Billy Branch has been playing the blues for more than 40 years. During that time, he has appeared on more than 150 recordings, including 12 albums under his own name. His performances on Harp Attack, an all-star effort with Carey Bell, James Cotton, and Junior Wells, solidified his reputation among a generation of harmonica players as the heir apparent and standard bearer for Chicago’s storied tradition. A fixture on the international blues circuit, Branch regularly headlines blues festivals with Sons of Blues, the legendary band he cofounded in the 1970s with Lurrie Bell (son of Carey Bell) and Freddie Dixon (son of Willie Dixon).
Check out Sons of Blues ripping through “I’m Ready” from the 1994 American Music Festival.
Branch’s excellence has been widely recognized. Among his accolades, he has received three Grammys, an Emmy, and countless other awards.
So if all Billy Branch had done over the past four decades was play incendiary harp, he would rightly be counted among today’s blues luminaries. But wait, there’s more. In 1978, he cofounded “Blues in the Schools,” a program that introduces youth to the blues music and its history. Each student receives a blues harmonica and lessons on how to play it as well as assignments to write and perform blues songs. Since that time, Brach himself has led sessions throughout Chicago Public Schools and the surrounding area, and some graduates of Blues in the Schools have gone on to become professional musicians. As Branch was quick to point out in an interview with Chicago Blues Guide, “We want the kids to understand the significance and the relevance of blues and develop an appreciation for it.”
That sentiment is what makes the program so important. Blues is a people’s music, passed down from generation to generation. It’s in these ways that the personal stories and events are kept alive. (Listen to Howlin’ Wolf sing “The Natchez Burning” for a quick lesson on an event that likely didn’t make it into the history books.) Any music takes on added resonance with audiences when they understand the circumstances that shaped its sound and subject matter, and the blues is no different.
Proving the universal appeal of the blues, Branch has taken Blues in the Schools around the world, conducting workshops for students in Asia, Europe, and Central and South America. For many members of the younger generations around the globe, Billy Branch was their first exposure to the blues. The further blues gets from to Mississippi Delta or Chess Records, the more vital such efforts will be in keeping this music alive.
It’s why Branch could be found recently conducting a Blues in the Schools residency in Traverse City, Michigan, prior to heading to Switzerland to headline the Lucerne Blues Festival. Thanks to Branch’s efforts, the blues will remain alive and well for years to come.
Branch’s musical and educational accomplishments make him an ideal member of CBE’s Artist Board. One of CBE’s major components is the Chicago Blues Experience Foundation, an initiative dedicated to blues education. Financed by a percentage of the CBE’s profits, the CBEF aims to celebrate, preserve, educate, and create access to all aspects of blues culture through educational programming, music appreciation, community outreach, and assistance to blues musicians and their families.