COLUMBIA — Little bodies boasted big voices at a packed Flat Branch Park during the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival Saturday morning.
Alongside the creek, hands clapped and feet stomped out rhythms as T.J. Wheeler led students of Grant and West Boulevard elementary schools in song. The setting was fitting for a celebration that focused on rivers and the environment.
Wheeler, a musical performer who specializes in blues and jazz, has been working as a guest teacher at both of the schools for the entire week. This was his third year at Grant, where he worked with students and teachers to incorporate music into lessons as well as compose original songs for the festival performance. This was his first year at West Boulevard Elementary.
"He has a curriculum that is called ‘Hope, Heroes and Blues,'" said Pam Sisson, the music specialist at Grant. "His mission is to not only play the music, but also teach the children the history of the blues and how it's really all relevant to every one of us."
Grant's singers, the Grant Blues Corps, were fourth and fifth graders. Students and Wheeler collaborated on lyrics for their songs:
- "Grant Gets the Job Done Since 1910."
- "Ain’t Nothin’ Like Losin’ Your Cookies."
- "Grant Rules the Green."
- "You Gotta See It to Believe It."
- “Goin’ to the Roots ‘N’ Blues Fest.”
Sisson said the students were excited for Wheeler to visit.
"The kids look forward to their blues residency week," she said. "They feel like [T.J. is] their friend. The kindergartners, who had never met T.J., were just as excited as everyone else. They got the vibe from everyone else."
Wheeler returned the sentiment.
"It was like coming back home, like seeing a very large group of grandchildren," he said.
Wheeler started the West Boulevard program, which focuses on the history of blues and the culture behind it.
"It's called the ‘River Runs With the Blues,’ " he said. "It uses the blues as a window to American history, using the river as a metaphor, as the blues so often do, for life."
The West Boulevard student performance included:
- "Old Man River."
- "Proud Mary."
- Selections from poetry about rivers.
The Blues in the Schools program, which makes artist residencies possible, almost did not happen this year. Because of economic conditions, Grant had to apply for aid from the Missouri Arts Council, Sisson said. Although the council agreed to fund the Grant program, additional money was needed to include West Boulevard.
"We kept beating the bushes," Sisson said. "Richard King, the owner of The Blue Note, had a contact with the owner of the Coffee Zone. The Coffee Zone came through with their financing to make that happen [for West Boulevard]."
Gibson, a guitar manufacturer, also donated five guitars to each elementary school.
Wheeler's presence in the schools has gone beyond music and traditional education, Sisson said.
"We all have hard times, and we’re really here to help each other through those," Sisson said. "Sometimes if we have the blues, we sing the blues to lose the blues. That’s something TJ says a lot."