The sky may have been overcast on Saturday morning, but 23 stars were visible for those who knew where to look. Clad in royal blue tie-dye T-shirts, the Grant All-Star Corps Band joined guitarist T.J. Wheeler on the Flat Branch Stage on the second day of Columbia’s Roots ’N Blues ’N BBQ Festival.
After a short solo set, Wheeler was joined by the All-Stars of Grant Elementary School for four blues numbers. The finale was an original song, “I’ve Gotta See It to Believe It,” that Wheeler wrote with the group this past week while he was an artist in residence at the school.
Wheeler said he started to think about Missouri’s “show-me” nickname and came up with the lyrics, later combining them with the school motto, “If I believe it, I can achieve it.”
At a rehearsal Thursday afternoon, he explained to students he wanted to use their motto because it was “like optimism permeating through the school like a quilter’s weave.”
The group included some students who are already musically involved, such as fifth-grader Josie Lee Martin who has played the cello for 2½ years.
“I was kind of nervous because I was afraid I’d be offbeat,” Josie said of the opening song, the up-tempo, instrumental “Happy Blues.”
“I thought it was excellent,” said Mike Martin, who, as Josie’s father, has an understandable bias.
Fourth-grader Sarah Meadows played the talking drum, explaining later that it is an instrument originally from Africa that slaves used to send messages to one another.
“Everybody got an instrument,” Sarah said of the experience with Wheeler. “Everybody got to sing.”
Wheeler worked with the group of fourth- and fifth-graders Tuesday through Friday for just less than an hour each day. The rest of his time was spent talking to other classes and incorporating the blues into all facets of education, including art and social studies.
“I try to make education programs very holistic,” Wheeler said.
Pam Sisson, the music teacher at Grant, worked closely with Wheeler and the students all week in preparation, and she didn’t hesitate to show her enthusiasm for the performance after the show.
“Fabulous!” Sisson said. “We want him back. It created a real community, as we know music always does.”
To the crowd of the students’ families, friends and teachers, Wheeler was introduced as having worked with more than 170,000 students in cities including Kansas City, Nashville and New Orleans. But, at Thursday’s rehearsal, he said he knew right away what made this group special. “They have a tremendous amount of team spirit,” he said.
Right after the performance, guitar in hand as he signed autographs and advised parents and kids, Wheeler said that every day during the residency, he had the Grant students repeating the one lesson he sees as most important: “We can learn just as much from music as about music.”