After Hours: (Teach You How To) Sing the Blues

Animal Sciences assistant professor uses music to teach history

Not long ago, Columbia was segregated.

Reminders can be found throughout the city. From a plaque on the side of the Missouri Theater describing their former segregated policies beneath the words “Lest We Forget. Never Again!” in bold letters, to Eliot Battle Elementary, named after a man who helped to integrate Columbia public schools.

Reminders of this American past can also be found in music. Specifically, the blues. And there is currently a program that aims to expose students to the blues genre and teach students about this history in the process called “The Blues in the Schools.”

One artist that serves as an educator in the program is Columbian musician Jordan Thomas.

On a typical day, Jordan works in the University of Missouri’s Division of Animal Sciences. With a research focus on cattle and reproductive physiology, Jordan was recently hired as an Extension assistant professor after working for a few years as a senior research associate. But Jordan’s skills go far beyond the world of estrus synchronization, as he is also a guitar player, harmonica player and blues singer-songwriter.

With a guitar-playing uncle and a piano-playing mother, having a love of music is not new for Jordan’s family. Thomas found an interest in it for himself at a young age, first beginning to play guitar around 11 or 12 years old and continuing to do so into his teenage and adult years.

Late in his high school career, he started fronting a blues/soul band called the Mojo Roots and began performing shows in Missouri and the surrounding states, something he continued to do while in college. By traveling and performing around the area, Jordan began to build connections in the regional blues scene and formed a relationship with Richard King. On top of being the former owner of the Blue Note and one of the founders of the Roots N Blues Festival, King is also a board member of the Blues in the Schools program and asked Jordan if he was interested in becoming a part of it.

“My answer was ‘absolutely,’” Jordan says.

Photo courtesy of Scott PetersonPhoto courtesy of Scott Peterson

The Blues in the Schools program of Mid Missouri is an independent educational organization backed by the Roots N Blues Foundation that works with children of varying age groups across the state and uses blues music as a means to achieve two main goals, the first of which is: “Expose students to blues music itself.”

The program presents the blues genre as an important staple in American history as its influence can be felt in just about all forms of modern music today. As Jordan says, “Rock and Roll kind of comes from Blues, Soul comes from Blues, Hip-Hop comes from Blues, Rap comes from Blues.”

Occurring in the fall, the program consists of several multi-day courses at various schools in Columbia. Around 2015, Thomas began his work with the program as an artist in residence, typically spending a few hours each day at a few different schools over the course of a few weeks.

As the work involved is broad and there are so many different age groups to teach, an average day can vary. However, one thing Jordan always does is bring instruments along and play songs for the students, then spends time with them breaking down the individual parts that make up the whole. With the younger classes, Jordan tends to focus more on the lyrics and asks the students to examine the techniques (metaphor, imagery) being used in them, while with older students in a music course, the focus may also include fundamentals like rhythm and chord structure.

However, there is another goal of the program, and it is the one that Jordan thinks is particularly valuable, which is: “Use the genre to teach and explore the history of race relations.”

The program aims to not only teach children about the blues genre, but also to use that music’s history to educate them on the culture of the time it was created.

In his more extended-form programs where he spends a few days at the same school, Jordan presents topics and ideas about the music such as “What kind of experiences do these songs come from?” with the hope that the students might reach a deeper understanding of the lived experiences that shaped the art.

To accomplish this, Jordan sometimes brings along concrete visual examples to get his message across, showing the students images of the world during the time the song was written and telling them: “This is what a water fountain looked like in the 1940s. And this is what it would have looked like here at this school.” Jordan also teaches how many of the songs themselves made an impact in the world.

“[Music] really ends up being this vehicle by which a lot of social change sometimes happens and by which people understand each other in ways that they maybe previously hadn’t,” Jordan says.

But above all, Jordan teaches the students that no matter what song a person might be listening to, there is a meaning to be found in it.

“When I talk about Blues music, I want them to understand that the words that are used in those songs mean something,” Jordan says. “If it’s a song called Little Red Rooster and the song is about this image of this lazy roster that won’t crow when the sun comes up … that’s trying to paint some kind of a picture.”

When he was a graduate student at Mizzou, Jordan saw his music as separate from anything academic. His left brain was reserved for all things analytical and the right reserved only for the creative, never crossing over. But through his experience with the Blues in the Schools program, Jordan said he has realized that the two are not as separate as he once thought. He incorporates knowledge of American history in his music classes and, when coming up with research ideas in his academic work, Jordan finds himself relying on the same creativity that got him into music and keeps him playing.

“It’s interesting,” Jordan says, “how the different things that you’re passionate about in life end up feeding into each other in ways that you wouldn’t expect.”