Crossroads Blues Society celebrates Black History Month

In celebrating Black History Month, Crossroads Blues Society and East High School are teaming up for a two week Blues in the Schools residency program where local blues musician and educator Dan Phelps will be teaching songwriting and guitar to students at East High. The songs will become portions of videos being created by students in music and literature classes that tell the story of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Written in 1937, this novel by the famed author Zora Neale Hurston is one of the classics of the last century, a Southern love story that is one of the most widely read books in the entirety of African American literature.

The literature students will use the book to create lyrics for blues songs that the music student will put to music, and together the literature and music students will craft videos portraying the story in the book and that era in America’s South; the songs will provide an auditory backdrop for the videos. They will show the videos publicly at East High School on Thursday, March 17 beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the East High School Auditorium. After each video, Dan Phelps and the students who crafted the music will perform together. The show is free and open to the public.

The residency kicks off on Thursday, February 11 with two performances by Dan Phelps at the school during the last two school class periods. Each day from February 16 through February 26 Dan will be working to teach the students how to complete their songs and to perform them. The literature students are already underway reading the novel and will begin putting together lyrics when they complete the reading and study of the text. Music students are preparing by studying blues music, paying attention to 12 bar blues, the AAB music format, Pentatonic scales, and chord progressions. After Dan leaves, the students will put the finishing touches on their work and create the video stories of the book and put them to their music.

This school effort Is being led by Brian L. Doering, the Choir and Orchestra Director at east High School, and Sara Okey, EMITT Academy, College Prep English 12, Honors English 10, and College Prep English 10, 21st Century Community Learning Center Site Coordinator, and Debate and Scholastic Bowl Coach at East High School. Students from both East and Guildford High Schools will be involved with this program. Dan Phelps is native of Illinois and currently resides in Roscoe. He has been playing acoustic blues for the past 25 years, sharing the stage with local bands as well as teaching private classes. Additionally, he has spent the past 15 years dedicated to studying and playing the Delta Style of Blues. His CD releases have met with critical acclaim in US and British blues magazines such as Blues Revue and Blues and Rhythm magazines. Dan recently teamed up with the Vincent Record label, and his latest full-length CD Going Home was released in July, 2014. In Going Home, Dan Phelps pays tribute to some of the originators of the blues, men such as Charley Patton, Skip James, and John Estes.

The program is being funded by Rockford Public Schools via an arts grant from the Kennedy Center Foundation. Coordination for the program is via Crossroads Blues Society, the Rockford area non-profit run by volunteers to keep the blues alive. In the past 13 years, Crossroads has provided 145 Blues in the Schools programs for over 44,000 students in the Rockford and Northern Illinois area. This is the first multi-week first residency program that Crossroads has embarked upon. For more information about Blues in the Schools, contact Crossroads Blues Society at 779-537-4006.

In addition to their Blues in the Schools program, Crossroads Blues Society is proud to introduce their representatives for the 2016 International Blues Challenge (IBC). In the band competition, Jimmy Nick and Don’t Tell Mama are our competitors and Birddog and Beck are our solo/duo competitors. Both of the acts representing Crossroads in the competition are high-quality acts that will stand up to the level of the competition and will represent us in a fine manner.

Jimmy Nick’s high-energy rockabilly-tinged blues delights fans at every performance. His guitar work, vocals and stage presence belie his being only 25 years old. He is a great young performer. Rodney Brown on saxophone adds great depth and dimension to the band, bringing his authentic Chicago blues to the mix with great effect. This band will impress you!

Birddog and Beck are Ken Olufs on harmonica and vocals and Warren Beck on keyboard and vocals, a duo whose blues are soulful and sweet, yet exude energy and musicality. Both sing with superb voices and they are musically adept instrumentally, making them an outstanding sounding duo with great chops!

We are also sending a Youth Showcase Act for the first time to play in Memphis.  20-year-old vocalist Lexi Parr and 16-year-old guitar player Ben Schmelzer will be performing on Beale Street on Friday afternoon. Lexi is the lead singer for the Ruby Blonde Band. She hails from Galena, Illinois, and she is a superb vocalist and performer. Ben is guitar player from the band Side Project out of Guttenburg, Iowa. At 16 he’s got a lot of good things going for him and we think you will enjoy him, too!

Steve Jones
Crossroads Blues Society

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