A Week of the Blues: Events Celebrate Heritage and History of the Blues in Alabama Featured

08 Jul 2018 Shane Dorrill
About 25 students (ages 12 to 18) are taking master classes during Alabama Blues Week (July 9-15). They were nominated to participate by their schools. About 25 students (ages 12 to 18) are taking master classes during Alabama Blues Week (July 9-15). They were nominated to participate by their schools. The Alabama Blues Project

While Memphis may be the home of the blues, Tuscaloosa will share that designation during Alabama Blues Week, July 9-15. 

The week of blues concerts, informational sessions, and master classes for select students is a collaboration between the Alabama Blues Project, The University of Alabama School of Music, College of Continuing Studies, and the Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports Commission.

Shannon McCue, executive director of the Alabama Blues Project, said the series of events is an expansion of last year’s Blues Weekend.

“One of the reasons we are doing more is because it was so successful as a weekend,” McCue said. 

“We’re really getting out in the community, and having the community be immersed in the blues for the week.”

The week begins Monday, when Chuck’s Fish will donate 10 percent of their appetizer and entrée sales to the Alabama Blues Project.

On Wednesday, the Jason Grubbs Duo will perform at 7 p.m. at Grace Aberdean Habitat Alchemy. DieDra and the Ruff Pro Band will perform at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Band of Brothers Brewing Company.

Rhythm & blues artist Earl “Guitar” Williams will headline the Live at the Plaza summer concert series at Government Plaza at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 13. Williams will be joined by the Alabama Blues Advanced Band, a group of eight students ranging in age from 10 to 18, who have been intensively studying the blues for the past several years.  

On Friday and Saturday, about 25 students from ages 12 to 18, who were nominated by their schools, will take master classes from blues artists and University of Alabama School of Music faculty before performing at Moody Music Concert Hall on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. 

Students and their instructors will perform about 12 songs, including Big Mama Thornton’s “Little Red Rooster” and “Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop,” which was written by Johnny Shines, a blues artist who lived in Holt from 1969 until his death in 1992. 

Tickets for the concert are $10 and may be purchased at alblues.com or at the box office prior to the show.

During Alabama Blues Week, select students are immersed in the blues, taking master classes, and participating in breakout sessions led by blues experts.

The public is also invited to learn more about the blues during three breakout sessions on Saturday. The sessions will include information on blues songwriting, a recording studio tour and discussion, and a viewing of documentaries about the blues. The cost for the breakout sessions is included in the ticket price for the Saturday evening concert, but registration is required at alblues.com, where a schedule of events can also be found.

The week will conclude with “Blues, Bloody’s and Brunch” at the FIVE Bar on Sunday from noon until 3 p.m. UA faculty member and guitarist Tom Wolfe will perform, along with some of the students.  

Alabama Blues Project 

Started in 1995 by Tuscaloosa blues artist Debbie Bond, the Alabama Blues Project works to promote and preserve the blues as an art form, while bringing attention to the contributions that Alabama artists have made on the blues.

“Debbie started it realizing there really wasn’t enough awareness of the heritage of blues music in Alabama,” McCue said. “She found that the arts were lacking in schools, and she found this was a great way to bring the arts into the schools, and also connect it to the kids’ home and give them pride in their state.”  

In addition to after school clubs, where musicians teach students an overview of the blues, the Alabama Blues Projects also holds music camps throughout the year.

This past school year, through an Alabama State Department of Education grant, the organization conducted a pilot program at Matthews Elementary in Northport, where every student in the fourth through sixth grades received history lessons about the blues, as well as learned to play an instrument. 

“This is Alabama music, and we have a real obligation, I think, as artists and scholars to help people realize this is their heritage,” McCue said. “This is something they can be proud of. This is an art form that has influenced so much of the music that we hear all the time.”

Craig Edelbrock, dean of the University of Alabama College of Continuing Studies agrees. 

“American music really grew out of the blues,” he said. “American blues artists were the origin of rock and roll, and the origin of what we now call country music.”

Blues in Alabama

When people think about the blues, Edelbrock said they tend to think about places like Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and Texas. However, he said people should not dismiss the role Alabama played in the development of this uniquely American genre of music.

Alabama Blues Week is an expansion of last year’s Alabama Blues Weekend. The week includes multiple live blues performances at area venues, including Government Plaza.

“Alabama is kind of overlooked as a cradle of the blues,” he said. “Alabama played a really, really big role, and there are many musicians that were really important in the emergence and evolution of blues, but they are just overlooked.”

He points to artists such as Tuscaloosa’s own Dinah Washington, Vera Hall from Livingston, Big Mama Thornton from Montgomery, and Pinetop Smith from Troy. Other relatively unknown blues musicians from Alabama helped the careers of artists in other genres of music. 

“Rufus Payne, who was an African American street musician in Georgiana and later in Montgomery taught Hank Williams how to play guitar. We forget that young Hank couldn’t play guitar and Rufus taught him how to play, and he taught him the blues,” Edelbrock said.

“There are dozens of really important musicians (from Alabama). Like many African Americans, they got out of the South during the great migration and went to Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and everywhere else, so they lost their association with Alabama. But, we realize the more we research, we find people that were born all over Alabama that were really, really important in the blues.” 

In addition to featuring great music, organizers hope Alabama Blues Week will prompt a new appreciation of the blues in Tuscaloosa. 

“We really would like to develop an event that could grow over time, year after year, to be a music festival modeled on the (W.C.) Handy Music Festival in Florence (Alabama), which is very large and brings a lot of people into Florence and generates a lot of tourist dollars,” Edelbrock said. 

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Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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