Mr. Blue Shoes uses the blues to teach history to kids

‘Educators kept telling me this is what they wanted to see.’

The Fitton Center for Creative Arts is one of hundreds of performing arts venues and schools that Michael Dyson (aka “Mr. Blue Shoes”) will perform at this year. Dyson’s performance this weekend will consist of a rollicking ride through history via blues music that schoolchildren find educational, entertaining and unpredictable, all while wearing his characteristic “blue shoes.”

“I have a lot of different tactics,” Dyson said. “If I’m feeling comedic, I’ll start with a joke that I made up, or I’ll warm them up with different blues licks. It’s very improvisational, just like the blues.”

Dyson’s program will begin with the origins of blues music in Africa, and how blacks brought it with them to America during the slavery era and beyond. Dyson often goes on historical tangents, such as mentioning that the first slaves were the gladiators in Rome, or that the music of legendary bluesman, Blind Willie Johnson, wound up on a record that played on the Voyager spacecraft when it was launched in the 1970s.

“I throw in a lot of different lessons, reinforcing the content of the classroom that maybe they weren’t paying attention to the first time around,” he said. “Teachers always comment that I know a little something about everything.”

The journey to becoming Mr. Blue Shoes, a character that Dyson likened to Ronald McDonald, has been a long and unusual one. Ten years ago, Dyson and his father organized a concert by a group of nonagenarian blues legends who’d been performing since the 1930s but received little recognition outside of the blues community. They recorded the show, and the resulting album was called “Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen — Live in Dallas.” The album wound up netting Dyson a Grammy at the age of 23.

A short time later, Dyson was accompanying a talented young bluesman to an educational program, and it was suggested that Dyson provide narration and musical back-up.

“You can be a fantastic musician, but if you can’t connect with the kids, they just roll their eyes, which is the equivalent of having beer bottles thrown at you,” he said. “It worked out, and educators kept telling me this is what they wanted to see. (My associate) left to go on the festival circuit, but I wanted to stay with the kids. I’ve been working with kids since high school, and I’m basically a teacher.”