Thursday, September 18, 2014

What I Learned at School Today

• That Bobby Day, the singer of Rockin’ Robin, is African-American.

• That Jerry Lee Lewis performed Whole Lot of Shakin’ on the Steve Allen show (check Youtube)—incidentally, on the day of my 6th birthday—July 28, 1957.

• That his tour of London was cancelled when the British press discovered he had married his 13-year old cousin (once-removed).

• That the scandal lowered his per performance price from $10,000 to $250.

• That a little boy named Sugar Chile Robinson was playing better boogie-woogie than Jerry Lee when he was 7 years old and 12 years earlier. (Check your friendly Youtube station).

• That the 12-bar blues, a musical form created before the turn of the 20th century, recorded by Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and others in the 20’s, performed as boogie woogie in the 30’s (Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons), electrified by Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King in the 40’s and transformed into Rhythm and Blues in the 50’s (while evolving each decade in the jazz repertoire), was performed by Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, James Brown, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and beyond— and yet E.D. Hirsch omitted the blues as something “every American should know” in his stupid best-selling book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know.

• That the history of the blues in American music is as good a way as any—and better than most— to teach American history and reach into all corners of the gory and the glory of this country’s real unsanitized stories. And emerge refreshed from all the great music!

The reason I learned these things is because I taught them to my 8th graders. From the gritty blues to airy Broadway musicals, from Scott Joplin’s rags to John Coltrane’s searing improvisations to today’s concert at the SF Jazz Center, from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly to the Nicholas Brothers, these kids will leave school with stories, images and music that form our cultural identity, as well as the stories behind them. The time is absurdly short for such a grand adventure (once a week, 45 minutes), but better than nothing, yes?

If you’re intrigued, here’s the homework I gave the kids. Due next Wednesday. Get to work— there will be a test.

1.     How did the Rolling Stones get their name?

2.     What did John Lennon say when the Beatles first landed in New York and reporter asked them what they wanted to see first?

3.     Who wrote a song titled, “The Blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll.”?

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