Barbara B. Newman: Blues Foundation President on a Blues Mission!

"It doesn’t matter your race, religion, nationality or socio-economic position when it comes to good music. We are all part of humanity and music is that universal language."

Barbara B. Newman is the new President and Chief Executive Officer of The Blues Foundation, the Memphis-based, international music organization dedicated to preserving blues music history, celebrating recording and performance excellence, supporting blues education and ensuring the future of this unique art form. Ms. Newman is a fourth-generation Memphian with deep ties to the city that annually hosts the world's two premier blues music events—the International Blues Challenge and the Blues Music Awards—and is now home to the physical Blues Hall of Fame, expected to draw thousands of visitors annually. She earned a B.A. in Political Science from Brown University, later adding advanced training in accounting, money and banking, and corporate finance during her tenure with New York-based National Westminster Bank, USA.

Upon her return to Memphis, she began non-profit work with the Bornblum Solomon Schechter School Board of Directors, serving as Treasurer, Vice-President of both Administration and Fundraising, and President. From 2007 to the present, she served as Executive Director of Beth Sholom Synagogue, where her responsibilities included financial administration, communications, human resources, and facility management. She has also been active leader engaged with Board development, fundraising, and strategic planning for Planned Parenthood, Greater Memphis Region. She also has worked in the for-profit sector, serving nine years as financial manager of a restaurant and catering business. She was raised in the world of music, with many family members working in the music industry. Her introduction to the blues occurred when she attended a 7th grade assembly in which Blues Hall of Famer Furry Lewis performed. Even though she was only 11 years old, she knew she was in the company of greatness. She is a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and Folk Alliance International. She and her husband, Bruce Newman, a Memphis entertainment attorney and CPA, have co-produced multiple fundraising concerts for a variety of organizations, gaining experience in all logistical areas of music production and event planning. Her vision includes ensuring The Blues Foundation grows its financial viability to reach an even larger constituency, from children first learning about this unique music to musicians and patrons around the world. This includes solidifying its well-respected programs, building upon the existing high-level communication with and support to its membership, interfacing and partnering with other local, national, and international agencies, building a strong endowment, and opening new avenues for members to participate and receive support from the organization.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture and what does the blues mean to you?

While the blues are loved and revered internationally, they are an authentically American music form, going back to my country’s history and stories. Knowing where the blues came from, and being aware of the struggles of the people who sang those early songs, touches my heart. I have such respect for those who came before me and who created this music, and for those who have taken those early blues and have built upon the music to allow it to evolve. It’s music that you feel in your guts. And in listening to the music, I recognize that all of us are interconnected by the challenges of life as well as by our successes.

How do you describe and what characterize The Blues Foundation philosophy and mission?

Interesting that you should ask this question as our Board of Directors has just completed a review of our Mission Statement, which is as follows: “To preserve blues heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensure the future of this uniquely American art form.” This mission statement encompasses all of our programs and the work that we do each day to move this organization forward. It’s about respecting and honoring the history, enjoying and celebrating the music of the past and the present, creating opportunities for the entire world to embrace the music and enjoy it’s sound, creating educational opportunities for our youth to learn about blues history and to study music, thereby encouraging them to follow in the footsteps of those who came before them, and taking care of our blues community with initiatives to create healthy work and healthy lives.

Was something specific that made you begin to follow the Blues, or was it more of a compilation of experiences?

I grew up in Memphis, TN, the home of the blues and the birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll. I also grew up in a musical family, where my great uncle also lived in Memphis and was a charter member of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and a sessions musician at Stax Recording Studios and in Muscle Shoals, AL. So, I was regularly exposed to music in its many forms, whether blues, classical, soul, or rock. I heard Furry Lewis live at a school assembly when I was just 11 years old, which I remember vividly and which was my first exposure to live blues music. All of these opportunities to be around musicians and to hear different sounds led to my own eclectic musical tastes. In the past two decades, my husband and I have been producing concerts for a variety of causes, and many of the artists we have booked for these events have come out of the folk world, where I was reintroduced to the early blues singers. These experiences led me back to the music I first heard as a young child in Memphis, TN, namely the music of this region, which began in the Delta and then came through Memphis, the city which was the springboard for the blues to the rest of the world.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

There is not any single person or event which I can single out as being more important than any other. Since taking this position, I have already begun to meet one-on-one with people in the music business and leaders in arts and politics, and I have attended festivals where I have met the musicians and the fans. Each of these individuals brings a different perspective to the table and I have found each conversation to be as valuable as the next in giving me a picture of where the Blues Foundation is right now and what our opportunities are for the future. What I have learned, first and foremost, is that this is a very close community of people who love the music, love each other, and truly care about the art form. The best advice I have received and which I remind myself of each day is to listen carefully and to be available. This will be the best way to learn and to lead.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I am a big fan of the acoustic blues music of the past, while I love the electric guitars and the livelier sound of the blues bands I hear these days. My biggest concern for the future is that younger generations have the opportunity to hear this music more frequently and to embrace it so that it remains a live music form which can continue to grow and evolve. We know that this is a challenge we face as our demographic studies show that blues fans tend to be older, and we are working on initiatives such as Blues in the Schools and our Generation Blues Scholarships program to help young blues musicians attend summer blues camps. So I guess you could say that my concerns of how to better reach a younger audience leads straight into my hopes that our work will have an impact and that this music will remain both historical and very much alive and growing.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues from the Work/Railroad songs to The Blues Foundation era?

It’s all about the history, and we learn everyday how important it is to respect the history. The music of the past opens the doors for future musicians to take what has come before them and to build upon it. This is how music evolves. If you listen to Robert Johnson or Charley Patton and then listen to Muddy Waters or BB King, you can hear the roots of the music as blues, but you also recognize that the music changes and grows as new players bring their own individuality to it. This is the connection from those old songs to the present day. It’s the piece of our mission that relates to both preserving blues heritage and celebrating blues recording and performance. All of it is valuable and all of it deserves our respect.

What is the biggest change which can and need be realized in near or far future of the Blues world?

I’m not sure that we can define the change that needs to be realized as much as we are aware that we have to do a better job of promoting the music and to reaching more people with our mission. There are hundreds of thousands of blues fans across the world, but only a fraction of them are members of the Blues Foundation. We know that we need to reach more people and encourage them to join in order to provide us the needed resources to expand our programs and to reach more people, thereby growing the music form and doing an even better job of meeting our mission. And as I have mentioned, we want to be able to do more to reach young people and to introduce them to the blues. We hear too often that “the blues is sad music” but those of us who listen to this music and who spend time in clubs and attend festivals and concerts know that there is much more to this music than that stereotype. So we have a lot of work to do to educate the general public and to bring them around to this music. It’s not old music from a bygone era. It’s very much alive and relevant today.

Why did you think that The Blues Foundation continues to generate such a devoted following?

This is an easy one – The blues is more than just music. The blues is a community. It’s a feeling that gets into your soul. And once you really listen to it, you are hooked. The Blues Foundation continues to generate such a devoted following because the music is still very much alive and its followers want to see it continue to grow and flourish. They are devoted to the music form and they know that we are the organization that represents the industry, respects the fans and is positioned to keep the music going. Again – it’s all about our mission:

To preserve blues heritage, celebrate blues recording and performance, expand worldwide awareness of the blues, and ensure the future of this uniquely American art form.

What is the impact of Blues culture and The Blues Foundation to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

From a racial perspective, we all know that the blues came out of a people who were racially oppressed and used music as a way to communicate their struggles. That history needs to be respected and honored, and we cannot forget this. I am just happy to recognize that it has also been embraced by a broader population. We must always be aware of this history and we must celebrate the people who came before us and acknowledge their part in creating this music form. I would like to think that the widespread following of the music by people of all races and all cultural backgrounds, internationally, makes a statement that music crosses all lines and is in fact the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter your race, religion, nationality or socio-economic position when it comes to good music. We are all part of humanity and music is that universal language.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I was a young child in the 1960’s, but really did not come of age until the late ‘70’s. If I had access to a time machine, I would love to return to the 50’s/60’s, spend time in the NYC Greenwich Village clubs, with the beatniks and the counterculture; enjoy the Newport Folk Festival during the time in which the great early blues artists had been found and were being reintroduced to American music, experience the San Francisco counter-culture, and finally be a part of the Woodstock festival and experience.

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