DALLAS — At first the soulful sounds produced puzzled faces.
The purely American music known as the blues — produced by one of its few remaining pioneers — was new to the young ears of many listeners. But for 11-year-old Larry Hodge, the twangy guitar riffs produced wide eyes and a smile that reached to his heart.
“He started playing, and it made me remember my grandma,” he said. “She listens to all that.”
Larry was one of hundreds of North Texas kids who packed the weathered old auditorium at North Dallas High School last week to hear a performance by 92-year-old Mississippi Delta bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards.
It didn’t take long for them to embrace the music, which was the foundation for both rock and country. They gradually began to clap along, and soon some were on their feet swaying back and forth. So were their teachers.
Through the nonprofit Blue Shoe Project, entertainers like Edwards bring the blues — rooted in African rhythms and born in slavery — from Mississippi cotton fields and smoky barrooms to Dallas schoolchildren.
The Blue Shoe Project will present about 20 performer-based educational programs in schools this year. The project’s founders hope to soon expand it outside Dallas-Fort Worth and across Texas.
Blues societies, made up of the music’s aficionados, present programs for schoolchildren in several U.S. cities. Jeff Dyson of the Blue Shoe Project said his organization is unusual because of its full-time education mission.
Blues may be the original American folk music, said Alfred Green, director of fine arts for the Irving public school district, which uses Blue Shoe programs.
“We’re very excited about our elementary kids being exposed to that and having some notion of where some of they music they like today came from,” Green said. “It’s a very important thing for us to preserve.”
Michael Dyson and his father, Jeff, an avid blues fan, founded Blue Shoe in 2004 after conversations about the lack of blues performers coming to Dallas and the fact that many of the old-time entertainers were dying.
It has become the family business for the pair, who live in suburban Colleyville. Michael Dyson, 22, pursues the work passionately. His father works in the telecommunications business.
“It’s really just me and Dad. Dad’s got his full-time gig, and I do this full-time, and neither one of us gets paid,” the younger Dyson said. “I took a step in life saying this is what I want to do.”
The Dysons apply for grants to fund Blue Shoe, which maintains an extensive Web site and receives donations from supporters.
“Basically, when we started this whole thing, even primarily today, it’s funded out of our pocketbooks,” the younger Dyson said. “Basically, we knew we had to do this. So Dad said, ‘I’m going to go ahead and take this step and invest in it because I believe in it.’”
The Dysons have experienced surprising success attracting artists.
Soul singer Al Green (“Let’s Stay Together”) and country singer/songwriter Hal Ketchum (“Small Town Saturday Night”) performed as part of a fundraiser series for the Blue Shoe Project in 2005.
Last year, Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr., Pinetop Perkins and Henry Townsend — all bluesmen over the age of 90, played for schoolchildren as part of a Blue Shoe program. The four also performed at the Palace Theatre, an intimate setting in Grapevine.
Townsend and Lockwood have since died, which emphasizes the urgency of the work the Dysons are trying to do.
Edwards, son of a Mississippi sharecropper, returned last week to Dallas, where he played in street corners and in bars during the 1930s. K.M. Williams, the “Texas Country Blues Preacher,” opened the show.
Jeff Dyson declined to discuss artists’ fees.
Schools sometimes help cover the educational programs. In the case of Edwards’ show, which was targeted to children from low-income families throughout Dallas, the schools involved were not charged.
Williams, who played “I Ain’t Going Down that Dirt Road By Myself,” told the children that their form of music, hip-hop, is the “young people’s blues.”
“The blues is an expression of people’s lives. In the South, people had very dead-end lives. People worked hard for a living and had not a lot to look forward to,” he said. “People had to express themselves to keep themselves going.”
Edwards showed he can still play the guitar masterfully and belt out songs about women and hard times in his ninth decade of life. Speaking with the younger Dyson, who acted as the master of ceremonies, he also demonstrated that he is not shy about expressing himself.
Edwards spoke not only of knowing the late bluesman Robert Johnson, but of being drunk on moonshine at the age of 13 and gambling. Dyson quickly tried to change the subject.
“I been around,” Edwards said to laughter.
On the Net:
Blue Shoe Project: http://www.blueshoeproject.org
Blue Shoe Project videos: http://www.youtube.com/theblueshoeproject
Honeyboy Edwards: http://www.davidhoneyboyedwards.com/
K.M. Williams: http://home.swbell.net/kdwilen