Blues in Schools

Cliff Yankovich

As one of the roving reporters for this blog I got to witness a classic example of How Things Ought To Work recently. With a heads up from Lowell’s Harmonica in Chief, Chuck Myers, I sat in on a wonderful example of pretty much everything the Spirit of Harmony exemplifies. Chuck is a member of the West Michigan Blues Society (http://www.wmbs.org/) and he let me know that three of his fellow blues dudes were going to share their love and knowledge of America’s music with a room full of 5th grade students at Cherry Creek Elementary, part of the Lowell School District. Lowell, MI is a town of 4,000 people with a strong history of agriculture and a love of arts and music located 18 miles east of Grand Rapids.
 
Tim Richards, Hank Mowrey, and Jimmy Stagger of WMBS
Tim Richards, Hank Mowrey, and Jimmy Stagger of WMBS.

The Blues in The Schools program (http://www.wmbs.org/home/blues_in_the_schools) started in 2000 with the mission of exposing young people to the roots of much of American music. The initial effort stumbled because of (big surprise) a lack of funding. However, thanks to some corporate matching funds, determination on the part of WMBS, a boost in the local media, and the encouragement of educators in Grand Rapids, the program took flight again in 2005 and has been zooming along since then. The effort in Lowell schools is helped in part with mini-grant money from the Michigan Council for Art & Cultural Affairs administered in our area by Lowell Arts (http://www.lowellartsmi.org/). The main reason I am giving a shout out to all these participants is to demonstrate that it is still possible for great interactive, engaging music education to happen, but it takes WORK.

 
Blues Eye view of the kids - Jimmy Stagger on the left and Hank Mowrey on the right
Blues Eye view of the kids – Jimmy Stagger on the left and Hank Mowrey on the right.

Hank Mowrey, Jimmy Stagger, and Tim Richards represented WMBS and the music they love to five classes of 5th graders brought together on a cold February afternoon. This is not a program where three guys show up and jam for 45 minutes. Each class is sent a primer 3 weeks before the visit to aid the teachers in preparing the kids for what they will see, hear, and learn. Classes have been known to write their OWN piece of blues music and Tim told me the kids in Lowell have a reputation for appreciating up the program. “These people here in Lowell are fantastic,” he commented. “We get a packet of thank you letters every year.”

 
The best part of the show for Jimmy Stagger, a 64 year old professional musician who has been recording and playing for 50 years, comes at the end when they open it up for questions. “You never know what the kids will come up with,” Stagger said with a smile.
 
Mowrey, a harp player with two CDs to his credit, told me how his musical journey started in the fourth grade when a teacher passed out recorders and he realized how much he loved music. Hank told the kids that once he found out about harmonicas he played his so often that his parents would sometimes “lose them” for him so that they could have a little peace and quiet in the house.
 
Students learning about the blues
Students learning about the blues.

One cool part of the presentation was the emphasis on the fact that anybody can play something if they really want to. Mowrey bragged about the economy and portability of his favorite instrument. Jimmy Stagger gave a slide guitar demo on a “diddley bow” – his was a single metal string stretched over a can and secured to a board with nails at both ends. (Think of the opening sequence of “It Might Get Loud” with Jack White making and playing one on the porch of a farm house).

 
Rob Stevens is the teacher of one of the classes at Cherry Creek. He is very enthusiastic about the program. “It allows us to teach a music unit that might otherwise might get skipped,” he related. “We tie it in with American history – the link with American history is really neat. It also shows the kids that anybody can be a musician.”
 
The history connection was front and center in the presentation. With slides showing work gangs building railroads in the back ground, the kids learned how the Gandy Dancers would lead orchestrated chants and songs designed to make the back breaking, monotonous work go faster and smoother. The room full of kids were shown pictures of and told about musicians who laid the foundation for what would mutate from the blues to rock-n-roll, country, and even hip-hop and rap music: Big Bill Broonzy, Bukka White, Little Walter, Robert Johnson and others. While Tim ran the slide show, Hank and Jimmy would play examples of the music by the various artists. Hank had a selection of harps and gave a little insight into all the possibilities of his instrument of choice and that was balanced with Stagger jumping between guitar types including the diddley bow, a cigar box guitar, acoustic and even a steel guitar.  He explained that the heft and weight of a steel guitar helped more than one musician hold his own if things got rough in a juke joint.
 
Teacher Eric Bredin sitting in on the harp between Tim Richards and Jimmy Stagger (Note diddley bow on the floor)
Teacher Eric Bredin sitting in on the harp between Tim Richards and Jimmy Stagger (Note diddley bow on the floor).

It was a treat to sit in the back and watch the kids nodding their heads and tapping their feet in time with the music. When the presentation ended they remained engaged and started asking the questions that Jimmy likes so much. The culmination of the Q&A session happened when one of the students remarked that Mr. Bredin – one of five teachers in attendance – always had a harmonica with him. (Eric Bredin and his wife both play in “Paddy’s Cure” a local Irish band. Another subject for another day!) Once it became known that there was a player in the room, it was only natural for Mr. Bredin to come up and play a tune for the kids on his harp while Stagger played and sang. By this time the kids were clapping along. Stagger finished the impromptu jam with this comment, “That is a pretty cool teacher right there, man.”

 
Cindy Young is another of the Cherry Creek teachers. She loves Blues in the Schools. “It is another outlet for the students. It is another possible way for students to explore another world,” she said. “It helps them to become well-rounded balanced learners. It helps with math.”
 
Music is a powerful, vital tool in education. The teachers and students at Cherry Creek Elementary School, along with the members of the West Michigan Blues Society are great examples of the Spirit of Harmony – in every sense of the word.
Todd n Cliff 2013 crop
Cliff Yankovich is a partner with his wife Julie Claire DeVoe at Chimera Design, a jewelry store in Lowell, Michigan since 2002 (www.ChimeraDesign.ws). A Todd Rundgren fan since 1972, Cliff is thrilled to be a part of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation. His observations and opinions can be found on his blog: www.cliffsriffs.blogspot.com.

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