When the only piano teacher in his small Missouri hometown would not take students under the age of 7, 4-year-old Roddy Barnes made up games on his family's piano to interact with the only instrument he had any interest in playing.
"I always wanted to play piano ever since I could ever remember," he says. "It wasn't the organ, it wasn't the saxophone. It was the piano." He now makes a living writing and performing jazz and blues in Richmond, Virginia.
Barnes first came to the Augusta Heritage Center Summer Workshops in 2005 when Gaye Adegbalola, a notable blues artist, brought him on as an accompanist. Seven summers later, he hasn't missed a year. This year he accompanied Adegbalola in two of her classes and taught his own mini course in the evenings, Gospel Singing.
"I wanted to crawl out of my skin, it affected me so deeply," he says about the first time he heard what he describes as "Black Gospel."
He says he reaps satisfaction from teaching this craft to interested learners, but particularly enjoys helping them learn to loosen up to what he terms a "freer style." Students come having little experience with gospel music. By the end of the first class and progressively over the course of the week, students sway, feeling the melodies; clap, keeping time with the beat; and yell out when they felt so compelled.
A person's religion or lack thereof doesn't matter in Barnes' class. "I welcome Buddhist, Taoist, Christians, whatever." However, he says, "If they're pulled to this music, they're spiritual in some way."
Photo by Mallory Bracken
At right, Roddy Barnes instructs his evening Gospel Singing class during Augusta Blues Week. He terms gospel ‘a freer style,’ and delights in helping his students embrace that mood.
In between rehearsing songs, Barnes shares with the class bits of history on the craft, saying that many gospel songs weren't purely to worship, but rather were sung as codes for slaves using the Underground Railroad.
Barnes' class met each evening, Monday through Thursday of Blues Week. After stretching, swaying and sometimes making a massage train to loosen up the group following long days of courses, the class learned and rehearsed various songs chosen by Barnes. In addition to learning the craft, the group prepared for a concert at the end of the week -- something that has become a famed tradition. This year, the group performed gospel classics including "Keep Your Hand on the Plow," "Step By Step," "King's Highway" and a handful of well-known numbers in which they hoped the audience would join them.
On the evening of the performance, wholehearted voices charged the small, circular Robbins Memorial Chapel on the Davis & Elkins College campus. Barnes throbbed on the grand piano, conducting the class while they shared the resounding art that they had perfected over the week. Listeners nodded their heads with the music, clapped and, at times, sang along with the class.
"Both the music and he serve to lift us all up," says Marci Kraft, of Montclair, New Jersey, who met Barnes three years ago in Adegbalola's vocal class. "He has this special energy and enthusiasm about the things that he does. He gets everybody involved, he's so excited about the music and he's so excited about us and our participation that it's infectious."
Kraft estimates that compared to last year, the class size has doubled from observers wanting to be a part of the experience.
"You just walk out of here snapping your fingers and smiling. Everybody's so happy and we're all hugging," Kraft says. "You know we're just all crazy about him."
Barnes spends his time touring, performing and writing, but every year, looks forward to returning to Augusta Blues Week. If he's not teaching, practicing with students or performing, he can be found in the late night hang-out, the Ice House, pulled up to the dusty, worn piano.
"There's no experience like Augusta. There is none," he says. "It's incredible power, incredible love going around, and everybody's so supportive here. Good and bad does not really matter here."
Each year when people come from all over the country and world to learn about the blues from the best of the best, a handful of them sign up for Barnes' Gospel Singing class out of curiosity, from experience or because of the reputation that it has established for Barnes' infectious teaching style and likeable character. Many of them will return the next year. "Oh yes," he says about continuing to attend Augusta in the coming years. "As long as they'll have me."