NORTH BETHESDA, Md. — The small, elderly black man plucking at a guitar on the stage of the auditorium of a ritzy prep school at first seems out of place.
But as his playing gains more confidence, the largely white audience of 450 boys at Georgetown Preparatory School starts stirring, the boys tapping their feet and moving their heads to the music, laughing at tales of gambling, drinking and train-hopping as the performer and the spectators connect.
It is a blues connection as old as the man himself.
At 92, David “Honeyboy” Edwards has been performing since the 1920s, when he thought that music might get him out of the cotton fields and a life as a Mississippi sharecropper. With his guitar, grit and talent, Honeyboy made his way around the country, finally making Chicago home.
But his music, the unmistakable pain of the Mississippi Delta, always went with him. And in his 90s, the last of the original Delta bluesmen has found a new audience.
“The blues ain’t going nowhere,” Honeyboy said in an interview. “Been here too long.”
For the last two years, Honeyboy — who goes by his childhood nickname — has been playing 100 shows a year, and on Oct. 13 he is performing at the Portalegre Blues Festival in Portugal. He appears in a feature movie, "Walk Hard," which opens in December, as the inspiration for a young musician. Earlier this year he received the prestigious 2007 Handy Award for Acoustic Blues Guitar.
A big part of his appeal is to young people who've never heard the blues before. And it's his connection to a nonprofit blues education program, the Blue Shoe Project, that has put him before schoolchildren, including the Oct. 4 gig at Georgetown Prep.
“The whole goal was showing kids that nothing in music in the United States made a more profound impact than the blues, “ said Mike Dyson, 22, who along with his father started the Colleyville, Texas-based effort three years ago. “It was the blues that really brought us together during tough times.”
In programs like the one at Georgetown Prep, Dyson brings together blues players and school groups to talk about the stories behind the songs and the difficult life that singing and playing made easier to bear.
“We’re using blues as a medium for music education,“ said Dyson, who during the Oct. 4 program acted as an emcee, asking Honeyboy about his life.
It's a life that fascinated English teacher Benjamin Williams, who teaches a class for Georgetown Prep seniors called “Blues Literature” and who brought the blues player and the students together.
“These are oral connections to a world that, in large part, no longer exists,” said Williams, who calls Honeyboy “a national treasure.”
Honeyboy himself was relaxed and conversational on stage, remembering blues legends Robert Johnson and Big Joe Williams and the reason he took up the guitar at age 9 in his hometown of Shaw, Miss.
“I wanted to be a musician,” he said. “I figured if I got good enough, I could leave the farm.
“Blues,” Honeyboy told the crowd, “is a feeling.”
A feeling, he said, that comes from the slow, repetitive motions of picking cotton with not much hope of a future.
“Blues is not to be made to be played fast,” he said. “The notes don’t set long enough to cook. They’ve got to cook a little bit.”
Honeyboy was cooking all right, bringing the high-schoolers to their feet as they chanted “Hon-ey, Hon-ey.”
“Seeing him play in person made an impression on me,” said senior Mike Jones, who's taking the blues literature course and who asked Honeyboy about riding freight trains to get around. “He really means what he’s playing,”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said junior James Nugent, who plays guitar. “I want to find his music and learn how to play it.”
Derrick Pharr, a senior from New Orleans who is one of the school’s 100 boarders, said, “It’s like seeing one of the characters that we’ve read in our short stories come to life.”
Kyle Bancroft, another senior, said Honeyboy’s talk about gambling against someone with loaded dice struck a chord with him.
“It really helps in understanding his whole story, where he comes from and what he’s about,” he said.
Bancroft, who plays guitar, said, “I like to think I can play the blues. The main thing is this has opened my eyes.”
For Honeyboy, that’s all in a day’s work.
“I play when I feel like it,” said Honeyboy. “It keeps me going.”
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