Musical Mentors

Influencing future generations

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By Bonni McKeown

January is national mentoring month:  http://www.nationalmentoringmonth.org/about_nmm/

Many groups and individuals are taking a role in the lives of youth. Especially in times of family problems and economic stress, an adult who offers a listening ear and a guiding hand can make the difference in a young person's future life.  Teachers, coaches, ministers, and youth group leaders are already serving in these roles, but the rest of us can do little things that make a big difference.

And these little things are remembered decades later.  The blues musicians on the West Side today have persevered through decades of poverty and hardship.  Bass player Michael "Sleepy" Riley, for example, remembers the skating rink owners who, in the 1960s, offered teenage bands the chance to play their music while the teenagers skated. 

Singer and drummer Larry Taylor remembers the late John Watson, who taught at several different West and South Side high schools. He taught the students how how to play their instruments correctly, and how to play together in a band.  If someone was absent one day, he'd ask other students about him or her.  He was a caring man who demanded excellence.

Another of Larry's mentors was Cassell Burrow, who was among the drummers who played with Howlin' Wolf.  When Larry's stepfather, Eddie Taylor, showed mixed feelings about helping him, Burrow stepped in.  He told the elder Taylor that he "needed someplace to store an extra set of drums" and left them at the Taylor house with permission for young Larry to play them. 

For another drummer, West Side Wes, the Temptations were his heroes. He and his friends would practice singing all their songs. Fascinated to see neighbors like Chico Chism and Sam Lay going to their gigs with a car full of drums, Wes got the urge to join the beat. His parents bought him a set of drums. "Music kept me off the street," says Wes. "Everybody around me wanted to be a gang banger. But I just wanted to bang on my drums."  

Mentoring can be as simple as encouraging a youth to take specific step to pursue their dreams, and sometimes giving them the tools as Wes's parents did. 

Want to get more involved in mentoring? Check out the resources of the Tutor-Mentor Conference held twice a year in the Chicago area:  http://www.tutormentorconference.org/newsletter.asp

The Black Star Project is participating in a national day of mentoring on Martin Luther King's birthday Jan. 19.  They have an ongoing program for youth called the Saturday University.http://blackstarproject.org/action/

 Austin Coming Together lists community groups involved in preventing youth incarceration. Some of these involve forms of mentorship: https://sites.google.com/a/austincomingtogether.org/austin-juvenile-justice-project/home/partners  

Please feel free to add news about other mentoring groups and activities in the comments below.

For my part, I would love to see today's skilled blues musicians share more about their music and their lives with today's youth, and that's what we do whenever we get the chance, in the traveling workshop Chicago School of Blues.   http://www.chicagoschoolofblues.org

I wish we could do more.   Music may not solve all our family and community problems. But it sure creates the vibes to help us cooperate.

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