In a world filled with too much talk of anger and violence, with too many people building walls and pointing fingers, Ben Franklin Middle School’s Blues Project sought last night to entertain, educate and bring people together.
Started 10 years ago by Ben Franklin Middle School 8th grade US history teacher Scott Cvelbar, the Blues Project seeks to celebrate black history through one of the great musical art forms – the blues.
“Ten years ago when we started, everybody was doing worksheets on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and I wanted to do something different… Something that would help people really get the full picture of who those people were, something that would help people really understand the full picture of how awesome those people were. So I had this idea to start playing the blues, to have a discussion about these periods in history and the people who played such an important part in shaping our country, the fight for equality and civil rights. Every year we try to do something a little bit different with the program – legacy of the blues, blues through geography and others. It really helps the kids understand the meaning of the point we’re trying to get across.,” said Cvelbar.
Last night’s program, The Soul of the Blues, took the audience on a journey through black history as seen through the eyes and sang through the voices of those who lived it and poured their pain and passion into their music. Starting with spirituals, “Do Lord Remember Me” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the group of young musicians were joined by several more experienced blues artists as the night’s program traveled through The Great Migration, to segregation, the fight for civil rights, the marches in Selma, Alabama and towards the goal of equal rights for all.
The Blues Project has come a long way, from its humble beginnings playing to a half-full auditorium at the middle school, to a packed auditorium at VHS, has played at local venues such as County Line Orchard and Zao Island, and has even been featured at the Chicago Blues Festival.
“It just feels great to be here, on stage, playing these songs with these kids,” said Cvelbar, who said that he got the idea from his own experience when he was a student. “One of my history teachers put on a magical history tour, taking music from the 50s to today, using rock and roll to teach the history of the second half of the 20th century, and that showed me that music can teach a story as well as anything else can.”
Cvelbar, who recently won the “Keeping Blues Alive” award from the Blues Foundation, hand-picked the songs for the program.
“I try to choose songs that tell a story, songs that help people understand that these are more than just songs to tap your foot to when driving in your car, these songs are part of our nation, they’re part of our history, and we can use them to teach that history to this and future generations,” said Cvelbar.
The performers swayed and bounced their way through songs by music legends such as The Supremes, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, and paid tribute to The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and others along the way, with the audience joining in, even breaking out in dance at several points in the show.
“It just feels good to be here on stage,” Cvelbar said.
Catch The Blues Project when they return to the Chicago Blues Festival this summer.