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opinion | Matt Glaser

Digging American roots music

Musician Jon Short performs at the City View school in Worcester during a “Blues in the Schools” class in 2013.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Boston is strongly identified with our European cultural inheritance, and that is great. Exposing our citizens to the riches of American roots music, however, is essential and an advantage in myriad ways.

One could define roots music as all rural music that has ever been played in America — country blues, early gospel, bluegrass, old time music, Western swing, classic country, as well as early jazz and other styles that, together, form the basis of the US’s musical identity. Indeed, the blues is the great aquifer that runs underneath all of American music.

We can start with our youngest citizens. For a trivial expenditure, the city could buy a harmonica for each child in the Boston public school system. The benefits of music education on the developing brain — as well as the necessity of creativity in all subsequent successful life pursuits — are well documented. I can think of no easier way to help our young people become expressive and successful than getting them all to learn Little Walter or Sonny Terry harmonica solos, and then to compose and sing their own blues lyrics. (Shades of Lisa Simpson!)


What’s more, if one were to take seriously the idea that American roots music is as culturally valuable as Western European classical music, then it would follow that the city should support venues where this music thrives. Perhaps a system of financial incentives, or tax relief, for struggling clubs could be offered in recognition of the valuable public service they provide. A system like this might have saved the beloved blues club Smokin’ Joe’s from a premature demise.

In a similar vein, the city could also provide struggling musicians with some financial relief. The city could, for example, work with the MBTA to issue “Young Artist” cards, which would allow them to take the bus for free or at reduced fares. This would incentivize them to go out and play around the city frequently while letting them know that Boston takes pride in their contribution to the musical life of this great town.

Matt Glaser is director for the American roots music program at Berklee College of Music.