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Dublin, Ireland, 1993: Catfish Keith, Phil Wiggins, Honeyboy Edwards and John CephasCatfish Keith Has a Blast with The Kids
World-Touring Acoustic Bluesman Completes MVBS Blues-in-the-Schools Summer Residency

~ by Catfish Keith ~

I really had a fantastic time with the kids during my Blues in The Schools Residency in Rock Island, Illinois. The program was for four weeks and took place at three elementary school summer sessions.  I did my thing at Audubon School, Intermediate Academy, and Ridgewood School.  I had a dozen or so appearances at each school, and the experience was very enjoyable. 

I have done many Blues in The Schools presentations all around the US and in Europe, but this is the first time I had the chance to do such an extended program.  In the past, my program has usually consisted of one assembly, where I played my music for the kids, and did questions and answers.

This time I had the same kids for many sessions, so I got the chance to create a much more extended program.  At first, the idea of this was daunting, but I managed to create and implement a course with a much deeper and broader scope.

My first session was an introduction to my music, where I played early delta blues and gospel music and my original pieces.  The second session was a blues songwriting workshop where in one class period, the kids and I composed a blues song.  Since we draw from personal experience for this the songs inevitably ended up having lines and themes about dancing, playing games and having  summertime fun.

Then, we went on to do sessions about the connection between blues and island music.  In this one I showed how music from the Caribbean (particularly, the Bahamas and Jamaica) and Hawaii connected and influenced certain early blues styles. The use of bottleneck slide guitar has a direct link to Hawaiian guitar, and I wove all of this together in this presentation.  I sang songs from Joseph Spence, Bob Marley and Sol K. Bright and brought it back to the delta with Son House, Charley Patton, and Bukka White.

One session focused on learning music from a mentor. This featured both my music and the music of David Honeyboy Edwards  (pictured in the photo above taken in Dublin, Ireland with me and Cephas & Wiggins back in 1993).  I started out playing a couple of songs I learned myself direct from Honeyboy, Pony Blues and Catfish Blues, and then showed some of the DVD Honeyboy.  Honeyboy not only sang and played, but told about his life coming up playing music in the 1930‘s, and he talked about learning from his mentor, Big Joe Williams.  This way, I demonstrated the long line of blues history, and how the music is handed down from one generation to the next.  Honeyboy Edwards’ music was a great example of this, and he remains one of the only original, old-time blues musicians that was on the scene in the 1930's, still touring and performing today, now at 94 years old.  At first the kids, aged from 5 to 12, thought I was astoundingly old at 45; they were knocked out that Honeyboy was still going strong at over twice my age.

The Mississippi Valley Blues Society were kindly able to provide a stack of musical instruments, so I also had hands-on sessions where all of the kids had a chance to play guitar.  I tuned all of the guitars to an open C tuning so they could instantly make music, and then every single student was able to play.  Some of the kids were so little that even the kid-sized guitars looked huge on them!

The Blues Society also provided harmonicas and kazoos and washboards as well as guitars.  So, by the end of our weeks together every student got to have their own instrument to keep.  Most chose the harmonica, and some took kazoos…it was a mighty rootin’ tootin’ racket that day, with dozens of harps hee-hawing and wailing at the same time.  I’m afraid it may have drove the teachers around the bend!

The kids were sweethearts and some of their comments were priceless.  For every session I took questions from the students.  Quite a few were about music and guitars, like “How do they make guitars?” and “Does it hurt your fingers to do that?” and “Have you played in all 50 states?” Some were seemingly out of the blue, such as: “Did you get your flip-flops at Old Navy?” and “Have you seen Spiderman 3?” It was a lot of fun!

I felt very lucky to do be able to do this.  I really love the rich tradition of American blues and roots music, and I feel it is very important to pass it down.  I discovered the music myself at an early age. When I was a kid, we never had such things as Blues in The Schools; I was born in East Chicago, and from age 6 through high school I grew up in Davenport, Iowa. I found my path in this music pretty much on my own by my own musical explorations. 

What I hope is that my work in these programs can cause a spark of love of music with the students.  I feel honored to do this and to do my small part in keeping the blues alive and vital. 

Big thanks go to the Mississippi Valley Blues Society for keeping this program happening. Thanks to Education Chair Ann Ring and former Education Chair Larry Tierney and everyone at the Blues Society, and all of the sponsors and grants that helped fund the program. I think it’s fantastic that one of the best blues societies in the world ended up being right in my old hometown! It’s been great for me to watch it grow and to be part of the Blues Festival over the last 23 years as well. Thanks!

yours truly,  

Catfish Keith


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