Festival Builds Appreciation for the Blues

Posted April 9, 2008 at 4:45pm

George Higgs has been singing about growing up in a “slow town with a fast name” since he first picked up a guitar and harmonica at age 11.

“I’m telling my life experience through the old blues — the things that I went through and I sang about them. Had some good times and had some hard times, but it’s enjoyable, and I’m telling my story through the song,” said the 78-year-old musician, who was born and raised in Speed, N.C.

But playing the blues doesn’t always pay the bills. That’s where the Music Maker Relief Foundation comes in.

The foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides grant money to traditional blues musicians in need of financial assistance, is being honored by blues legends, lawmakers and music afficionados at the Fifth Annual Congressional Blues Festival on April 23.

The festival, which features headliners Robert Cray and Elvin Bishop as well as traditional blues artists sponsored by Music Maker, is meant to “shine the light on American music’s true beginnings, blues and roots,” founder Ryan Costello said.

Costello first organized the event in 2004 after the political consulting firm he worked for became involved with the North Carolina-based foundation.

“I may be a little bit ashamed to say I’m not as much a blues connoisseur as people might think I would be,” he said. “Really I’m just a music lover and recognize [blues is] where all forms of music come from … I wanted to honor that.”

What started out as a concert on the balcony of Costello’s Capitol Hill office building has grown to a daylong event featuring nonstop performances on three stages at the Kennedy Center.

Support for the festival has grown as well; it is now sponsored by a 66-member bipartisan Congressional Host Committee.

Host Committee Co-Chairman Chip Pickering (R), whose home state of Mississippi is considered one of the birthplaces of the blues, said he hopes the festival provides awareness of the influence the genre has had on American music.

“The blues provides a musical and lyrical testimony to enduring and overcoming struggles,” he said. “Rich or poor, Southern or Northern, regardless of race or religion, we can enjoy the blues and let it speak to our hearts and move our feet to dance.”

The festival has raised more than $600,000 since its inception to help struggling blues musicians pay for basic necessities such as food, lodging and health care. The foundation also helps artists book performances and record their music.

“When you take an artist who is playing for free on the street, and suddenly they are selling out venues in Europe and fans are buying their CDs, you have given them the chance to make their own way,” Pickering said. “This isn’t only a blessing to the artist, because the world and music consumers are also wealthier for the exposure.”

In the end, blues lovers say they hope the festival and Music Maker’s efforts help keep the tradition alive for generations to come.

“It ain’t like it used to. It’s dying slowly, but we try to keep it alive,” Higgs said. “I’ll play as long as I can — I like this old blues. I hate to see it die.”

The Fifth Annual Congressional Blues Festival will be April 23 at the Kennedy Center. For more information or to enter a lottery for free tickets to the performances, visit congressionalbluesfestival.org. The last drawing will be Monday.