Willie King at Bettie’s Place The Alabama Blues Project (ABP) is a nonprofit organization, based in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, that preserves and promotes the rich heritage of blues music in Alabama through its award-winning educational programs. Some of the organization’s principal activities include providing blues workshops and camps for youths, promoting Alabama blues musicians, and organizing music festivals and performances. The ABP was founded in 1995 as an unincorporated business by two local blues musicians, Debbie Bond and Michael McCracken. They were inspired by the late blues musician Johnny Shines, who was living in Tuscaloosa at that time. Shines was an accomplished and influential blues musician who had toured with the seminal bluesman Robert Johnson but remained relatively unknown. They hoped to bring more attention to Shines and to Alabama’s historic and contemporary blues culture.
The ABP was incorporated in 2001 and was officially granted nonprofit status in 2002. It is overseen by a 14-person board of directors consisting of local officials, business people, musicians, and educators and is assisted by a 10-person advisory board of blues scholars, educators, and musicians. The organization receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Alabama State Council on the Arts (ASCA), corporate sponsors including Mercedes-Benz U.S. International and local sponsors, including the city of Tuscaloosa, the city of Northport, Tuscaloosa County, and Nick’s Kids, a charity formed by University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. Renowned blues musician Bonnie Raitt is also a significant funder.
Bo McGee and Jolly Wells The ABP’s initial project was the CD Moody Swamp Blues (produced in 1995 and later sold to and re-released by Vent Records in 1996); it was the first recording of regional blues veterans Jolly “Little Whitt” Wells and Cleo “Big Bo” McGee. The release of the CD was followed by a tour in Europe by the artists that spring. In 1996, Bond and McCracken were contracted by the North Carolina-based Blues in the Schools Inc. (BITS) organization to help teach an after-school blues education program to middle school students at the historic Carver Theater in Birmingham, Jefferson County. BITS, a nationally recognized provider of blues education programs, was founded by blues education pioneers Billy Branch and Mary Feldman. Working with these accomplished individuals, along with award-winning blues educator Fruteland Jackson, McCracken and Bond gained the skills needed to start their own blues education program in Tuscaloosa.
Jerry “Boogie” McCain In 1997, funding issues forced BITS to end its program in Birmingham, and the following year the ABP took over the program. The ABP trained and employed Alabama-based blues musicians as teachers and at the end of the year presented a major performance featuring the program’s young students along with renowned Alabama blues veterans Jerry “Boogie” McCain, Big Bo McGee, and Elnora Spencer. Also that year, the ABP established its first blues education program in Tuscaloosa County. The after-school program provided hands-on music training to at-risk youths ages 8 to 18. The ABP first partnered with the Tuscaloosa-based Kentuck Art Center and later with the Boys and Girls Club of West Alabama. The program was held at the Boys and Girls Club, where students learned the basics of blues guitar, drums, harmonica, and singing from area blues musicians. During this time, Bond developed a Blues Camp curriculum to teach music skills and blues history that culminated in a community performance by students and their musician instructors.
Soon after, McCracken left the project, and Bond, working with University of Alabama law professor and blues fan Steven Hobbs, formed a board of directors and established the ABP as a nonprofit organization. Early in its history, the ABP offices were located at Bond’s home, where she was assisted by volunteers and occasionally part-time paid workers. Funding at this time came primarily from ASCA, Bonnie Raitt, Alligator Records, and local sponsors. As the blues camp program outgrew the small premises at the Boys and Girls Club, the ABP formed partnerships with Tuscaloosa organizations, notably Covenant Presbyterian Church, to provide a more suitable space for their programs.
Alabama Blues Project Camp Bond also developed and implemented a wide variety of in-school programs that ranged from one-hour “Introduction to the Blues” interactive performances to six-week in-depth school residencies. Many of these programs are interdisciplinary, featuring other blues-themed activities, such as song writing, creative writing, history, oral history, photography, painting, and sculpture. Over time, these programs have featured traditional Alabama blues musicians, such as Willie King, Elnora Spencer, Bo McGee, Eddie Kirkland, Carroline Shines, and Sharon Newport, who performs as SharBaby, in addition to Mississippian Little Lee and others. These programs have been presented throughout Alabama in schools, libraries, theaters, festivals, and college campuses and in Florida, Mississippi, and Iowa.
By 2003, with Bond as executive director and her husband, British-born keyboard/harmonica player Rick Asherson, as assistant director, the ABP had expanded all aspects of its mission. New funding from the Children’s Trust Fund of Alabama and the NEA enabled the ABP to move into its own offices, hire a full-time staff person, and expand the Tuscaloosa-based after-school blues camp to a three-semester year-round program. The in-school blues education programs have since been offered to tens of thousands of children around the state and beyond and have provided work for many blues musicians.
Thorton, Willie Mae The ABP declared 2005 “The Year of Alabama Blues Women” and launched a traveling educational exhibition titled “Red Hot and Blue: A Spotlight on Alabama Blues Women.” The exhibition presented a view into the state’s rich blues history through the lives of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, Dinah Washington, Vera Hall, Lucille Bogan, Leola B. Pettigrew (who went by the stage name “Coot Grant”), Odetta Holmes, and Lil Greenwood. The exhibition has been presented at schools, libraries, festivals, and universities throughout Alabama. ABT also developed a partnership with the University of West Alabama to commission a historic marker honoring the life of blues singer Vera Hall; it is now located at the courthouse square in Livingston, Sumter County. In 2011, Bond and Asherson left the ABP to pursue full-time music careers. Currently, the ABP is headed by Executive Director Paula Demonbruen, and the organization continues to pursue its mission to promote and preserve the rich heritage of Alabama blues.
The organization has become a major resource for consulting on all aspects of blues in Alabama. ABP has facilitated musician appearances in numerous documentaries and films, including John Sayles’ film Honeydripper (2007); Down in the Woods, a documentary by World Films about the life of bluesman Willie King; and “Feel Like Going Home,” an episode of the PBS series The Blues focusing on the African roots of the blues and directed by Martin Scorsese. In addition, ABP and its staff have gained national recognition and accolades from many arts educators and organizations. In 2004, ABP received the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award (formerly the Coming Up Taller Award) for its After-School and Summertime Blues Camp. Other awards include the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Education Award in 2004 and a Special Award in 2000 and a 2009 Music Educator Award for Debbie Bond from the Druid City Arts Awards, given out by the Arts and Humanities Council of Tuscaloosa County. The ABP’s education programs and advocacy also have received media coverage in Southern Living magazine, the National Endowment for the Arts magazine NEA ARTS, and the Oxford American. In 2018, the Alabama Blues Project moved its headquarters to the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in Tuscaloosa; the center also houses the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra and the Tuscaloosa Arts Council.