Mississippi school kids learn about the blues

Eva McCool-O'Neil

School Principal Eva McCool-O’Neil

School kids in Tunica, Mississippi are learning about the history of blues music as part of their school curriculum.

Teacher Chevonne Dixon is one of the first teachers to incorporate the blues into science, maths, social studies and English lessons for nine to ten year olds. The school, Tunica Elementary is near U.S. Highway 61, the blues highway which meanders south out of Memphis, down through the flat Mississippi Delta. Tunica County used to be one of the poorest places in the USA, but the local economy started to pick up with the arrival of casinos on the Mississippi River.

Dixon says more than 90% of school kids qualify for free or reduced lunches, an indication of the poverty in a region where many of the children’s parents and grandparents are unemployed or work part-time agriculture jobs.

In 2006, the Mississippi Blues Trail, a series of highway markers that provide information about people, places and events in the history of the music was started. The trail has proved to be a tourist attraction and the Blues Trail Curriculum draws on research that was done for the highway markers.

 

One of the songs the school kids have been studying is James Cotton’s 1954 Sun recording of ‘Cotton Crop Blues’. Cotton was born in 1935 in Tunica County. One of Dixon’s students, said he found it interesting to learn about boll weevils, the bugs that can ruin cotton crops. “My daddy chops cotton and plants seeds. He gets paid for it,” Jimmarious Frazer said.

Other projects included a short video about Howlin’ Wolf. Dixon will also use the blues to teach the youngsters about civil rights. School Principal Eva McCool-O’Neil said she hopes to expand the Blues Trail Curriculum to other classrooms next year. “I see student engagement really, really, really high,” she said. “Students love to do things other than just the traditional.”

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