The Jewish Standard
Local Blues Boy Makes Peace
By Lynda Marks
A former Teaneck resident has made a creative effort to bring peace to the troubled Middle East. Last Friday afternoon, on what is typically the calm before the Jewish Sabbath, blues harmonica player Johnny Mayer hosted a Blues for Peace event at the Yellow Submarine nightclub in Jerusalem. Despite the recent security concerns, which have witnessed fewer people in the streets of the Holy City not to mention the Teaneck-like crush to get home on Friday afternoons the event attracted an impressive crowd of artists and blues enthusiasts who listened to music and poetry reading in the name of peace.
The blues is derived from the African form of Morse Code that was used in the fields of Africa by workers who communicated by drumming messages across the plains. Once enslaved in the plantations and cotton fields of the southern United States, such drumming was outlawed. After a generation or so, the infusion of Christianity and European instruments helped create hybrids, and a new music form on new instruments began to evolve. That's how the blues was born.
And with the advent of the digital age, internet maven Mayer is bringing the blues to a wider audience. Mayer's day job is PR man for Ruder Finn, an international New York-based public relations firm. His Israeli bevy of clients include private and public high-tech giants such as Arelnet, Tadiran-Scopus and Orsus. Mayer is the internet specialist at Ruder Finn who helps companies construct a message for the new media.
Mayer is also the creator of www.bluesforpeace.com, a website devoted to peace and which serves as a multi-national, multilingual forum for co-existence and understanding for blues aficionados. It has been recognized by the United Nations as well as other non-profit groups around the world.
Mayer has received downloads of blues songs written in Korean, complete with lyrics, and even correspondence from a boy living in Israel who was pen pals with the late King Hussein in the weeks before his death including the letters, now available for all to view on the website. And websites such as Allen Ginsburg's and PBS also refer surfers to Mayer's website. The Discovery
Channel will film a documentary based on Mayer's project.
Born in Milwaukee, Mayer moved to Israel two years ago from Teaneck, where he played harmonica with local blues band Big Mike and the Perpetrators. Mayer credits "Big Mike" DeVita with helping nurture the idea for Blues for Peace as an organization. "Big Mike was the first guy who said, ‘this is a home run idea if I ever heard it. One day we will produce it at Madison Square Gardens.' It's becoming a reality," says Mayer.
"This has been his baby all along," says DeVita. "He totally believes in it. The idea of Blues for Peace is that music is a healing force, and there's a lot to be learned from it, and the blues, being a music that is, founded to ward off the ills of the world and the suffering that people go through. Originally it was a healing balm and a consolation for people who were in
bondage, and the music brought a kind of peace to those people.
"Since the music has basically been passed along, it is not an ethnic music peculiar to blacks in the southern part of this country anymore -- it's taken on a wider meaning. And if you'll notice, it seems that racial and ethnic divisions dissolve when music is being played. It promotes peace and harmony. Johnny took notice of this fact, and thought blues would be a tremendous tool to foster peace." DeVita adds, "The pulse of blues music is more mature and deals with a more mature outlook on life. I do feel it actually would promote peace in that part of the world."
Fellow Milwaukee-native-turned-Teanecker Debbie Ugoretz, a renowned paper cut artist, blues fan and president of the Teaneck Cultural Arts Coalition, has been following Mayer, whom she has known since 1958. "Johnny's the most incredibly deep soul, probably the most universalistic
person in the whole world," Ugoretz says. "He's a natural for the internet, because he is totally altruistic when it comes to sharing and bringing people into this vision he has for Blues for Peace. He's loopy visionary. He opened his website to anybody and anything that had anything to do with some kind of striving for co-existence and peace. It just keeps growing and growing."
"Blues for Peace, although is a simple idea of bringing music and people together to share a common bond of experience, is not oversimplified to a point where it does not accomplish a huge feat in helping all those who are part of expressing themselves through music," says Mayer's friend, Teaneck resident Dr. Steve Ruble. " I believe that John Mayer has a wonderful heart
and mind, and is working very hard to make sure that the people of this world improve the quality of their lives through music and shared experience."
The Teaneck-based Puffin Foundation contacted Blues for Peace about doing a concert in New York City with an Arab/Jewish blues band that Mayer was asked to form, a project that he has certainly not abandoned, despite the growing difficulty of relations between the two groups of late. Mayer is optimistic that this project, too, shall succeed.
In addition to Mayer, highlights of last week's program included the poet Lili Barchilon, who read "Convivir, Paz Y Etica (Co-Existence Peace and Ethics), composed by her father, Jose Barchilon, Professor of Communications & Ethics at the University of San Juan in Argentina,
Mayer's daughter, vibraphonist Liat Mayer, and former Toronto native Eli Marcus, who is considered a foremost blues ethnomusicologist by many experts in the world of blues and folk music.
"Eli got up and said some really insightful things about Willie Dixon, who besides being a great songwriter, wrote three songs about peace," says Mayer. "Dixon's song, ‘It Don't Make Sense: You Can't Make Peace,' is about how Man can make all this stuff trains, planes, cars but you can't make peace, which is probably the easiest, most logical thing that people can do."
December 15, 2000
Copyright The Jewish Standard