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Front Row: Back to Blues

Our legacy program, Blues SchoolHouse (BSH), is an interactive, live musical presentation that traces the history of the blues from its roots in African musical traditions through its emergence as an American musical form. Currently running at House of Blues Boston thanks to the support of Music Drives Us and the Boston Cultural Council, nearly five-thousand participants discovered this past year how music can reflect social conditions, drive social change and how African and African American music and cultural traditions influence the music enjoyed today. Through a 70-minute performance, we explore how our American musical legacy is deeply interwoven with the African American experience.

Some of our biggest BSH allies are educators, such as Sarah Roberts from Sumner G. Whittier School. She has been bringing her 5th grade students for eight years now! Check out her experience:

Where words fail, music speaks.”

– Hans Christian Andersen

My name is Sarah Roberts, I teach general music, chorus, and ukulele to students in grades K-8 at the Sumner G. Whittier School in the Everett Public Schools, where we are lucky to have strong support for the performing arts and are proud to provide students with a wide array of musical opportunities.  To further enrich their musical education, my students and I have been attending the Blues SchoolHouse for over 8 years, and it has become one of our favorite annual 5th grade field trips! 

The students that attend the Whittier School represent a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, and our school community embraces and supports many immigrant families. Often times, the effort to overcome economic disadvantages, food or shelter insecurities, and learning to speak a second (or third!) language, can be overwhelming for our students.  While these struggles may be apparent during daily life in our school, the cultural pride and distinct fortitude exhibited by the students and families far overshadows the adversity.  No matter their hardships and obvious differences, students find a sense of community in the performing arts.  Though it might sound cliché, music is a substantial unifying force in my students’ lives – and the Blues SchoolHouse experience only strengthens their love and understanding of the power of music.

During the Blues SchoolHouse presentation, students are exposed to the history of American popular music and how music reflected the social, political and economic changes throughout time.  

Beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the narrator explains major events that affected the American people such as industrialization, segregation, migration, and urbanization.  The program illustrates how musicians used their voices to speak up and out about social injustices like racism, sexism, and discrimination, with musical examples to match.  Students immediately connect with the content of the narrative and find a strong relation to the issues presented.  

From a musical perspective, the talented band further supports the story of American music by skillfully expressing the powerful sounds of the most notable musicians.  Interwoven with the narration, the band breaks down the nuances of each historic genre, demonstrating how a single musical element can differentiate one style from another.  Though some musical examples were more familiar to students than others, all of the music engaged their ears and imaginations and truly brought history to life.  The sheer fun and excitement of seeing a live band can also not be overlooked – for many students it is their first encounter with live professional musicians. 

Every year, as I reflect on our trip to the Blues SchoolHouse, I am always reminded of the often (mis)quoted Hans Christian Andersen, “where words fail, music speaks.”  On the surface level, students leave having had an exciting experience and with a stronger understanding of musical characteristics and the history of American popular music.  However, students also gain a more profound insight into the universal human experience and how music can provide a voice where words alone are not enough.  Perhaps I’m indulging too far into my own agenda, but for students like mine, it is often the education of the soul that is most important, as it is music that transcends linguistic and cultural barriers to connect us to one another and allow the otherwise voiceless to be heard.  


Our program in Boston would not be possible without the vital support from Music Drives Us, ensuring that all students from Boston Public Schools and other Title 1 neighboring schools can participate for free!

Get Involved:

We are excited to continue making Blues SchoolHouse accessible to thousands of students in the new year.  To learn more about Blues SchoolHouse, our 2020 plans and how you can become involved please contact Cinnamon Muhlbauer at cmuhlbauer@hobmusicforward.org.

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