Flaskaland
Thursday, March 03, 2005
 
(thanks to Bob Sarles for this)

Cellars by Starlight: Back to school
Chas Sawyer Teaching blues at Harvard

BY TED DROZDOWSKI/The Boston Phoenix

It's the final day of class at Harvard Extension School, and the
waitress is bringing a couple of well-drawn pints of Guinness and a
Jameson's straight up to one pair of students. Others are quaffing
beer and eating burgers and buffalo wings while the band on stage charge
into a version of Paul Butterfield's gritty blues classic "Born in
Chicago."

Now this is the way school should be conducted, but it's especially
appropriate for a class in the blues, a music with a relationship to
booze that goes well beyond rhyming.

But of course there's more to the style than stories about
whiskey-drinking women and guzzling canned heat. And there's more to
this class than a good time out in a Cambridge bar on a Tuesday night --
not that any justification is required for that. The class, a fall
program called "History of Blues in America," meets 15 or 16 times a
semester, ordinarily under the bright lights of a classroom on the
Harvard campus. This is the second year it's been taught, by the
instructor who designed it, Charles Sawyer, who is also the author of
The Arrival of B.B. King (Da Capo) and a helluva harmonica player. In
2003, Sawyer ended the class with a visit by King himself, who held
court in a lecture hall speaking about his life and music and playing a
couple of tunes. This year, it's Sawyer who did the playing at the
class finale, which took place a week ago last Tuesday, along with his band
of local aces 2120 South Michigan Avenue, whose line-up includes the
respected guitarist Peter "Hi-Fi" Ward and drummer John Hoik.

It's improbable enough that Harvard, America's leading Ivy League
university, would have a course in the blues, even in its
open-admission evening extension school. More improbable still that the final session would be an all-night jam at the Overdraught, an amiable pub on
Cambridge Street that's splitting bookings between roots music and
rock and roll. But Sawyer and 2120 Michigan Avenue took the stage for their
first set at 7:30 and didn't let it go for two and a half hours.

After the band had thundered through "Born in Chicago," the song that first
sent Sawyer along the blues trail, they invoked the spirits of harmonica
kings Little Walter Jacobs and Junior Wells with close-to-the-bone
renditions of "Last Night," "Blues with a Feeling," and "Snatch It Back
and Hold It," all powered by Sawyer's beautiful bent harp notes and
Ward's subtle perfection. Then guests started hopping on stage. "2120
South Michigan Avenue" had the Chicago sound covered. By the time
guitarist/harmonica player/singer Chris "Stovall" Brown, vocalists
Francine Calo, Sweet Willie D., and Kassie Buckley, guitarist Brad
Faucher, and other local heroes had taken the stage, the music had
swung from New Orleans to Texas to Memphis and to the Delta.

"I'm an evangelist," Sawyer told me after the musical travelogue had
concluded. "I want to secure the place of blues in the history of our
culture. When I'm really snookered by something, I want everybody to
feel the same way. Listen, this music is gonna knock you sideways
because it knocked me sideways. When I show a video in class and the
lights come up afterward, I secretly hope everyone will be on the floor
because they've been knocked down by what they've seen and heard. I
do get that kind of reaction to this music in more subtle ways. I've
seen people cry under the bright fluorescent lights of the classroom because
they've been touched by something in the music. Who cries in an
economics class? My feeling is that if I can impart something that
students can carry with them through life that will sustain them,
enrich them, give them comfort, and rouse their curiosity like the blues has
done for me, that's wonderful."

Sawyer was first "knocked sideways" when he was driving along the
Connecticut Turnpike in the mid 1960s and heard the Paul Butterfield
Blues Band's "Born in Chicago" on the radio. "I had been listening to
rock and roll, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but I felt like I
had no real reference points for this sound. I didn't really know about
Little Walter or Muddy Waters at that point. But when I bought the
Butterfield Blues Band album, it was a very solid slice of the music,
with songs by Elmore James, a Willie Dixon tune, very traditional stuff
along with two originals." Butterfield became Sawyer's first
harmonica inspiration, though later Little Walter, Big Walter, Junior Wells, and
others would follow, including hands-on instruction from Mike Turk,
Adam Gussow of Satan & Adam, and Mark Hummel, who got Sawyer to write liner
notes for one of his albums by offering him lessons. Although Sawyer
has performed for decades, he assembled 2120 South Michigan Avenue about
five years ago.

Some of Sawyer's students -- there were about 120 this past semester --
have already been fired by the music. Others are intrigued and looking
to be led deeper into its lore. "There no consistent demographic.
I've had high-school students and a guy in his 70s in class. About
three-quarters of the people who sign up have a real affinity for the
blues. About a quarter of them have a vague interest. What they have in
common is a desire for an intellectual adventure.

"I asked for a show of hands of those who play a musical instrument.
About half the hands went up. Then I asked how many played in public
and about a quarter of the hands went up, so many people in the course are
already involved in making music. "Many people are drawn to the blues
through a particular artist -- a lot of them through Clapton or Stevie
Ray Vaughan -- who gave them an appetite for the music, but they don't
know the foundation. They may love Clapton, but they haven't heard
Freddie King, Albert King, or Albert Collins. Or other people have
delved into one historic figure, like Charley Patton, and want to move
beyond that."

Sawyer says it was surprisingly easy to sell the course to Harvard.
He'd already been teaching software classes (his "Java for Distributed
Computing" is a smash for local enrollment and the University's on-line
studies arm at the Extension School for 13 years when he made his
pitch.

"B.B. and I became friends when I wrote his authorized biography, and I
learned a lesson from him. When he first came to Memphis to play, he
got himself two reinforcing things lined up. He found a place where he
could play, and the lady who owned it said that if he got a radio show, he
could have a regular gig. So he went to the radio station and said he
had a regular gig and got himself a radio program. I talked with B. and
said, 'I'm going to teach a course on blues at Harvard. Would you
come?' And he said, 'I'd be honored.' Then I went to Harvard and said,
'I'd like to teach a history of the blues, and B.B. King said he'll
come.' That plus the fact that I was very well known at the Extension School
did the trick."

2120 South Michigan Avenue play the Red Rock Bistro & Bar, 141 Humphrey
Street in Swampscott, on February 19; call (781) 595-1414.

© 2005 The Boston Phoenix
 




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