WORCESTER — The fifth-grade students at City View Discovery School working with teacher Jon Short don’t sit at desks or have notebooks and pencils at the ready. Instead, they have acoustic guitars in their laps and copper slides on their fingers.
And Short, who is also a skilled performer of hill country and delta blues, was likewise messing with the norm. He started strumming Robert Johnson’s “Walking Blues” on his guitar, but instead of singing the familiar lines about waking up and looking around for his shoes, Short belted out, “I woke up this morning/ I saw a dinosaur/ He said to me ‘Hello,’/ I said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” lyrics courtesy of students Karrar Daffaie and Jorge Ocasio.
These daily classes at City View are one facet of the Blues in Schools program that the musician and educator started 10 years ago and will be making a presentation on next month during his now-routine appearance at the annual Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Miss.
“I bring my National Reso-Phonic to work with me everyday,” he says, pointing to the steel-body guitar. The instrument — known as “Louise” — helps demonstrate his lessons to the students in his general music classes at two Worcester elementary schools as well as keep the music flowing during the many different Blues in Schools offerings. It’s also the instrument you’re likely to see if you catch Short performing at the various bars and blues haunts he plays.
“It’s a blessing to be the same person all day long,” he says.
Short began intertwining his music and teaching while earning his master’s in education. By that point, Short was already an elementary-level teacher in Worcester public schools and a well-known performer of acoustic country blues, a style of music that began to mesmerize him while still a college student in the late ’90s. In 2003, he developed his first curriculum for an after-school blues program.
City View made Blues in Schools among the enrichment classes that are part of the extended-day magnet school’s academic offerings. In the previous quarter at the school, Short taught first-graders how to play bucket drums. Short admits that blues are pretty prominent even when he is teaching music at his other classroom gigs.
‘When you get down to it, all Western music comes from the blues, so this is very important work, and Jon has been very successful.’
Blues in Schools goes beyond Worcester elementary students. Short is also currently conducting a workshop at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, teaching other educators how to use slide guitar and songwriting as learning tools. Short has been to several Massachusetts communities and visited other states with his Blues in Schools, presenting residencies, after-school workshops, and school-wide assemblies that delve into the history and art of the blues.
Short’s work at City View is particularly intensive. There are enough guitars so the class of 25 can work mostly in pairs with the instruments. The guitars come from many sources: gifts from local and national music businesses; deliveries from the nonprofit Guitars in the Classroom; and a few plucked from the largesse donated to the public schools in exchange for Barry Manilow tickets when the performer played last year at the DCU Center in Worcester. Hustling like only an independent musician can, Short even lined up a Worcester smoke shop to kick in a bunch of cigar boxes that the students at City View will be turning into primitive, country-style guitars of their own.
Last week, though, it was slide time. The students rummaged through a bucket of copper pipe pieces that Short cut to various lengths. Once everyone had a comfortable fit, the students mimicked Short. “Open, open, slide, open,” the teacher said as he demonstrated a strumming pattern the students quickly picked up. Without any egging on, the kids realized how the slides made the guitars “moan” like voices, and the cafeteria space used for the class suddenly sounded like an Elmore James echo chamber. Breakthrough.
Short later explains how he is simultaneously employing the Orff pedagogy of music instruction and replicating ancient folk traditions. The Orff approach is performance based, with skills fine-tuned along the way, thus the freewheeling guitar playing. When Short has his students write song lyrics based off of “Walking Blues,” he is simply furthering the folk tradition of “piggy back” songwriting — creating tunes made to mirror other popular songs.
“The hill country blues are a big part of this,” Short says. “The hill country rhythms were from a fife and drum tradition. It’s an oral tradition of drumming, and comes from Ghana drumming. We’re teaching it here the way musicians originally learned it.”
The Memphis-based Blues Foundation considers Short “a good friend and excellent performer.”
“His Blues in Schools work is very important,” says Joe Whitmer, deputy director of the foundation connected to blues awareness and preservation programs around the world. The Blues Foundation has no set school program, instead keeping tabs on individual efforts and helping blues educators share ideas through foundation resources.
“The only way young people will understand the history of this music is through school programs,” Whitmer says. “When you get down to it, all Western music comes from the blues, so this is very important work, and Jon has been very successful.”
However important the work might be, there’s no missing the simple joy transpiring during a 40-minute blues class at City View. Feet are tapping the floor and heads are bobbing all in time to the rhythm. Faces crack into smiles when a simple chord rings sweetly after a few sour strikes.
After class, students Deanna Anderson and Kiary Nieves talked about writing blues songs. “You have to write about stuff you go through,” Anderson says, with Nieves adding, “I wrote a song about breakfast.”Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.