Since 2007, the Blues in the Schools program has rocked its way through schools in the mid-Missouri area, bringing blues culture, music and heritage to local students. Launched as the community outreach arm of the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival, put on by Thumper Entertainment for some 25,000 attendees annually, BITS found funding through various grants and sponsorships for several years. Then, in 2013, the Roots N Blues Foundation formed to organize the program. Three years in, the foundation has big plans for expanding the program statewide.
“BITS is at the core of everything we do, which is to bring people together, educate people through music, and break down barriers,” says Betsy Farris, president of Thumper Entertainment and executive director of the Roots N Blues Foundation. “We started with one school in 2007, Grant Elementary, and it was such a success that we’ve been working to expand the program ever since.”
Just like the blues, BITS has a grassroots tradition. While there are many blues programs in schools throughout the country, there is no national entity organizing these efforts, though many communities look to the Memphis-based Blues Foundation for suggested BITS resources.
With the Blues Foundation framework in mind and a sponsorship from Central Bank of Boone County, BITS took off in 2007. BITS employed the help of veteran music educator and musician TJ Wheeler and Grant Elementary School music teacher Pam Sisson to bring BITS programming to students at Grant. It was a big hit with students and parents.
“Pam was instrumental in that. She’s just amazing,” says festival director and foundation member Julie King. “She’s helped us a lot in developing the program and in reaching out to all the music teachers, and we’ve really grown a lot in the last six years.”
Since that first year, BITS has expanded to nine elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school, the Center of Responsive Education, and the North Callaway and Boys & Girls Club after-school programs. In 2015, BITS served 1,700 students.
Through 2012, festival staff worked with Sisson and Columbia Public Schools to coordinate the efforts for this expansion. Now, with the foundation at the helm, a key goal is to coordinate with the Missouri Arts Council to develop a curriculum and a list of Missouri-based music educators accessible by teachers across the state who wish to implement BITS in their own schools.
It’s More Than Music
BITS programming varies from school to school, with schools offering everything from assemblies to weeklong artist residencies. Teachers like Sisson and BITS music educators like Wheeler develop a hands-on, blues-themed curriculum that weaves into current lesson plans for music, art and social studies.
“At Grant, we explore blues history and explore other grade-level curriculum through the blues,” says Sisson.
Students also write and perform original music with educators Wheeler and Jordan Thomas, who came on as an additional BITS music educator in 2015 to accommodate the program’s expansion. Students then have the opportunity to perform throughout the year, including a free performance during the Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.
Wheeler tours nationally and has been a music educator with BITS programs around the country for more than 20 years. Thomas is a local musician with several solo projects and bands, including the Mojo Roots. The foundation looks to add two more BITS music educators in 2016 to meet growing demand.
Anne Kelly Moore, foundation member and president of D&M Sound, stresses that while the music aspect of BITS is critical, there’s more to it than that.
“One of the misconceptions is that it’s just music,” says Moore. “You see the light in [the students’] eyes and the joy that they have from [BITS] and also know that they are truly learning some great reasoning skills, geography, culture and civil rights.”
Sisson agrees. She says, “Seeing kids gain confidence, grow in acceptance, embrace the lessons of unity and value diversity is at the tip of the iceberg of the learning that transpires.”
Roots N Blues Raising Bucks
A big part of overseeing the expansion of BITS is finding the funds to make it happen. It’s no coincidence that the foundation board is brimming with community-minded magnates.
Joe Mosely, former Boone County prosecuting attorney and Missouri state senator, and retired vice president of public affairs for Shelter Insurance, serves as president for the foundation.
Tom Smith, founder of Flat Branch Pub & Brewing; Mary Wilkerson, senior vice president of marketing for Central Bank of Boone County; and Richard King, owner of Thumper Entertainment and former owner of the Blue Note and Mojo’s (now Rose Music Hall) are just a few of the board members who are making things happen for BITS, including some signature events.
The St. Patrick’s Day themed Name that Tune event at The Tiger Hotel on March 17 will pit teams and individuals against each other as they test their knowledge of songs. Later in the summer, Blues for Brews will feature live music accompanied by specially brewed beer from Logboat Brewing Co., Broadway Brewery and Flat Branch Pub.
Festival-goers have the opportunity to donate when they purchase their tickets, and at the 2015 festival, the foundation raffled off a guitar signed by all the performing artists.
Farris points out that businesses can also get involved for great exposure. One way is by sponsoring a guitar for the GuitarHenge art installation. The installation provides an opportunity for businesses to sponsor an eight-foot guitar designed by a local artist and displayed at the festival.
Moore says this is just the beginning for BITS.
“It has been very rewarding because we started very small, and the enthusiasm of not only the other board members but the teachers we work with, the children, the Missouri Arts Council — all of those people are really supportive of the program and how it inspires these kids to learn not just music, but so much more,” she says. “I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot in the last few years.”