Chicago camp teaches kids Blues 101

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His friends at school scoffed then and still do now.

"They say it's lame," explains Ray. "Because all that's on now is hip-hop, rap. … I'm one of the weird kids. People make fun of me, because I like blues. … "At the beginning I cared, because they don't even want to listen to it. And they haven't even listened to it.

"But what if this is 5 million times better than rap and hip-hop and pop combined? Why don't you listen to it and then tell me it's b.s., rather than before?

"If you don't even want to listen to it, then I don't care."

At least Ray can take some comfort in knowing that he does not endure the ridicule alone. Virtually all of his newfound friends at Blues Camp say they experience the same reactions from friends: something between bemusement and contempt. Yet the young blues musicians persevere.

What moves them so? What enables them to withstand such pressure at an age when the approval of your peers is almost everything?

"I think it's just the raw feeling — some people say they can't describe it," says Steen, the 15-year-old from Queens. "I think it's how you can take something so simple and make it so elegant, so goose-bump feeling.

"You can make people so sad, they almost want to cry," adds Steen, who plays in "really bad, rusty, shady bars" on Staten Island, while his mom hangs nearby, to keep it legal.

"You can make them want to dance. You can make them feel."

There are other reasons, as well.

"Blues gives you freedom to play what you want," says 14-year-old bassist Savannah Joy Sanchez, from Los Angeles.

"It's courage and strength," says Antonello, the Skokie blues singer.

Adds 11-year-old guitarist Carlton McDowell, the older brother of bassist Peyton McDowell, "It helps me cool down if I'm mad."

Yet virtually none of these emerging musicians ever played with other kids before strolling into Blues Camp. You can blast away with B.B. King on YouTube in your bedroom all you want, but until you get in a rehearsal room with other young musicians laboring to master the same music, until you're in front of an audience, cutting loose, you're not really playing the blues, a cathartic music that must be shared to be fully lived.

That's what's happening at Blues Camp, as the young musicians wrestle with classic tunes in preparation for a culminating performance Friday afternoon at one of the world's great blues clubs, Buddy Guy's Legends on South Wabash Avenue. That's when they'll know if they're really reaching anyone with their music, if they're truly playing the blues.

Fighting to be heard

It's not just the kids who have been called to this music. Their parents and grandparents, many dropping in on rehearsal sessions throughout the week, are nearly as obsessive about the art form, or at least remarkably open-minded about it.

Some see a profound purpose in nurturing the blues.

"I want my grandkids to know that when times are hard, they're not as hard as what our ancestors faced," says Nancy Rice, grandmother of Peyton and Carlton McDowell, whom she chauffeurs to music lessons she pays for.

"I was really hurt when a lot of black people stopped liking the blues or listening to the blues. As we got education, we didn't want to hear about the hard times.

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