South Carolina blues legend Mac Arnold is a believer in music and arts to teach and inspire.
Arnold’s older brother, Leroy, one of 13 children in the family, taught him in his youth how to fashion a guitar out of a found object, a metal gas can, during the mid-1940s.
This ingenuity is still part of what drives Arnold today.
“My brother took that gasoline-can guitar to school for show-and-tell and he won first place,” recalls Arnold, 80 of Pelzer. “I looked up to him. Leroy taught himself to play guitar as well.”
Arnold followed suit, he says, “playing the devil out of” his own guitars, some of which he also makes out of gas cans, and in bands, alongside the likes of James Brown (who was in Arnold’s band before making it big on his own) and Muddy Waters.
March 23, Arnold and his band, Plate Full O’ Blues, are scheduled for two performances at the Greenwood 50 Performing Arts Center on the Greenwood High School campus.
One show is at 5 p.m. with school children from Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Elementary School, joined by band members from Emerald High School.
A ticketed concert at 7 p.m. is hosted by the nonprofit Greenwood Performing Arts.
March 22, an exhibit, “The Blues: A Southern Tradition” opens at The Museum of Greenwood.
Feb. 16, Arnold visited with students at Mays Elementary, to build excitement about this month’s shows and see how students are coming along with learning one of his songs, “I Can Do Anything.”
During that trip to Greenwood, Arnold and his wife of 49 years, Vonda, also toured the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site in Greenwood and learned about the Greenwood County-born educator, pastor and civil rights leader.
Arnold and one of his bandmates, Max Hightower, wrote the uplifting “I Can Do Anything” song to encourage children to stay in school.
It is the signature song of Arnold’s nonprofit foundation by the same name, devoted to arts and music education in public schools.
Terri Allen, Mays Elementary School music teacher, says during February, the school traditionally celebrates African American History month with a focus on Black artists and musicians in music and art classes.
“When Lisa Sanders, Anne Eller and Karen Jennings presented this opportunity (with Mac Arnold), we knew it would fit well with long-range plans for our curriculum.”
Fifth-grade students at Mays started playing the recorder in January. As students’ proficiency progressed, Allen said they began exploring concepts such as improvisation over 12-bar blues chord progressions.
Younger Mays Elementary students implemented the I Can Do Anything Foundation’s signature song into a school leadership program and practiced using rhythm instruments to accompany the song, Allen said.
“We are adding Mac Arnold’s music to our ukulele curriculum,” Allen added.
Bringing blues to local schools is a grant-funded outreach, hosted by community arts nonprofit organization Greenwood Performing Arts.
Funding for GPA outreach has been received from Greenwood County Community Foundation, Greenwood Women Care and the Self Family Foundation.
Greenwood’s Anne Eller, owner/host of WCRS Radio, planted the seed for this idea and says she wants it to grow.
“This is not just a one-and-done,” Eller said. “I was sitting, watching and listening during the (South Carolina Festival of Discovery) Blues Cruise and I knew about some of the camps these blues musicians have around the country. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we started infusing our young people with the excitement of the blues?’”
Eller said she kept thinking about it and talked with two of her blues musician friends, Gail Storm and Mac Arnold and Eller mentioned it to contacts with local nonprofits.
From there, Greenwood Performing Arts secured grant funds and collaborations began falling into place for different components.
“Music is a universal language,” Arnold said during a recent visit to The Museum of Greenwood and the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays historic preservation site on the campus of the GLEAMNS Human Resources Commission. “Everybody understands whether you are playin’ good or playing bad. ...
“Music teaches kids how to listen, how to remember and how to stay ahead,” Arnold said. “The only way you can read music is to stay ahead of the notes as they are being played.”
Even today, Arnold pays tribute to his humble beginnings on a metal gas-can guitar, but he’s figured out how to make it sound more “like a real instrument” by way of a wooden box inside the can.
Arnold says he and his band work to “keep music in the ears of the people.”
“All the guys in my band also work on instruments and teach the fundamentals of playing,” Arnold said.
Arnold began playing before audiences at age 14 and was a fixture on the Chicago blues scene by age 23.
“The way I ended up playing with Muddy Waters was by being bold,” Arnold said. “I got recognized as a good bass player in Chicago as time went along. You took your instrument to clubs on Blue Monday and you waited in line to get on stage.”
As a bass player for Muddy Waters, Arnold also got the chance to work with names such as Eric Clapton, Howlin’ Wolfe, Big Mama Thornton and more. Arnold later formed his own band, The Soul Invaders and eventually found himself in California, working with network television and a record company and gigs as a studio musician.
From 1971 to 1975, Arnold worked on the set of musical variety television show, “Soul Train”. During that time is when Arnold also met Vonda.
“You won’t never hear another band in this area as good as ours,” Arnold said, noting his current band name came from Sunday practice sessions at his house, where Arnold cooks a meal for everyone.
“If you want to hear the blues, come hear us play the blues like it’s supposed to be played,” Arnold said.