Deep River: A Blues Speakeasy: Reflections of a Host

Written by Levita Mondie

Deep River: A Blues Speakeasy was a dream-come-true event for me that brought together everything that I envision for gatherings in my home.  The event tapped into an integral part of who I am, for I hail from Memphis, Tennessee, home of the Blues. I surround myself with the blues, not only in terms of the music itself, but also in terms of the art that adorns the walls and shelves of my home and the downhome, welcoming vibe that permeates whether my guests are conscious of it or not.  My vision for gatherings involves bringing together diverse groups of people. Within 48 hours of sending out the announcement for Deep River, 41 of my neighbors, friends and family had RSVP’d. In less than three days, we reached our guestlist limit of 50 and began to build a wait list. While many of the RSVP’s were folks who lived right in my neighborhood of Historic Anacostia and friends from other quadrants of the city, the majority of those who actually came out were people I didn’t know, including employees and friends of Washington Performing Arts and the 11th Street Bridge Park.  Some guests were lovers of the blues while others were curious about what a Blues Speakeasy in someone’s home would look like.

In addition to being from Memphis, I am a teacher who has taught for more than 20 years and on levels spanning from 6th grade to seniors in college.  Currently I teach integrated literature and history to 7th and 8th graders at Burgundy Farm Country Day School. Teaching is who I am. By extension, I want my home to be a stimulating space both intellectually and culturally.  Washington Performing Arts’ Mars Urban Arts Curator Shay Stevens succeeded in creating that for the Blues Speakeasy by way of a panel discussion featuring blues scholars as well as a series of live performances by local musicians before a packed house.  As an educator, I also value collaboration, which I got to practice in working with WPA’s expert curators and music event planners. I appreciate the conflict and ideas that come from putting creative minds together. Amazingly, it took only a few meetings, emails, and phone conversations to carry out this rich event.

In addition to providing and preparing a physical space for the event, I also got to curate the food.  Even though I have catered, done cooking demos, conducted individual and group cooking lessons, and started a food blog, curating food required something slightly different of me.  It involved carrying out the theme of the occasion into the menu. To arrive at what I would prepare, I played the blues while exercising, while driving, while cleaning the house, and cooking in my kitchen.  I mulled over the titles and lyrics of songs. Then, I paid closer attention to “Catfish Blues,” the cover that Jimi Hendrix recorded in 1967, “Well, I wish I was a catfish/ Swimmin’ in the deep blue sea/ I’d have all you women/ Fishin’ after me.”  I thought catfish is Memphis, and Memphis is the blues. What goes with catfish? From there I came up with a “Catfish Blues Menu” that featured fried catfish, collard greens, candied yams, black eyed peas, cornbread and, for dessert, a cobbler made with fresh strawberries, black berries, blue berries, and black cherries topped with ice cream.  With the exception of the ice cream, everything was made from scratch. Like a blues musician I worked with my own hands and with what whatever my heart led me to do with them. With the exception of the fish and ice cream, everything was vegan, which meant I was improvising on traditional southern cuisine and coming up with delicious, more life-affirming versions of these well-known dishes.  This meal illustrated the perfect combination of flavors, colors, and textures. We presented the dishes on wooden plates that were then served to each guest, a gesture meant to deepen the experience of southern hospitality that goes hand in hand with the Blues. I spent over 20 hours on the food alone and my reward was the smiles, compliments, requests for seconds and thirds, cleaned plates, and empty pots and pans.

In the last 30 minutes of the program, there was a jam session.  During which, I was back in teacher mode leading a mini-lesson on the most common form of the blues, the 12-bar blues.  I presented the AAB lyrical pattern that characterizes many of the songs that fit into this category. “Dust my Broom” by Elmore James provides an example:

A         I’m gon’ get up in the mornin’ I believe I’ll dust my broom
A         I’m gon’ get up in the mornin’ I believe I’ll dust my broom
B          I quit the best gal in lovin’ Now my friends can get in my room

I even risked embarrassing myself by actually trying to sing.  By the time I invited guests to write their own blues, they too were willing to take risks, get up and sing.  It was a fun way to end a dynamic event.

Deep River: A Blues Speakeasy was a success that I would gladly do all over again with just a few tweaks. Thank you to Shay Stevens of Washington Performing Arts and the 11 Street Bridge Park for allowing me to serve in this way. Video credit: Lamarr Darnell Shields Video credit: Comedienne Meshelle Foreman Shields