Teaching Blues is Teaching America, Yesterday and Today

The following was first published on May 16, before the tinder box blew up. I accidentally "unpublished" it this morning when I opened it to re-read it now (sometime in early June), in today's context. Today, it matters even more than it did on May 16. And then I edited it again, on June 22. Editorial update here.

Ma Rainey, Empress of the Blues.

How do you teach kids to play the blues?

As you have seen, we've been making one instructional video a week for the kids at school. We have eight elementary schools in our district, and there are four of us teaching instrumental music. We have 500+ kids in the 4th and 5th grade learning to play instruments. When we started this remote learning adventure, we decided that we would do our lessons together to offer all of our young instrumentalists a similar experience. They all funnel into the same two schools in junior and senior high and they will eventually need to all play together, so it makes sense to have them all working on more or less the same things—and as we are learning from watching our country implode culturally over the last ten years or so, we see that playing together matters. That's an important life lesson that music can teach.

Since we have wildly varying levels of ability and experience among our students, we decided to focus the at-home lessons on musical skills that can apply to all levels. Improvisation/composition rose above the many options. Teaching improvisation and composition gives kids "permission" to to make their own music without a teacher's guidance, now and forever, and it adds to their musicianship on a hundred levels. So that's what we did. 

This week is part 5 of the unit, and is the culminating lesson. Here's how it's rolled: 

Part 1-Soundscapes
Part 2 -One-Note Improvisation
Part 3-Pentatonic Scale Composition
Part 4-Playing The Composition over Different Grooves
Part 5-Improvising with the Pentatonic Scale
Part 6-Playing the Blues

Students this week will begin to throw some notes together and make music with a backing track. But will they be playing the blues? Some will. Will they sound like authentic blues players? Um... who cares? We have to start somewhere. To do it in a way that feels "authentic," you really have to first speak the "language" and that starts by learning a few simple phrases. Like learning a language, musical fluency requires immersive listening and plenty of practice. But to be an artistic practitioner of a language—well, that's more than just knowing the words; you also have to have something to say. If the kids are interested, they'll get there, eventually. 

The thing is, the blues was created in the American South, a combination of African rhythm and melodic sensibility with European song structure, and a whole lotta humanness. Is it always sad? Hail, no. If you're talking about authentic blues made by the people who created the style, the blues can also be scary, uproarious, angry, wild, and often racy. The earliest folk or "country" blues players were storytelling with their six strings, but as the music evolved, blues became dance music too. When people left the dusty Southern byways in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s for the bustling Chicago streets, the music moved from the home to the club, and audiences got bigger. [See editorial update; they did not "leave." They were forced by domestic terror to flee.] Someone invented the amplifier (thank you, Les Paul) ... and lo and behold, we got Chicago blues. Some hip young white deejays figured out how amazing it was, and started spinning disks. Young white hipsters heard it on the radio and, because it blew their minds, too, they were hooked. It was edgy and completely different than anything they'd ever heard. Then some young country gee-tar players tried playing it themselves, and soon the music was repackaged as rock and roll, and it was adopted in many cases by the very people who refused to acknowledge the essential humanness of those who invented the music in the first place. America has a long history of appropriating black music, black style, and black language, scrubbing it "clean," then spitting it back out as something different that reflects their own experience and aesthetic. Blues became rock and roll which became Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Childish Gambino, and Chance the Rapper.

So what does this have to do with Plymouth's nine year olds? Everything. It is the ancient history of just about every song they hear on the radio and as a result, it is the history of them. Maybe they'll learn that some day too. Not this week. But this week opens the door.