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Talking Blues: Local musicians collaborate with people experiencing homelessness to create songs that transcend hardship

by John Adamian

Dave Fox and Ted Efremoff teamed with musicians and the homeless to create the Healing Blues Project. Version 2 is currently in production with musicians such as Fred Wesley, seen at right during a recording session in March.

Songs and melodies can turn reflections on sadness and suffering into musical uplift, edification and joy. It’s one of the mysterious things music does, whether it’s J.S. Bach, a klezmer lament, a flamenco flourish or a pop song about heartbreak. A local multi-disciplinary collaborative project continues to give voice to those experiencing homelessness, PTSD or other hardships and to use their narratives to make songs, and to benefit an area resource center for the homeless.

The Healing Blues Project took shape when artist and educator Ted Efremoff, who was on the faculty at Greensboro College at the time, saw a notice in winter 2013 about a project to promote an upcoming Piedmont blues festival. What followed was a series of songwriting collaborations, a recording project and concerts to showcase the work. This weekend there will be a another performance of some of the songs created as a part of the Healing Blues Project as well as the premiere screening of a new documentary, directed by Efremoff, about the project.

It could have all been a small piece of temporary visual art commemorating the venerable tradition of blues music in the area, but it turned into something vital and alive, reflecting the lives and struggles of people in the area today in a fashion that might have made sense to Piedmont blues artists like Elizabeth Cotten, Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie McTell.

Three years ago a local organization “put out a call for artists to make installations in window spaces on Elm Street in Greensboro that would somehow feature the blues in them,” says Efremoff, who spoke to me last week by phone from Connecticut, where he moved in 2015. Not being much of a blues buff, Efremoff says he initially ignored the notice, but then found himself returning to the subject. Rather than making a static piece of visual art, Efremoff says he wondered who in the area was most familiar with the hardship and suffering that often inform the blues and how to get them involved somehow. The first thing that came to mind was “folks at the Interactive Resource Center” (or IRC).

Greensboro’s IRC is an innovative day center for those experiencing homelessness, providing assistance with jobhunting classes, legal advice, computer access, laundry, showers and all kinds of other essentials. Working with Dave Fox, who is on the music faculty at Greensboro College, and with some of the participants in one of the IRC’s writing workshops, local blues musicians and songwriters were paired with IRC storytellers who shared their writing and accounts of their own personal struggles. The resulting record, “The Healing Blues,” came out in 2014, and, along with some concerts to spotlight the project, it raised over $10,000 for the IRC.

The songs mixed stories of suffering, family abandonment and medical troubles with anecdotes about wandering and a sense of defiant dignity and optimism. Some skewed toward a gospel solemnity and others adopted a playful and unflappable country strut.

The documentary is particularly moving in that it captures the sense of pride that some of the storytellers have in collaborating to have their narratives turned into song.

“Sometimes I feel invisible, but my words prove I exist,” goes a line from the song “So I Write.”

In the film, storyteller Walter Jamison, whose words went into the song “Wal ter’s Walk,” talks about how his experience with the project and with the IRC affected him.

“I began to realize, especially within myself, I had a lot of positive energy that I could share,” says Jamison.

The musicians found the experience to be similarly moving, working with people whose challenges mirrored some of their own. Songwriter Mike Wesolowski of the Luxuriant Sedans worked with Anita Gilmore, a woman who has since passed away but had already published some of her poems and stories in area papers at the time, and whose perseverance in the face of medical trouble inspired Wesolowski, who appears teary-eyed in the film.

“It was a very humbling moment,” says Wesolowski of Gilmore’s outlook as she underwent repeated operations, declining health and basically confronted her own mortality.

Now Fox and Efremoff are again collaborating with Greensboro area musicians, storytellers and users of the IRC’s resources to generate another album’s worth of material. This time the recording might sway more toward the spoken word, with sound recordings of the storytellers recounting episodes from their lives woven into the fabric of a song.

In the realm of songwriting, the notion of having one person contribute lyrics and another chip in with chords and a melody is nothing new. Some of the best songwriting teams worked that way — think Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hart, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The idea behind the Healing Blues Project is one that seems to touch on numerous traditions. As with therapy or confession or just venting with friends, articulating one’s concerns or one’s missteps can be liberating, or it can at least allow for a different perspective on the problem.

“If you can memorialize your struggle,” says Efremoff in the documentary. “If you can talk about what you’re experiencing – that makes you feel better.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

The Healing Blues Project opens for Virginiabased blues guitarist Tom Principato, who’s written about his own hardships and loss in recent years. See Tom Principato, and the Healing Blues Project, for free, Sunday, May 15 at 5 pm at Barber Park, 1500 Dan’s Road, Greensboro. There will be a free showing of the documentary, “The Healing Blues,” Friday, May 13, at 6:30 p.m., at the Interactive Resource Center, 407 E. Washington St., Greensboro. The event will feature some live music and refreshments.

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