• Blues comes to Homer
By Christina Whiting
For the past 36 years, Michael “Hawkeye” Herman has taught Blues in the Schools programs to more than half a million students in more than 500 schools. He’s visited learning establishments from elementary to college level, in 30 states and 10 foreign nations.
“All popular music has its roots in the blues,” Hawkeye said. “From rock to pop — and even to country music.”
Lesson plans apply blues music to fields of study including African American studies, English, art, math, science, American history and music. The goal of the program is to teach students the history and importance of the music.
“The Blues shares the truth about life and is the depository for African American history,” he said. “If you want to know what they were wearing, thinking, driving or eating at any time up until the late 20th century, listen to a blues song.”
Beginning Feb. 17, and for the next two and a half weeks, Hawkeye will teach students in 11 different schools in the communities of Homer, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham.
Jack Oudiz, a Homer Council on the Arts board member, was involved in BITS in Sacramento and was instrumental in bringing the program to Homer.
“To be passionate about black music is to love the music and be involved with learning about the political and social issues of African Americans, civil rights and social justice,” he said. “Hawkeye was one of the original guys to start this program. His format is engaging and gathers students’ interest in learning history.”
Hawkeye tailors his lesson plans specifically to each class after consulting with teachers. At Homer Middle School, Hawkeye will use blues music to teach lyrics and poetry. At Fireweed, the students will study music as it is applied through the science of rhythm and wavelengths. In Nanwalek and Port Graham, students will learn to play a harmonica.
Hawkeye was introduced to blues music as a youth.
“One night, I was listening to the radio station and I heard the group Howlin’ Wolf singing ‘Killing Floor,’” he said. “The next thing I knew, I was dancing around my room in the dark’ I danced myself into a sweat, and when the song ended, I fell back on the bed exhausted.”
Hawkeye spent the next eight months saving money from his paper route to buy his first guitar. He was soon writing songs and performing.
The nickname Hawkeye comes from his being born and raised in Iowa, the Hawkeye state.
“I was told that to plumb the depths of my career as a musician, I had to have a nickname,” he said. “Other musicians were giving me names I didn’t like, so I had to come up with one pretty quickly before any of theirs stuck.”
Hawkeye said he has never felt any resistance from African Americans toward him as a white man playing and singing blues music.
“Nobody ever told me that, because I’m white, I couldn’t do this,” he said. “In fact, they’d tell me somebody has to carry the torch and if I was the one willing to pick up the torch, well then, ‘just put your fingers here.’”
Hawkeye said he knows he’s done his job when he impacts even just one student.
“I have a train song called “Rock it to Chicago,” about rock island railroad in Chicago,” he said. “One time, I was in a classroom and there was a 10-year-old student with multiple sclerosis curled up in his wheelchair. As I played my music, I noted how still he was and I wondered if he was ‘getting it’.”
At the end of the class, the teacher handed Hawkeye a picture the student had drawn. It was a picture of a railroad train, drawn in up and slanted strokes, the only way this student could draw.
“That picture could have been an album cover,” Hawkeye said. “It vibrated right off the page.”
Another time, Hawkeye was told that every teacher in the school had tried to get through to an 11-year-old second-grader named Tyler.
“The teacher showed me a picture Tyler drew during my class,” Hawkeye said. “The first page was a drawing of a dead tree and in illegible writing that the teacher translated were the words, ‘I was a dead tree.’ The other page was a drawing of flowers and the sun and the words, ‘your music makes me come alive. You are a fantastic musician and I want to be like you.” That moment shook me to my core and is what teaching is all about.”
Blues in the Schools is a national program, administered through local blues societies and arts organizations. HCOA hopes the program is a success and will be the first of many they coordinate.
Hawkeye will perform at HCOA on Saturday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. as a fundraiser for the BITS program. Tickets are $5 for youth, $10 for members, and $15 general admission, and can be purchased at HCOA, The Homer Bookstore or at www.homerart.org.
HCOA’s Blues in the School Program is made possible this year thanks to funding provided by Alaska State Council on the Arts and Rasmuson Foundation, Conoco Phillips, Charlotte Martin Foundation, The Homer Foundation, Ocean Shores Motel, Boss Hoggz Restaurant and Jack and Debbie Oudiz.
“Blues music has an amazing historical story,” said HCOA Director Gail Edgerly. “We’re excited to offer Blues in the Schools in these communities for the very first time.”
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