It all began with harmonica camp.
A little more than a year ago, Ed Masterson, a building manager by day and a blues musician by night, traveled from his home in Short Hills to the Mississippi Delta for harmonica camp. While he was there, a fellow camper took him to the nearby Tutwiler Community Education Center, where two nuns run programs an a clinic on a shoestring for residents in this impoverished little town, where the blues was born.
Tutwiler, located in the Mississipi Delta, is a community of about 1,300, and long way from Short Hills.
“It completely changed my life,” Masterson said. “In ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
One of the things missing and for which there was no money was a music program. So Masterson and Jon Gindick of California decided to change that.
Masterson donated four guitars and four amps and some other equipment, Gindick donated drums and bass guitars, and they got some other musicians involved and before they knew it they were putting on events to raise money for the program, Masterson said. He also provided MP3 players for the first 13 students of the program.
In the first year, 65 children have enrolled in the Sonny Boy Williamson Legacy Music Education and Performance Program of Tutwiler, and they were able to hire two session musicians from the area as teachers, he said.
In the last few weeks, they’ve added a new teacher and the program continues to grow, he said.
The program is named for Sonny Boy Williamson, who a blues and harmonica legend, who toured Europe with The Animals and The Yardbirds in the 1960s, is buried a mile outside of Tutwiler.
“We wanted to be sure these children understand their musical heritage and the history of the blues in the area,” Masterson said. “It’s where it all started.”
Masterson will be heading back down in March for another fundraising event, but meanwhile, he continues to get other musicians from around the country involved - seeking donations of anything from volunteer time to used guitars and drums to money to keep the program going.
"Everything penny donated goes straight to Sister Maureen and the program," he said. "That's the beauty of it."
“The children loved it! Some are starting to learn chords on the guitar and some are doing well on the drums,” writes Sister Maureen Delaney on the center’s website."We never know what wonderful, generous people will wander in to
Tutwiler and provide enriching opportunities for our folks."
Masterson, a grandfather of two, enjoyed working with the kids so much he has started working on a puppet show featuring the Blues Rats, rat puppets that play musical instruments. He is also in the early stages of an animated Blues Rats production.
One boy, the son of the Harmonica camp teacher, helped Masterson come up with the song and ideas behind the Blues Rats and performed it along with Masterson and the program's teachers and some of the students at a previous fundraising event. (See the YouTube video.)
In his Short Hills home, Masterson has a garage attic music studio that has been fitted acoustically for recording and is buffered for sound for practicing, and is where he rehearses and works on various projects.
Masterson looks to spend more vacations in Tutwiler and thinks he may even buy a house there at some point.
"I can't wait to get back down there and play music with the kids and see what's going on with the program now," he said.