“My father’s from Mississippi, my mother’s from Alabama, but they had to come to Detroit to make me,” the Rev. Robert Jones says with a hearty laugh.
Born and raised in Detroit, Jones, 61, has spent his entire life immersed in the world of gospel-influenced Southern blues music, or as he calls it, the “holy blues.”
The traveling music educator is trekking to Lansing’s Elderly Instruments for a songwriting workshop, where he’ll share some secrets of his sacred craft.
The young Jones inherited an obsession with Southern guitarists and bluesmen from his grandparents, cutting him from a different cloth than his peers, who were more interested in Detroit’s jazz and funk sounds of the time.
“I have a really Southern upbringing along with the ‘yes ma’am,’ ‘no ma’am,’ ‘aw shucks’ storytelling component, too,” Jones said.
Jones passes along his joy of blues through educational performances with the program Music That Matters, which he founded with longtime friend Matt Watroba.
“We became friends really quickly. It was kind of strange, because he was just learning music when I first met him,” Watroba said. “But I swear I have never met anyone who got good as fast as he did. He took to it like it was what he was born to do.”
But the notion of blues education raises some questions. How can one be taught to succeed in a genre that seems to depend almost entirely on personal experience? Luckily for the holy blues layman, Jones believes there are no prerequisites.
“Emotion is a big part with any kind of music. The fact of the matter is there are some things that make us think a tune sounds like sacred music. That’s what we’re concentrating on at Elderly,” Jones said.
Whiles Jones can extol all day long the technical instrumental aspects of what makes a good blues song, his secret weapon is storytelling. Tracks like “Will Cunningham,” about Jones’ great-grandfather, a black World War I veteran who survives a gun toting confrontation after a fist fight with a racist white man, sees Jones creating a sonic folklore of his own.
The faces carved on Jones’ personal Mount Rushmore belong to the likes of Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Gary Davis and Howard Carroll. Though each was a prodigal guitarist, especially Sister Rosetta Thorpe, whose raw rock ‘n’ roll guitar technique predates even Chuck Berry, they are perhaps more noteworthy for their soulful vocals and personal spiritual lyrics.
“Listening to any and all of those people would probably be helpful in terms of coming to this class. But chances are people who would come to this class have heard at least some of them already,” Jones said.
Jones tells his students that blues has the most culturally valuable lineage of any genre of music. Blues itself descended from a rich American musical heritage and has since created its own increasingly dense legacy. Almost all modern rock genres owe their growth to the likes of Sister Rosetta Thorpe and her Southern contemporaries.
“Blues is a trunk of the great musical tree. Coming out of the blues was almost everything else,” Jones said. “It’s like country western, bluegrass, R&B, rap, rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass, all of that stuff really has at least directly or indirectly connection with the blues.”
This point is driven home by one of Jones’ favorite educational demonstrations, where he uses his guitar and a series of tempo changes to point out the similarities between blues and hip-hop.
Jones’ strong musical ability and knowledge carried him through his career as both the host of the Detroit radio show “Blues from the Lowlands,” and as a nomadic music teacher with his own program Blues for Schools, which later became American Roots Music in Education. But he still took further steps to make the gospel a larger part of his life.
Following the 1999 death of his mentor James Robinson, Jones became the pastor at Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. Not only is his music dedicated to the sacred gospel, but his entire being. Jones describes himself as “a preacher that sings,” not a “singer who preaches.”
“When I became a pastor I had to look at my blues repertoire and still figure out a way to make a living as a musician, but not do violence to the ministry,” Jones said. “That’s when I came to the realization that there were these great gospel guitarists and sacred music guitarists. What you do is grasp the style and put the gospel aesthetic on top of it. Then you start to realize, the stuff is still accessible, still powerful, but it takes a little work.”
In 2018, Jones is setting his focus onto his new program, Common Chords, with Matt Watroba. The pair will visit schools across Michigan to teach the lessons found within blues. Jones and Watroba also hope to one day secure a permanent headquarters for the operation.
“The idea is to illustrate that we have more in common, than we do to fight about, culturally and aesthetically. It talks about celebrating diversity and giving people the tools of creativity,” Jones said. “Art can help save a life for a person who can’t express themselves in any other way.”
Guitar Workshops With Reverend
Robert Jones Saturday, May 5
$40 each, or $60 for both “Standard Tuning” 1 to 2:30 p.m. “Open Tuning” 3 to 4:30 p.m. Elderly Instruments 1100 N. Washington Ave., Lansing (517) 372-7880