COLUMBIA — Bluesman T.J. Wheeler sat in an elementary school classroom last week, surrounded by first-graders.
With a wooden string instrument called a diddley bow lying on his lap and a silver slide on his finger, he told the kids he could make it come to life.
He plucked the string with a rhythm that sounded like “how are you doing?" while mouthing the words at the same time.
"What is the instrument saying?" he asked the children.
They laughed and shouted the answer together. Only children can understand the language of diddley bow, Wheeler told them, because they still have their "mojo" — the magic that comes out of blues music.
T.J. Wheeler has been a blues performer and educator with Columbia's Blues in the Schools program for eight years. This year, he had a three-week blues residency at Grant, West Boulevard and Paxton Keeley elementary schools.
Joyce Harkins, the program's committee chairwoman, met the passionate blues educator at an international blues convention in Memphis, Tenn., in 2003. She persuaded MO Blues Association Inc. to take over the program and introduced the blues education project to mid-Missouri.
“At that time, T.J. Wheeler had already devoted more than 20 years of his life to blues education with many awards and international recognition,” Harkins said. “But the reason he caught my attention, of all the (Blues in the Schools) panelists that day, was because he was so passionate about the importance of keeping the blues alive.”
Blues in the Schools expands
Blues in the Schools offers one-hour school assemblies, all-day workshops and weeklong artist-in-residency sessions with Wheeler.
At Grant, music teacher Pam Sisson and Wheeler tried to make blues appealing to students and collaborated with other classes.
Fourth-grade and second-grade students wrote poems and made drawings while Wheeler accompanied them on his guitar.
Blues in the Schools has expanded to more schools every year in Columbia since 2003. Both Wheeler and Harkins attribute its development and success to the efforts of Sisson.
Sisson coordinates and promotes the blues program around the city. Last year, she introduced the blues residency to West Boulevard and helped it apply for funding.
This year, with the support of West Boulevard’s music teacher, Rachel Blomquist, both Grant and West Boulevard enjoyed a week of residency with Wheeler. Together, children in school blues bands opened with Wheeler on the KOPN stage at the Roots 'N’ Blues 'N’ BBQ Festival this year.
“Because we appreciate having the blues experience so much, I want other schools to experience it,” Sisson said. “My dream would be (to have Blues in the Schools) in every school.”
Wheeler keeps history of blues 'alive for future generations'
During the past few weeks, every class at Grant, West Boulevard and Paxton Keeley has spent time with Wheeler and learned something about blues music history.
Wheeler has been doing the Blues in the Schools program for more than 35 years.
“I learned from many of the old blues masters as a young man, but I never really had much to give back to them, economically. The only thing they have really asked of me is to take their lessons and keep their music and the history of their music alive for future generations.”
The best way to do this is doing it through the schools, he said.
“T.J.’s method is much more than just keeping the blues alive and bringing the music and instruments into the classroom," Harkins said. “He teaches so much about the unwritten history and about how the original blues music came from Africa and how blues developed in America and spread around the world.”
Wheeler is good at talking with any age group, Harkins said. He taught first-graders to sing, “Blues had a baby, they called it rock and roll” and compared different genres of music to a tree with many branches. Wheeler said blues is the trunk of that tree with African tradition at its root. He went a little more in-depth with the history of blues and famous blues musicians for the older children.
He also let the fifth-graders dance to rock 'n' roll at Paxton Keeley.
Music teacher Beth Luetjen said she was surprised when Wheeler played Elvis Presley and all the children got up and danced.
Blues as emotional release for children
Students came out of the classroom and could remember many details from Wheeler's presentation.
“I think my favorite part in the class is that African-American people made those old instruments on their own when they couldn't afford expensive instruments," fifth-grader at Paxton Keeley Ashleigh Darrough said.
Harkins said Wheeler uses blues music not only for emotional release but also to teach social skills.
“We felt that children have their concerns and worries in their lives these days,” said Sisson. “When they are using their voices to let go those problems, they can not only emphasize and deal with their feelings with music but also gain a lot of confidence and knowledge.”
Aaliyah Timb, a fifth-grader at Grant and drum player said that when she feels sad, she wants to hear blues music from Wheeler. “It makes me pep up,”she said.
Students also brought the interest home from school and continued to benefit from the music. Quinton Thomas, a fifth-grader at Paxton Keeley, tried to practice a blues song back home on his violin. Henry Wilson, a former Grant student, searched for blues scores on the Internet and experimented playing them on his French horn.
Wheeler went to Jefferson City this week to work with children there. Next week, he will return to Columbia and provide a blues workshop at Rock Bridge and Benton elementary schools.
Blues in the Schools fills a need when most of the schools in Columbia have experienced a budget cut for art programs in recent years, Harkins said.
In addition to MO Blues Association Inc., sponsors for Blues in the Schools come from public and private sources, including the Missouri Arts Council, National Endowment of the Arts, Boone County National Bank and the PTAs of several Columbia schools. Local business Thumper Entertainment is trying to raise funds for other blues assemblies.
“It is nice to see a real blues player,” said fifth-grader Zachare Bartman from Paxton Keeley. “We feel closer to the music."