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Bobby Rush, Willie King, and the Blues Camp Kids

I’m itchin’
Look like I don’t know where to scratch
Come here, baby
Oh and scratch my back
Well I know you can do it, honey
So baby, let’s get to it

Normally, I’d say it’s just wrong when a raunchy blues standard is covered by a group of white suburban teenagers whose greatest life deprivation has probably been on the order of running out of cell phone minutes … except that they sounded sooo good.

The occasion was the annual Blues Extravaganza at Tuscaloosa’s Bama Theatre on Friday night, May 1, 2009. The evening marked the conclusion of the 11th annual Alabama Blues Project spring camp and featured the Blues Camp Kids and special guest star Bobby Rush.

Yes, that Bobby Rush, the blues legend whose arching eyebrows, thrusting hips, and perfectly timed delivery of risque elegies to two- and three-timing big-bootied women has been knocking out night club audiences since the early 1950s. I wondered how Rush could possibly clean up his act to perform with a bunch of schoolkids, in front of an audience of still more kids and a lot of parents and grandparents who might have been more comfortable in the soccer stands than in an auditorium temporarily taken over by wailing harmonicas, screaming electric guitars, and pounding drums.

The joint was, as the saying goes, jumping.

Rush evidently wondered the same thing. Several times in his comments between songs he noted that he had to be careful in what he said lest the children present figure out what he was talking about. Then he went right on and said and sang it in terms that only the youngest campers could have failed to get.

And it was all right. No one stormed out in a huff, and the Blues Camp Kids, their instructors, and Rush collectively gave one of the best concerts I’ve ever witnessed.

More about Rush in a minute, but the kids were awesome. Some have been participating in the blues camp program for several years. One young woman who is heading off to Tulane University in the fall has matured into—as ABP coordinator Debbie Bond remarked in a virtuoso display of understatement—“a fine blues guitar player. ” So fine that I noticed Rush stop kibitzing in the wings to watch attentively while the white teenager cut loose in a scorching solo.

Don’t let me give the impression that all the Blues Camp Kids are white. Far from it. As Bond said in her introductory remarks, the Alabama Blues Project represents one of the most diverse arts efforts in Tuscaloosa (or Alabama, for that matter). There were equally accomplished black campers, including a preternaturally poised boy who served as co-master of ceremonies. (“Now what do you really know about feeling the blues in this music? ” his co-host joked with him. “Absolutely nothing, ” the boy laughingly replied.)

It’s just that the contrast is so remarkable between the white schoolkids and the older black bluesmen like Rush and the late Willie King, who regularly helped Bond with the ABP and the Blues Camp before his untimely death back in March.

One of the most moving moments of the evening came when Rush paused to speak softly along that theme about his personal history. The Bama Theatre has a wonderful night-sky-painted ceiling, with blinking lights for stars, and as Rush came to the front of the stage and stood and talked, the great old room seemed to get quieter and more intimate as people tried to take in what Rush was saying and what he represents.

“I’ll be 76 in November, ” he said. “I came to Chicago in 1951. Muddy Waters was there. Chuck Berry came in 1952. Howling Wolf and Buddy Guy came soon after. I went myself to pick up Etta James at the bus station and bring her to Chess Records. I been recording for 56 years. I’ve made 279 records.

“I come out of an era when music was stolen from the guys that was doing it. They wanted to hear our music, but they didn’t want to see our faces, ” he said. “I’m so happy that I lasted long enough that now we can live and stay in places wherever we want. We come a long way, yet not far enough. How long, Lord? How long? If you still confused, I’m talking about the forty acres and a mule. My granddaddy died waiting. Martin Luther King died waiting. And here we are. ”

All week long Bond and her talented faculty of blues professionals had been teaching their young charges the words and techniques of the blues. And here at last was Bobby Rush giving them a graduate seminar in blues philosophy, making the same point the late Willie King had when he told a Dutch documentarian in 2007 that he was “happy, because I have overcome a whole lot. They thought they had us forever. But they had to give us up. You see, the plan was forever, to keep you in slavery forever. ” And, “the blues has really seen me through. There been some days when I thought about killing myself, but that old blues song come to me … and the music would give me hope for a better day. That’s what I lived on, was hope for another day, not the condition I was living on, but hope for seeing a better day … and I thank the Good Lord that I lived to see a little better time … Things changing, ain’t like they once was. And it’s gone get a little better.”

Then Rush sat in a folding chair, alone on the Bama Theatre’s stage beneath its twinkling ceiling with just his guitar and several harmonicas. And he played and sang and stomped out the beat with his left foot. And the joint rocked some more.

And no one had the blues, because that’s the thing about the blues—when you sing or play or hear the blues, you can’t be blue.

— Randall Williams