New York City Bluesman Johnny Childs is eager to tell anyone who will listen why he initiated the grassroots movement to establish an International Blues Music Day. Johnny envisions a day on which blues societies all over the world schedule festivals and events celebrating the genre, and in which the origins of blues music will receive the homage to which they are due.
Johnny knows a thing or two about the blues – his latest CD Groove is attracting much positive attention, and his full-length movie, The Junkman’s Son, chronicles his relentless quest to get a record deal and earn a Blues Music Award. He is also the Founding President of the New York City Blues Society. American Blues Scene wanted to know what drives a blues artist – with his daily struggles to make a living – to invest so much time and effort in such an esoteric cause.
You have started an effort to get an International Blues Music Day. How did you get interested in this?
The idea originally came to me back when Congress declared 2003 as the year of the blues. It occurred to me that, while that’s a very nice idea, inherently any year of the blues has an expiration date. It seemed obvious that they sold us pretty short with that initiative and it occurred to me then there ought to be some sort of annual celebration of the blues, not just in America but possibly worldwide. I waited a few more years, and I didn’t notice anyone taking the initiative.
Then a few months ago I happened to be reading the Sunday paper, and they announced it was International Lefty Day. It occurred to me right then and there I’m tired of living in a world that has an International Lefty Day and a National Empanada Day and no International Blues Music Day. It was a wake-up call to me to see if I could get something started. I sat down and started the FaceBook petition group. I just added all my friends and asked them to add their friends, and the next thing you know, we had hit 5000 members in just over a month. We’re approaching our first big goal of 10,000 members in just a few short months. It definitely caught on quick and appears to be very widely supported.
Have you heard from folks around the world in support of this effort?
Absolutely. Some of the first interviews I did were in Polish and German magazines. On radio, public service announcements have been picked up in several countries. Our group members consist of thousands of supporters, fans, musicians, and societies all over the world. I’m sure there’s upwards of 40 countries involved at this point. The excitement in other countries is as big as it is here in the U.S.
Having said that, I think everybody understands that the origins of the music are here. As we develop the idea into an actual event, we’ll do our part to remind people of the importance of the origins of the music and how all the classic and iconic artists came from the U.S., but ultimately the blues has reached every corner of the earth. It’s celebrated, played, and promoted in many many countries and, now with social networking, there’s no reason for it not to be an international effort and celebration.
You had told me that once you get 10,000 members on the FaceBook page, you had some concrete steps you were going to take then. What are some of your plans once you hit that milestone?
You have to first understand that this idea is a dream. How the dream comes to fruition remains to be seen. I know that I’m going to have to reach out to a lot of institutions that can play a supportive role, and I figure our best bet of garnering that support will be to show them a petition with 10,000 supporting members from around the world.
I want to be sure we have that strong statement to make when we reach out to those organizations, but I can tell you already that we’ve heard from blues societies all over the United States and countries around the world that want to be involved in producing events on International Blues Music Day.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say the first thing I’m going to do is reach out to the blues societies and institutions that want to get involved in organizing events for this day, because that’s the biggest thing – having worldwide events for people to go celebrate the blues. Because this is grassroots and we – the blues community – are the ones ultimately going to declare this day, it’s also we -the blues community – that I’ve got to organize the events around. For that we don’t need any outside permission, but we do need support, especially when we take things to the next level of trying to get the United States Congress, the United Nations, and other governments around the world to endorse it in an official way. That’s more of a long-term process.
The short-term process is to keep spreading the word about the initiative, pick a date that’s widely supported, and associate with organizations around the world that will get involved in producing events for International Blues Music Day. That will be what Year One looks like. I know as president of the New York City Blues Society, I’m going to plan a tremendous event here in NYC for my part for the inauguration. We’re planning some media spectacles, you could say, to draw some attention to the cause. Through these associations with these other blues organizations, we will come up with creative programming ideas that will not just be small-scale blues events, but hopefully will bring in media attention; events that could potentially grow from year to year.
Tell me why April 8th is your possible date for International Blues Music Day.
When I first started the group, one of the questions we posed was the date. We heard from a lot of people who felt that it should land on this or that blues legend’s birthday. Ultimately since you’ll never get anyone to agree on one birthday, and also since having it on one birthday will distract from the fact that this is an International Blues Music Day; it’s not a memorial for one blues legend. It’s to promote the blues origins as well as the present and future of the genre and everything about the genre.
Having it on Robert Johnson’s birthday would turn it into a Robert Johnson memorial. I had to think of a way to bring people together on a day that wasn’t an obvious date. First of all we know we want to have warm weather, so winter is out. Having it in early spring brings a nice sense of renewal – sort of leads into the blues festival season and Blues Music Awards. This would be a great way to help bring awareness to all those other events as well. We haven’t decided officially on a date. It was deductive reasoning. We may end up pushing it to mid-summer; it remains to be seen.
I want to hear from people who know more than I do about these kinds of things. I want to speak to the Blues Foundation and some of the larger blues societies around the world and see how they feel about it. The most important thing is for it to be something a majority of the blues community can agree on. The first task that lies before us once we reach 10,000 members is stamping down that date. Then we have something we can start organizing for. We could have it on the first Saturday in April – having it on Saturday opens up a whole weekend of events, but then it falls on a different day every year.
The Blues Foundation seems like a natural fit as a supporter of the idea. Have you heard from anybody from that organization?
I haven’t reached out to any of the relevant large institutions yet, because I’m waiting for us to reach 10,000 members. I can tell you that three-quarters of the Blues Foundation board members are already in the group, so they essentially have signed the petition. We probably also have about 3000 members of the Blues Foundation in our group, so I think it’s safe to assume from the top down and the bottom up, The Blues Foundation supports the idea at least in spirit.
As far as how we could work together, that’s something I won’t know until I actually speak to them, but I’m very confident that they’ll support the idea and help us possibly figure out a good day to land on and ultimately help us promote it. Maybe they could even get involved in sponsoring an event on their own. The reason I’m not concerned about the Blues Foundation involvement is the fact that this initiative starts with the fans and musicians, the supporters around the world, so there’s no one organization that can stop us and there’s also very little reason to think any organization wouldn’t support this idea because there’s no downside to it. It helps everybody.
The potential effects of it are so great that I would be overly shocked if anybody involved in the blues genre as a fan or the blues industry didn’t support this. I haven’t come across it yet and we literally have a who’s who of the industry, as well as many legends in the group. There’s every reason to be confident we can move forward with this, take it one day at a time and do what needs to be done.
What do you think is the universal appeal of an inherently American music form?
It’s undeniable that it’s influenced many other genres of music. You might as well ask me why rock and roll appeals to people all over the world. I think people have had enough time to get into the fact that rock and roll was born out of the blues as they’ve gone on their own journeys of blues discoveries. If you just look at the U.K. for example, the British Invasion of the past and the many artists coming out presently, it’s just something that really caught on. The awareness is already there; it’s not something we have to sell.
I recently had a FaceBook friend request from a guy in Tehran, and he had a video of himself playing blues guitar and singing in English in a Tehran coffeeshop, then there was a young lady in a headscarf playing harmonica.
I actually saw that video, and it’s wonderful to see how far reaching blues music already is.
I don’t think you’ve been to the International Blues Challenge, but there’s been folks from India, Ghana, Poland. It’s a moving experience to see these folks singing the blues.
It’s remarkable. It’s very remarkable. And it’s not just what they started out doing – stealing rock and roll songs and transcribing them into their own languages – but they have explored the roots and become bona fide bluesmen and women on their own.
What can the average blues fan who joins your FaceBook group do to help move your idea forward?
The most important thing is to bring in as many people as possible right now to show their support for the idea. The way to do that is to get the word out about the FaceBook petition group so when we do have to speak to the powers that be, we can show them how widely supported this initiative is.
Add your friends to the group; talk about it on the radio, blog about it, and keep this grassroots word of mouth growing. While our first goal is 10,000, I have no doubt that we’ll eventually hit 100,000. Right now the only thing we’re looking to do is to gather in one place so that when we are ready to mobilize, we can create events and come up with ideas. We’ll know where to find everybody and be ready to go.
We’re also launching a wonderful interactive website for International Blues Music Day as soon as we land on a date. Once we launch the website, there will be ways to support the idea, whether it’s associating as an organizer or sponsoring an event in your own country, city, or town; playing at an event; or contributing ideas. There will be several calls to action in the near future, but we’re not ready to announce those yet.