Photos by Lori Graham
The Blues Initiative, supported by the New River Blues (NRB) Society and Christiansburg Institute, is impacting the next generation of young musicians by teaching the sweet sounds and rhythm of blues music and providing free harmonicas to children ages 8-18.
Thor Hanes, blues musician, singer, NRB Society Board Member and instructor, led the group of children, with their parents accompanying them, on learning about the rich history and sound of blues music. Hanes explained just how far an interest in blues music could take a passionate musician, even at a young age, and local organizations are wanting to see that happen.
“If you wanted to proceed with music, we’d really like to try to help you,” Hanes said. “You would get to play at gigs, and you would get to play at local events, festivals, performances; if you played with a band, people would love it.”
A blues convention happens every January and blues organizations like the New River Blues Society help youth 21 years of age and under to get the practice and support they need to get to the event, Hanes said.
Chris Sanchez, Director of the Christiansburg Institute, joined in the fun with the children during the presentation held at the Blacksburg Library. He asked the children to express what they think the blues is, leaving the young observers stumped. Sanchez then shared what he knows about the music genre.
“I don’t know what the blues really is, but we have some friends that we are growing with at the CI and the New River Blues Society,” Sanchez said. “We know blues has been a big tradition at the Christiansburg Institute.”
The Christiansburg Institute was the only school for black students in Southwest Virginia prior to desegregation. Sanchez said the school had a great music program and that he and present staff member, Scanning Technician Demiah Smith, were excited to be a part of the Blues Initiative.
The introductory course began with Hanes teaching the young audience about the birthplace of the blues, and why rhythm is so important in learning to play. The class’s first exposure to the blues was presented through the Twelve Bar Blues, a very popular chord progression in music; on the harmonica, and it consists of three chords.
“Blues started in places like New Orleans and Mississippi and spread out from there. Went to Kansas City, went to Georgia, went to Chicago, went to Blacksburg,” Hanes said. “Simply put, rhythm is dividing music into equal parts.”
Hanes followed through with his promise to the children that they would be playing the blues in 30 minutes. After passing out a free harmonica to every child, they were taught the “huff and puff” method of breathing in and out on the harmonica through holes. Reeds inside the harmonica vibrate to produce notes. Versatile and lightweight, it is called “the people’s instrument.”
“Why is it called the people’s instrument?” Hanes asked. “I’m going to go to Chris Sanchez for this one. Chris, why is it called the people’s instrument?”
“Everyone can breathe,” Sanchez said.
“Playing harmonica is breathing in rhythm,” Hanes said.
Stacie Hanes on acoustic guitar, and Dan O’Donnell on bass guitar, accompanied two brave, and very young souls who performed in their first jam session that night. Standing behind the microphone to play before their first audience with their newly acquired harmonicas, were Emerson and Ethan Herrera, six-and-four-year-old siblings. The young Herreras played with freedom and expressed an astounding rhythm for such a young age.
Handouts were given to each child and their parents with information on what was presented during the session as well as additional songs they could play applying single-note production on the harmonica.
Parents wanting more information on the program, or adults 18-21 years of age, interested in learning more about the Blues Initiative should reach out to NRB Society Blues members Vernon Kelley or Thor Hanes through the organization’s website at www.newriverbluessociety.com or through their Facebook page.
The Rising Silo in Blacksburg also hosts a blues event every Wednesday evening showcasing local blues groups and is open to everyone.