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Congress isn’t known for expressions of raw emotion or pain.
But today, the blues — a musical tradition known for its gritty, mournful lyrics and sound — will take over the Hill at the 8th Annual Congressional Blues Festival.
The festival began in 2003 to benefit charities that support blues artists and to spread awareness of the American musical genre. In the past seven years, the Congressional Blues Festival has raised more than $1.3 million to support the cause.
For festival co-chairman Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), exposing new listeners to the blues is important because it offers Americans a connection to some of the less glamorous, more painful aspects of the country’s past.
“It really came out of some of the darkest periods of our country’s history and times of slavery,” he said. “To maintain that connection — that people understand where it came from, the passion and the soul that comes from that music — is very important.”
But for Crowley, hosting the festival isn’t just about sharing blues history with a wider audience — it also has personal importance to him. The co-chairman of the House Musicians Caucus plays guitar and piano, and he dabbled in the music in his youth.
“I played in a rhythm-and-blues band when I was in college, so I have an appreciation for the music,” he said.
The festival’s other Congressional co-host, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), also got involved because of her love of, and personal connection to, the music.
“Much of the Delta blues is performed out of Memphis, in the western part of my district,” she said. “Some of the musicians that come up are native Mississippi musicians, people that I’ve known for many years.”
Blackburn said she has always been a fan of the blues and cited Muddy Waters and B.B. King as her favorite musicians.
Although B.B. King, who once performed at the festival, won’t be headlining this year, the lineup showcases some of the best-known names in blues today, including guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Danny “Mudcat” Dudeck.
But those who attend the festival won’t just be enjoying a night of the blues, they’ll be helping to support the art form.
Money raised from the festival will benefit the Blues Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of the blues and supports blues artists nationwide.
Jay Sieleman, executive director of the Blues Foundation, said the money raised will likely go to the HART Fund, which helps musicians and their families deal with medical costs.
Sieleman said the Congressional Blues Festival raised $12,200 last year for the program, and whatever is raised this year will continue to help those musicians in need.
“Blues music is not always the most remunerative,” he explained. “A lot of musicians do not have savings, do not have retirement plans, so despite perhaps being world famous in blues circles they don’t have the financial wherewithal at the end of their lives” to take care of health care costs, he said.
The festival is likely to benefit more than just the Blues Foundation and blues musicians nationwide.
The wailing guitars and soulful lyrics of the five scheduled performers today will expose listeners to music that is wholly American.
“The blues is an American art form,” Crowley said. “It’s the heart and soul of America.”