After the band finishes their set, a swarm of women hop up from their cocktails and skip over to the bespectacled Ben Rice, who sounds forty-years old onstage, looks eighteen offstage, and is actually twenty-one. But his youth does not deter the ladies, who were all over fifty-years old, from dishing out kudos to the young blues singer and guitarist as though they were trying to fatten the stocky college senior on compliments alone. “You have to come back, please,” begs one frizzy haired, big bosomed fan. “Oh yes, of course,” agrees the flock of likely grandmothers.
In a small city where blues talents are abundant but aged- it is something to talk about when a young person is spotted at a blues event. Tim Volem, Secretary for the Rainy Day Blues Society in Eugene, is trying to change that. Enthusiasts like Volem are concerned that without their elders’ help, young people won’t care enough about the blues to preserve them. Some of these people are working to eliminate this concern, but it’s unclear whether or not their efforts are working.
The Rainy Day Blues Society has become particularly proactive in getting young people interested in the blues. Musicians founded the organization to do just that– provide the blues to local youth. Just before the death of deejay “Rooster,” the society was founded to preserve and promote the culture of the blues. Given that in the last decade the Eugene blues scene has lost both blues deejay Gavin “Rooster” Fox in 1999 and avid harmonica player Ted “Papa Soul” Lee in 2009, blues fans have come to realize that sooner is better than later.
“I think it’s undeniable that kids aren’t going to have much exposure unless we give it to them,” says Volem.
For instance, take Rice, the young guitarist surrounded by women twice his age. When he started college in Eugene, the society immediately booked him. Rice, whose vocals and impressive guitar work compare to rocker Jonny Lang’s, is one of the organization’s most successful connections to younger crowds. But it’s a wonder that Rice, a smokey-voiced prodigy who played at almost every bar in Portland and Seattle by the time he was eleven, seems to be the only one in the bar who would not be considered over the hill. “Ben Rice is a great example—in fact, he is the example of a young person who’s taken the initiative to get involved with the blues,” says Volem.
And that’s exactly why silver-haired members are doing their part to capture the attention of more youth. Many society members volunteer in the growing Blues in the Schools program that lets any Lane County school book local musicians for a day. The musicians, all members of the Rainy Day Society, volunteer their time to conduct classes and workshops, allowing kids and young adults to write their own songs, play the instruments, and meet mentors. These volunteers have played with the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and many more great blues musicians.
Granted, veteran musicians have noticed kids don’t always adopt to the blues readily. “A lot of them just want to listen to hip hop. They’re not always interested in hearing the stuff that has influenced it,” says Volem. But by the end of the day, the kids have written their own songs and often share them with their peers. Rainy Day Blues Society director Josh Coen hopes that someday students will share these songs at a public venue. “It’s just planting a small seed, and our hope is that it will encourage the kids to explore on their own,” says Volem.
Other ambitions of the society are to get college students more involved by offering credits for aspiring musicians at the universities, and encouraging students to perform in the community and off-campus. “I contacted three different people in the music department at the University of Oregon, but I got nowhere,” says Volem. “I think the University people are just so busy that they just don’t have time for one more thing.”
David Gross, a local musician and craftsman believes that if the radio played the blues more, young people would start to care. “It’s been stomped out,” he says. Volem agrees to an extent, and as a retired English teacher, he knows exactly what Gross means. “It’s like the zeitgeist—the spirit of the ages takes over,” Volem says.
However, some young people believe that the older blues musicians in the community have been talking to the wrong people. “If local blues musicians contacted campus radio, we’d be more than happy to play their stuff,” says Lex Chase, a deejay and events coordinator at KWVA, the University of Oregon’s campus radio. “It’s just that we get Indie-Alternative music from promoters, but we never get any blues.”
Though KWVA does not list one single blues station on its website, she says they play what blues they can. Few musicians contact the station with new music or ideas. According to Chase, there needs to be a greater effort on musicians’ parts to offer something of interest. She recognized that blues does lend itself towards the digital sound of recent popular tunes, but innovation needs to happen. “People either want the original or an alternative of it. Like my friends–they love Miles Davis. But they want to hear the original Miles Davis, not just someone else singing his songs,” she says. “If people do variations and twists on the old music, that might work. If you mixed in blues with electronic mash-ups that would be so cool.”
At one time, the blues held a lively role in the lives of Eugene youths (local legend Curtis Salgado inspired John Belushi’s character in the 1980 film “The Blues Brothers”). Perhaps the traditional style of blues does not resonate with young people, but more of the reason seems to be that there are not enough blues sources marketed to young crowds.
Students at the University of Oregon used to enjoy the presence of Eagle Park Slim, who has played in Eugene for thirty years and was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rainy Day Blues Society. Slim played with the greatest: Muddy Waters, James Brown, Joe Cocker, Ike Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Percy Mayfield. After his brushes with fame though, he played mostly for students. “A lot of kids knew me,” he says. One day a young man was stopped from robbing his friend, just because he heard Slim playing. “Your music is something. I was going to rip off my friend, but your songs made me stop. I’m glad I ran into you,” Slim recalls the strayed youth saying. One student wrote his thesis on Slim, and another volunteered Slim to open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers when they played at the EMU ballroom (And he indeed opened for them.). But now, Slim can’t make it far from his home downtown and doesn’t often get to see campus. He plays the kazoo and his cherry-stained guitar at the back of the farmers’ market for little kids passing by with spare nickels for a tip.
“Blues is the basis for jazz, country, and rock-n-roll. We teach this music because it moves us,” says Volem.
And it is his hope, along with many others, that the blues continues to be taught. No matter the age, everyone can enjoy a good blues session. Rice, who plays for the old, and Slim, who plays for the young, can attest to that.
There is no better example of, as Volem calls it, the “spirit of the ages.”