Blues for Beginners

article image
Wayne Brezinka /

It causes the most ardent supporters of arts in the schools to hesitate: “We want to give your children the blues.”

In what may initially seem a backwards idea, the Chicago School of Blues has couched a message of positivity in a program that combines the history, music, and movement associated with the blues. The traveling program has been taking this message to Chicago-area schools, cultivating the self-expression and freedom that is so often lost with shrinking arts budgets. In the process, it is preserving an art form that is forever woven into the historical fabric of the city.

The Chicago School of Blues is an education program that began in December 2010 to take blues music to schools throughout Chicago. “Barrelhouse” Bonni McKeown, a historian and blues piano player, and Taj, a dancer and practitioner of holistic arts, lead the program, which they initiated to preserve what they see as a dying art.

“Serious blues musicians see the need to pass this art down to the younger folks,” McKeown says. “As I get older, I see how, as generations pass, things tend to get lost unless someone makes a conscious effort to preserve them.”

Unlike most blues education programs that focus more on the instruments, they begin with how the blues began, which is with the voice and the beat, McKeown says. By starting with the historical roots, the teachers are able to bridge the blues to modern music.

“Some kids say, ‘Why should I listen to this? This is my grandma’s music,’ ” Taj says. “And we explain that if there was no blues, there’d be no hip-hop.”

After the brief history introduction and a movement exercise to loosen the children up, Barrelhouse Bonni–the nickname is a nod to the 1930s blues played in the juke joints and barrelhouses of the South–makes her way to the piano. The children are encouraged to sing a blues tune or tell their own story in a three-line blues verse.

“A lot of kids are afraid of writing . . . afraid of even thinking about their feelings,” McKeown says. And for those who can’t seem to get over their writer’s block, the teachers bring a sample verse that hits close to home: “My dog ate my homework, please have mercy on me / The teacher’s going to kill me, I think I might climb a tree.”

As Robert Johnson famously put it, Chicago has always been the “sweet home” of the blues. And while Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy have become household names, the blues musicians who continue to keep the Chicago scene thriving remain unknown and underappreciated, McKeown says.

The program is strengthened by McKeown’s close relationship with Chicago-area professional blues musicians, who take part in the longer visits, exposing children to the actual instruments and allowing them to listen to local bluesmen and women. And if the voices and instruments aren’t enough, names like “Killer” Ray Allison and “West Side” Wes grab the kids’ attention.

West Side Wes, a drummer, and Killer Ray, a guitarist, feel that bringing their music to children is the best way to preserve their life’s passion.

“The kids are just so enthusiastic,” West Side Wes says. “When we visit, they really just love the singing and the dancing. They end up loving this music.”

Some of the children have never seen or heard live instruments.

“We let them experience what a guitar, a keyboard, and the drums actually feel like,” Killer Ray says. “It’s important that they know that the blues are not that complicated; it’s more of a feeling.”

Other regular musicians in the program are Abb Locke, Gloria Shannon, and Larry Taylor, who, although they have lived and played in Chicago for years, have gone largely unnoticed.

So, while the Chicago School of Blues exists to bring arts to the kids, it is also a legacy project that honors the “living legends,” McKeown says. And for veterans of the scene, the program has restored their faith in young people’s appreciation for their music.

“When we play for them, their eyes get so big, and they sparkle, I swear,” West Side Wes says.

The program is also a response to an increasing reliance on technology and computers in modern music and slashing of the arts in schools.

“You’re going to have a whole generation of children who have never been exposed to organic sound,” Taj says. “It’s like taking fruits and vegetables away from them.”

Donoghue Elementary School was so impressed with the program that it has hosted both a 10-week workshop and a schoolwide assembly.

“The kids love it,” says Angel Pringle, after-school coordinator at Donoghue. “It gives them an opportunity to get over their stage fright.”

Shawn Jackson, principal of Spencer Academy, acknowledges the benefits of teaching the history of the blues, but credits the program for giving students an opportunity to express themselves.

“Poverty and high crime rates can often deter students from furthering their education,” Jackson says. “The program has given our students a voice.”

Currently an arm of Taj’s Final Feliz Foundation, the program doesn’t have solid financial footing yet, so the women sometimes volunteer their time (although they always pay the musicians, McKeown says). They have plans to expand if they can find additional support.

Leaving behind children and teachers with smiling faces, the program is starting to break free from the stigma associated with the blues–sadness.

“Blues is a music of truth and survival,” McKeown says. “As Willie Dixon said, ‘it’s the facts of life.’ “

Brian Bienkowski is an editorial intern at Mindful Metropolis. Excerpted from Mindful Metropolis (Aug. 2011), an “eco-active, enviro-sensitive, and socially involved” monthly serving the Chicago area.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.