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There is nothing better than like minds meeting and sharing musical experiences. I have been a musician for the majority of my life, and every time I have the opportunity to ask questions and probe into the life of another musician, it is a very rewarding experience.
I’ve also been on the artist selection committee for the Riverbend Festival for years now. As part of this, I have met a lot of very interesting people—and we all share the same love and passion for music. The committee's job is to determine what acts will play the festival. Everyone on the committee has their own special interest and knowledge in music—which makes for an enriched musical experience without clamorous exchanges of ideas. In our meetings genres are discussed, new artists are introduced, CDs are shared, and emails with artist bios are forwarded so that everyone is on the same musical page. From time to time, new individuals are brought into the fold to add to the already conversant group. So when Dr. Clark White, aka Deacon Bluz, a harmonica-toting front man with his own group, called the "Holy Smoke Band" joined the club, I immediately wondered: Where has he been? Who has he met, and what experiences would he share with the group?
What I quickly learned about Deacon Bluz was far more than I could have ever imagined.
Dr. Clark White was born in Chattanooga in 1949, started his scholastic journey at Orchard Knob Elementary School—and ended it with degrees from Morehouse College, a Ph.D from Michigan State University and post-doctoral work at Harvard University.
He has taught at Michigan State, Temple University, Northeastern University, Brown University, Morehouse and Spelman College, and now, though semi-retired, is an adjunct faculty member at UTC. In an interview, Dr. White told me that music was always around him as a child, and that he was always encouraged to share his love of it. Never shy about performing, he laughed as he recalled his first TV appearance, which happened in the WDEF studios in the old Volunteer Building at the tender age of 5 years old. He sang "The Yellow Rose of Texas" in a cowboy outfit.
Dr. White “always knew that from an early age that music, in some form or fashion, would play a vital role in his life.” One of the very first things he can remember musically was the sound of his aunt's upright piano. He started receiving formal music training in middle school, playing in the band while learning to master the clarinet and saxophone. This training continued into his senior year of high school.
In the White household, knowledge was absolutely paramount. His parents stressed the importance of a good education in a time where chances of upward mobility for blacks in Chattanooga were few and far between.
"I was socialized to be successful and think highly of myself. Behind segregated walls my parents had to do that, because the entire society was trying to tell me that I was inferior,” Dr. White remembered. “I thought segregation was a joke. It was like living in a fairytale. I was always trying to be heroic and fight it. Anytime I had an encounter with my white counterparts, we were trying to out do them in any kind of way whether it was sports, band, elocution, anything."
His parents, who were highly educated, saw to it that he was exposed to as much as possible. "There were no opportunities for us back then,” he said. “If I had not left when I did, I knew that I would be someone's janitor because that was the only work that a black man could get. We knew growing up that we would be leaving Chattanooga. This was a place to be from, not a place to stay."