Harmonikids at Sunflower Landing Teen Substance Abuse Rehab Center

17.10.2013

Sometimes my Harmonikids sessions have particularly deep-rooted personal meaning. Such is the case for my return visit to Sunflower Landing, in Dublin, MS. So much of the music and musicians that made the Blues the most popular and beloved music ever to be played on the harmonica came from rural towns in the Mississippi Delta. Howling Wolf, James Cotton, and Sonny Boy Williamson are just a few of the great Blues harpmen to come directly from the area. In my teens I had the unsurpassed thrill of witnessing the legendary Clarksdale, Mississippi-born Bluesman Muddy Waters perform with his band that included the legendary Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, and Bob Margolin. The experience changed my life and shaped my musical direction. I imagined myself playing with them someday. Many years down the road, my dream was realized when I found myself performing on stages with two of these Bluesmen - Bob Margolin and Pinetop Perkins (who I also recorded with). In fact, several years ago in an unforgettable moment of my life, Pinetop told me to "keep the business going". This was not just another reason to take my work of "Keeping the Blues Alive" seriously - but direct orders from one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen himself. I simply replied "yes sir." This year in the second week of June, I had the opportunity to return and continue my efforts to honor this promise in my second year as the harmonica instructor at the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Masterclass in Clarksdale. Suitably, foundation board member Bob Margolin is the Master Class guitar instructor.

To further my commitment, and in tribute to the legacy of the great Blues harpmen of this hallowed ground, I arranged a special Blues Harmonikids return-visit to benefit youth in the vicinity who are facing special challenges in their lives. Sunflower Landing is an innovative, home-like long-term residential treatment facility for adolescents with substance abuse and related problems in nearby rural Dublin, Mississippi. Last year I conducted similar session at the facility. Notably, Sunflower Landing is located directly on US Route 49, the notorious highway travelled by the famous Delta Blues legends and the subject of many songs of the genre. To make the session extra special I again invited Clay Swafford, friend and fellow instructor at the Pinetop Perkins Masterclass. Clay is a renowned Blues pianist who also has worked with greats Bob Margolin, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Carey Bell, and others.

As it was last year, the 90 minute session on June 15, 2013 was a resounding success. The 20 young participants enthusiastically cheered and applauded to a captivating performance as Clay and I played Blues songs and explained their deep roots and significance to their homeland. They loved the Blues and several wanted to also hear songs by Johnny Cash (who grew up nearby in rural Arkansas). They were delightfully astonished with the gift of shiny new Hohner Bluesband harmonicas. Closely following my instruction and the music sheets I provided, the youth beamed with pride as they quickly and accurately learned four Blues songs on their instruments. Confidence and self-esteem soared. The joy both during and following the session was palpable and as we left the sound of harmonicas filled the thick Delta air. Perhaps the lasting benefits of Hohner and Harmonikids gift to these troubled adolescents is best described in house-parent Gabby Hays' heartfelt note of thanks (below) received the following week. To me, the harmonicas were like seeds of joy and hope newly planted in the fertile Mississippi Delta. My wish is that the the healing power of the Blues played on them will grow and bring the promise of possibilities and dreams to some of these challenged youth - and perhaps make a positive difference in their lives as it has in mine and so many others.

~ Gary Allegretto, Founding Director of Harmonikids, www.harmonikids.org

"Gary Allegretto and his Harmonikids program was absolutely fantastic. As in the past, Gary went above and beyond by not only giving a couple of great performances/demonstrations but by including the kids the whole process and helping them learn how easy something so complex can be if one puts enough work into it.

Much like last year, as soon as Gary left, sounds of harmonicas filled the hallways with many of the residents playing their instrument for hours on end. It gave residents that were confined to their rooms as punishment a healthy outlet for their frustration and helped residents who were free to hang out together something to bond over.

The greatest thing that Gary did there, though, had nothing to do with a harmonica. The kids constantly lambasted him with questions regarding celebrities he knew, high profile movies he'd contributed music to and whether or not he was "famous." Mr. Allegretto, brushed these questions off and encouraged the kids to not focus on fleeting things like fame… but for them to find something that they truly loved and to pour themselves into it."

G. Hays, Supervisor
Sunflower Landing Teen Substance Abuse Rehab Center
Dublin, MS
http://www.regionone.org/sunflower-landing.htm