School of Blues
By Katie Urbaszewski(Clarksdale, Miss.) There’s no missing Travis Calvin. This afternoon, he’s wearing a bright orange T-shirt with the name “Christ” on the front. He’s the first to arrive at “Blues School” today, and a standard, mock sarcastic greeting sings out at him.
“Hey, look at you,” says the desk manager, by way of hello. “This is the first time I’ve seen you come in on time all year.” This is no ordinary clerk, though: this is Bob Kimbrough, the accomplished blues harmonica player.
Like all the teachers here at the Blues Arts and Education Program, both men have a comfortable, Mississippi Delta accent—and a ton of talent they’re ready to share. The program started in 1986; it operates out of the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It’s part of an effort to keep a hallowed, American genre alive amidst the onslaught of commercial rap music.
Calvin begins tapping out beats until his six students show up. He’s only 19, but he’s a blues prodigy who won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music. He has been playing guitar since he was eight years old; he says his mother wanted him to find something to do.
“I grew up in a bad neighborhood,” he explains. His hope is to tour as a professional musician, and then come back to Clarksdale and open up a music school.
Calvin’s students are grade-schoolers, teenagers, and a 60-year-old woman. Some of them share his story, and use the class as an ad hoc after-school center.
“He’s always playing the drums,” says Teresa about her son Kerry, 7. She says she had to buy a new trash can after Kerry beat it to death with his drumsticks. “I’m really busy, and this way they come home at five o’clock all excited,” she says. “That’s all they want to know: ‘Is it class today?’”
Teresa also drops off her ten-year-old daughter, Keana, and Kerry’s friend Robert, 7.
Convenience might be a factor in shepherding kids to class. But the final effect serves as a cultural bloodline for this region’s amazing cultural gift to the world: the blues. They were birthed here in the Delta and the sound ultimately gave rise to rock-and-roll, blues rock, the British invasion and endless mutations of popular music that followed.
For the first ten minutes of class, teachers work with the students individually, giving them tips as they play. From behind his own bass guitar, Crisman directs Kerry on his drums, in the way a band member might.
The kids giggle at his jokes; sometimes they get excited and run around, banging their drum sticks on everything in sight.
“The beginning class is kind of a headache,” says Crisman, “but the headaches are worth it.”
And in fact, the cacophony magically unifies every now and then; the one-on-one jam sessions melt into one song as the students naturally pick up on each other’s looping chord progressions. Crisman is always at the mic, singing and playing guitar, while Calvin hops around on drums, piano and bass.
Christone, 10, mimics Crisman’s chord progressions, and moves his fingers quickly along with him as he breaks into a fast improvisation. Both throw their heads back. It’s a bit of joy for them both.
This informal, master-pupil apprenticeship system is how Crisman, Calvin and their colleagues are passing on the blues torch. It’s what brought up such greats as Robert Johnson, Son House and Muddy Waters.
Down the road in Indianola, that’s how blues guitarist Jerry Fair teaches an evening guitar class at the B.B. King museum.
Poverty is rampant here; many of the downtown main streets of blues incubator towns such as Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenwood, Greenville and Indianola are boarded up and half abandoned. A generation of youngsters would rather write rap songs than blues licks. It creates a concern that the blues are becoming a lost, or at least struggling, art form.
Sylvester Hoover is a convenience store owner, tour guide, and cultural preservationist in Baptist Town, a collection of shotgun shacks just outside Greenwood. He says nearly all the young people there listen to rap music.
But here, where Robert Johnson played his last gig and then died after being poisoned, Hoover has seen a few of the teens add blues into their hip-hop, creating a hybrid he calls “blues rap.”
“It’s in their DNA,” Hoover says. “It’s part of their heritage even if they don’t realize it.”
A video of the program is available here.
Katie Urbaszewski is from New Orleans, where she’s a mass communication major at Loyola University.