have total ownership of this, and that’s one of the nice things about it,” said Keller.
The day before, Val and Al directed a similar show with two fifth-grade classes from Franklin School, at the culmination of their six-week course. Prior to that, Youth for Blues was at Santa Barbara Junior High’s Marjorie Luke Theatre, with Val and Al giving school period-long presentation’s to the eighth graders, introducing them to the history of the blues and getting them all to participate during the last 15 minutes of class with hands-on music and instruments on stage.
For those adults brave enough to get up on stage, the blues society is holding an 8 p.m. open blues jam tonight at Roundin’ Third sports bar, 7398 Calle Real, #F, in Goleta. The Bullfrog Blues Band will be featured, along with local musicians. Call Chris at 968-5391 for more information.
And in grand celebration (with birthday cake!), bluesman James Harman—who just happens to be a humdinger of a harmonica player—and his band will be coming to Warren Hall at Earl Warren Showgrounds, 3400 Calle Real, on March 30 for SBBS’s 35th birthday show.
Doors open at 7 p.m. with band Stiff Pickle Orchestra at 7:15. Tickets are $30 or $40 VIP (includes drink). SBBS members and up to three guests can subtract $5 off each ticket purchased, college students get in for $15, high schoolers for $10, and children under 12 are free.
Santa Barbara Blues Society, happy birthday to you!
A great story about the oldest blues society in the United States; the Santa Barbara Blues Society.
Page 10 The American Rag July 2010
Hey All You Blues Fans!
Want your kids to learn about Nature and the Blues. Well, here it is: Camp Big Sur! It’s an Overnight Camp (5 days, 4 nights) located at Pacific Valley School in the Los Padres national forest on the south coast of Big Sur, California. Camp Big Sur is centered on outdoor education and music, with a special focus on blues music. Valerie Johnson & Al B. Blue will be leading the “Blues for Kids” program.
There will be hikes, instruction in singing and song writing, making your own instruments, recording your own song, special guests, story telling by the campfire and a performance for parents!
Session One: July 12 -16; Session Two: July 26-30.
Who: Age 8-14.
Where: Pacific Valley School grounds located in the Los Padres National Forest on the South Coast of Big Sur, California.
When: July 12 -16 and July 26- 30.
Why: Awaken a sense of respect and appreciation for our natural environment, foster self-reliance through outdoor education and channel positive self-expression through music with the emphasis on the blues.
Cost: $480 for five days, four night session. Food included.
For more details, activities, photos and more go to http:// campbigsur.pbworks.com
KIDS SAY THE UNTHINKABLE POLICE #1: While taking a routine vandalism report at an elementary school, I was interrupted by a little girl about 6 years old. Looking up and down at my uniform, she asked, ‘Are you a cop?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered and continued writing the report. ‘My mother said if I ever needed help I should ask the police. Is that right?’ ‘Yes, that’s right,’ I told her. ‘Well, then,’ she said as she extended her foot toward me, ‘would you please tie my shoe?’
Beginning in December 2010, through the oldest blues society in the US - Santa Barbara Blues Society's - Blues in Youth, Valerie Johnson & Al B Blue will be doing their Blues for Kids (K-12th grade)at various schools throughout the Santa Barbara area. They will be working with the kids doing 1 day interactive workshops and six week long classes. Spreading the Blues one class at a time.