Perry Hall High gets a taste of the blues Biology teacher brings urban music to suburbs

March 21, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The four-piece blues band warmed up with "Smack Dab in the Middle," and then it was time to bring on the star.

"Everybody put your hands together for the man," shouted keyboard player Chuck Might. "All the way from Chicago: Mr. Lou Pride."

It was a scene that's been played out countless times in smoky nightclubs all over America. But this was 10 o'clock yesterday morning. And the venue? Perry Hall High School.

For three years now, a mojo-carrying biology teacher named Lee Alban has worked to introduce the gritty poetry of the blues to his school's mostly white, distinctly suburban students, through his blues club.

With compact discs and videotapes, he brings the words and music of musical pioneers Robert Johnson and Leadbelly to students raised on rock bands like Pearl Jam and Slayer.

Alban, a confessed blues addict, likes the singing, and he likes the playing of the genre's masters. He also likes the history lesson that sometimes sneaks through.

"In the blues you can find the whole history of black America, from the tenant farmer days and the sharecroppers to the migration from the rural areas to the cities," Alban said. "I try to show the kids that the blues hold a whole history of a people and their culture, and how they really gave birth to the music that white kids listen to."

Dawn Scheufele, 15, said the stories behind the songs are inspiring.

"Their lives were hard, but they found the good in it," she said.

Each year, the blues club's efforts culminate in a concert featuring a professional act. One year, 70-year-old blues guitarist Warner Williams surveyed the audience and whispered, "They know we play blues, don't they?"

Before yesterday's show in the school auditorium, Pride had no such worries. Pride figures most people like good music, no matter the style.

"My mother took me to see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir," he said. "I never forgot it. She also took me to see B. B. King, and I never forgot that."

Before he was through, Pride had delivered a strong dose of soulful, urban blues to nearly 400 Perry Hall High students.

He danced his "help-yourself" dance -- "You just move and help yourself to what makes you feel good." He went into the audience, seized an unenthusiastic student's shoe and blessed it with "a little funk."

In fact, he pulled out all the tested blues moves, from the grand entrance to the call-and-response interplay. He even shared the stage with a pair of teen-age guitar slingers, urging one on by saying, "Get down nasty with it!"

If trends hold up, more and more blues may be heard in the schools. Blues experts say eductors are increasingly seeing the music as worthy of study.

"It's a wonderful tool for education because blues encompasses so many fields," said Jim O'Neal, a founding editor of Living Blues magazine and owner of Rooster Blues, a record label in Clarksdale, Miss. "It's oral history. It's African-American culture. It's a study of human relationships and poetry. It's music. It's philosophy."

Fernando Jones, who has taken his Blues Kids of America program into more than 30 schools, mostly in the Chicago area, said the music gives students invaluable insights into the black experience.

He said: "They can understand how it is to be oppressed, and how to create something positive out of a negative situation, which is what the blues is: Creating a system of survival and communication from people who were supposed to be barbaric and uncivilized."

At a recent meeting of Alban's blues club, the 48-year-old teacher introduced about 20 students to Texas blues. He played music by Lightnin' Hopkins and Leadbelly -- and told the students how Leadbelly went to prison for killing a man, but then sang his way to an early release.

At one point in the class, Alban pulled out a small black sack.

"Is that a mojo?" a girl asked.

"Of course it is," said Alban. "I wouldn't go anywhere without it."

His mojo, a traditional amulet, contains a John the Conqueror root -- just like the one Muddy Waters sang about. Also, he had a black cat bone.

"You're supposed to get it from a graveyard, cut a cat open and make him bleed," he said. "But I thought getting it from the anatomy class would be OK."

At 9: 30 a.m. yesterday, hundreds of students who had paid $2 a ticket filed in for the show.

After a few songs, Pride introduced one of his showcase numbers.

"I'm sure everybody's felt like this at one time or another. It's called, "It Ain't Rainin' on Nobody's House But Mine."

He sang: "It's been thunder and lightning for such a long time. One thing I don't understand, it ain't raining on nobody's house but mine."

He then invited Jason Valis, 16, a junior, to the stage to jam with the band. With his friends watching, Jason cut loose on his guitar with some fills, then began to solo, with Pride's arm around his shoulder.

Within minutes, Matt Ward, 16, a junior who plays in a band, asked for a turn on lead guitar.

"He's playing the blues!" Pride shouted.

Afterward, Jason said he was disappointed -- he'd had a hard time finding the right key.

Pride consoled the teen and offered some professional advice.

"Next time," he said, "if you're wrong, play louder."

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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