Delta Blues Museum Arts & Education Program
The Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, is filled with exhibits celebrating the legendary musicians who helped create the blues, the distinctly American genre of music that was born in the Mississippi Delta region. Along with preserving the genre’s past, this small museum is also helping to nurture the next generation of blues musicians, through its Arts & Education Program. Four afternoons a week throughout the year, the museum hosts celebrated local blues musicians, who teach a group of young people—along with a few adults—the art of singing and playing the blues.
The blues arose during the late 1800s, from slave songs and country string-band tunes. Musicians often played in makeshift clubs known as juke joints, where they picked up melodies and lyrics from one another. Shelley Ritter, the museum’s executive director, explains that participants in the program learn in a similar way, “by listening, watching, and playing.” The students, who range in age from 5 to 18, can study guitar, bass, drums, or keyboard, progressing from beginner to advanced levels. Instructors encourage them to study several different instruments, to become better ensemble players, Ritter adds.
As participants gain proficiency, they have the chance to perform at the annual Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival and the annual Juke Joint Festival, which are held, in part, on the lawn of the museum. Students have also recorded two CDs, featuring guest appearances by well-known blues musicians.
Ritter notes that students gain confidence by learning how to play an instrument and performing in public. They also develop the ability to collaborate with others and acquire a stronger sense of community by playing with people from different backgrounds and of various ages. “It is not uncommon to have a 5-year-old on the drums accompanying a 15-year-old on guitar,” she points out.
Though Clarksdale remains a rural and economically depressed area, this program gives students a reason to feel proud of their town. Such famous blues musicians as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Sam Cooke, and W. C. Handy are all associated with Clarksdale. Musicians like these “changed the way we all hear music,” Ritter notes.
The Arts & Education Program of the Delta Blues Museum is, for some [youth], literally, their only outlet. It provides education, inspiration, and opportunity for our students, while perpetuating one of America’s greatest cultural treasures.Shelley Ritter Executive Director, Delta Blues Museum