Kids Got the Blues
By Tanuja Surpuriya
MAY 8, 2000: The future of the blues smacks Hubba Bubba and dons size 3 sneakers.
And why not? Just as the future of the blues seems a bit grim -- just think of that daiquiri bar on Beale Street -- the music that grew up around Memphis is finding a renaissance of sorts not on street corners, but in an elementary school.
Third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders at Gordon Elementary, an inner-city school near downtown, have made the blues their own through the Kids 'N Blues program, a unique curriculum that teaches students the music and the history of the genre from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. While all students at Gordon learn about the blues during music class, the Kids 'N Blues band is made up of about 30 students who sing and play everything from keyboards to xylophones. They've even recorded original songs on two CDs in collaboration with seven other schools. And in February six students performed at the Blues Foundation's Blues Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Washington, D.C., after winning the foundation's nationwide BluesKids contest to find the best blues band in the land.
"It was great," says lead singer Jada Conley, 9, who says she listens to B.B. King's music when she's not at school and even sings a fiery rendition of King's "Let the Good Times Roll." "It makes you feel good. It's all about heart and soul." Jada's 9- and 10-year-old bandmates include Richard Anthony (guitar), Ashley Jones (keyboard), Eric Jones (keyboard), Joshua Hayslett (keyboard), and Roddrick Brown (drums).
Their enthusiasm is literally music to the ears of their teacher Jonah Ellis, who is also a professional musician. While most of his students had never picked up an instrument before his class, Ellis is blown away by their talent. "I'm really proud of them. This takes some people years and years to pick up."
Ellis says learning the blues is hardly an extracurricular class for his students. It's their birthright. "These children have grandparents and great-grandparents who sat in classrooms just like these and sat with people who played with B.B. King or Muddy Waters or whomever. It's kind of like those archaeologists who dig for fossils. These kids must go back and learn about this music and where it came from. It's their heritage."
The Kids 'N Blues program started in 1996 with a two-year grant from the BellSouth Foundation to six Memphis schools under the Co-NECT program, a technology-based school reform model. Gordon was able to go on with the program after the first two years because of the dedication of Ellis and the school's principal, Thelma T. Roberson, who says the kids have raised money selling everything from pickles to popcorn. The program is used as a model for others across the country.
"It's important because of what it offers both musically and academically," Roberson says. "Research is showing us that children who learn music and how to play instruments become better at math and are better problem-solvers. And what better place to have this program than Memphis, where you have the history right in front of your eyes?"
So what do 10-year-olds sing about? After all, the tales of racy, no-good women and men down on their luck that inspired other blues singers are hardly relevant to a third-grader. That's when it's time to reach for the thinking caps.
Some songs deal with not wanting a dirty, junky cafeteria, while others are about the blues music itself. The first song by Kids 'N Blues was "I Don't Like the Blues ('Cause It's Old Fashion News)," which was written on a whim after a student told Ellis he didn't want to learn the blues because his "mama used to play it and daddy, too. I learned the blues, before I could tie my shoe" -- a refrain in the song. Still others deal with more serious issues:
"Don't Encourage Kids To Do Wrong"
The kids don't write original songs anymore after some running into ownership issues (the same problem that plagued many professional blues musicians). Now they regularly cover popular songs by other musicians, including "Stand By Me" and "Wade in the Water," but Roberson says they sometimes have to change the words when covering traditional blues songs. "If it's supposed to be 'Fix me a drink,' we say 'Fix me a Kool-Aid.'" Or when they sing, "Please Mr. Postman, they say they want a letter from their 'friend' instead of 'boyfriend.' We just don't want our students crooning, moaning, and groaning for lost love."
Kids 'N Blues will perform at Gordon Elementary's BluesFest 2000 concert Saturday May 13th. Ellis says the experience is ultimately about more than the music.
"A lot of them won't play music when they leave this classroom, so I want to give them something to take beyond this, the discipline, the believing in yourself, the knowledge that you can do anything if you put your mind to it."
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