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Gary Allegretto's "Christmas Eve Blues" to Youth in Need
Several years ago on Christmas Eve I visited a full-security juvenile detention center for teen boys in my hometown to give them a special Christmas gift - harmonicas and Blues lessons through my nonprofit organization, Harmonikids. In my own adolescence, the facility's very name, "Ferris", was used to invoke fear as a deterrent to getting in trouble. Often I was told I would "end up in Ferris" if I didn't "clean up my act". This was about the same time I discovered solace in playing the Blues on a harmonica, which may have actually saved me from going there. Consequently I’ve made it my personal mission to provide these youth the proven benefits of my Harmonikids programs annually. So I guess, in an ironic way I did wind up there - though it was many years later - to provide the healing power of music.
I entered the facility to the sound of locks of double-electronic doors clicking behind me. I walked into a full-security strict disciplinary environment designed to rehabilitate boys being held by court order for serious offenses. Sadly, most are there as a result of abandonment, neglect, abuse, or violent childhood environments, leaving their confidence and self-esteem shaken if not shattered. Their apprehension was palpable as they were ordered to sit at attention. The tense mood was relieved only slightly as I explained I was a professional musician there to provide a fun session in which they would be entertained, receive harmonicas and learn to play songs. Their strong trust issues produced defensive postures and cold stares - at least until I played - and within
minutes the magic of the Blues changed all of that.
When I asked the boys what kind of music they liked, they replied unanimously, “Rap”. Anticipating that, I proceeded to play Bo Diddley’s chart-topping 1955 hit “I’m A Man”, explaining (as Bo had himself) though it is a Blues tune, it was one of the original Rap songs. Indeed, the song has the structure, all the cocky attitude and bawdiness of a Rap song - and then some - revolving around the most famous harmonica riff ever created. They liked it, but called it “old school”.
Quickly I put on a modern Rap song, utilizing the same famous harmonica riff, with lyrics praising the Blues as the roots. The boys recognized the artist, understood the message. They were now fully engaged and eager to learn.When I placed the shiny new Hohner harmonicas in their hands, there was a new excited energy in the air. I had them playing the riff almost immediately. They soon became so proficient that I invited two self-proclaimed rappers in the group to take turns rapping while the other boys played and kept the beat. The result was magic. They giggled like little kids as they took turns expressing their frustrations, boasting, and comically teasing each other through raw and uncensored song. Even the guards got a kick out of their creative banter.
They were hooked. In less than an hour I taught three more Blues songs. They had so much fun that they weren't ready to quit. They asked "Mr. G, what else you got for us to play". I answered "Just these silly Christmas songs... aw, you guys don't wanna play Jingle Bells or Silent Night... do you?" The reply was unanimous. Soon there was the familiar cheer of holiday songs in the air, joyfully being played on Christmas Eve by troubled incarcerated boys who'd never received a musical instrument from anyone in their lives - let alone experienced the peace and joy that comes from making music on it.They played beautifully. Their faces beamed brightly with the wide smiles that accompany boosted self-esteem and confidence. These young "tough guys" suddenly looked and sounded like angels, and it seemed that for at least within that brief Christmas
Eve Harmonikids session, they had found a way to forgive the world... and themselves. To me this exemplifies the spirit of Christmas and remains my favorite holiday memory.
~ Gary Allegretto, www.garyallegretto.com, 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive Award Recipient
To make tax-deductible donations please visit www.harmonikids.org. To provide Gary's programs to kids in your area please see: http://garyallegretto.com/educator.cfm and contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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