Music festival organized by kids encourages town weighed down by negativity
By Marleen Shepherd
CAIRO — In helping to organize the Cairo Music Festival tonight, 17-year-old Angelica Johnson picked up an interesting fact about her city.
“Louis Armstrong had his trumpet stolen in Cairo,” Johnson said. “The Cairo police found it and returned it to him.”
Orchestrating the fest, which celebrates the city’s musical pedigree, has given Johnson and more than 40 other Cairo High School students a better awareness of its extraordinary heritage.
The confluence once hosted the biggest names in blues, featuring artists such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson in its black-owned clubs.
But beyond the history lesson, the music festival is a shot of pain relief for the seemingly snake-bit city.
“Mostly the opinion of Cairo is that it’s a pretty bad town,” said 17-year-old Michael Harrell. “We’d like to get that opinion over with.”
Cairo looms large within river culture and as a railroad hub, and it figured prominently in the Civil War and civil rights movement. But Cairo’s beguiling history is disfigured by its extreme poverty and a dark legacy of racial strife and municipal mismanagement.
“If people would take a deeper look, they would see a lot of positive things going on within our community,” Johnson said.
The city’s youth are among those lifting up Cairo, with the help of caring adults and social service agencies.
“These are amazing, great kids,” said Kevin Schraer, who works with Cairo’s at-risk youth as the street outreach coordinator for the Delta Center Inc.
“Every day they go out and try to do something that makes Cairo a better place. The youth we work with realize they can make a difference, because we do it all the time.”
Case in point is the music festival from 6 to 9 tonight at Box Field. With money from Gov. Blagojevich’s summer youth employment program, the Delta Center was able to pay the teens $7 an hour for 25-hour workweeks over eight weeks to plan the fest.
“Obviously for Cairo this is a big deal because of the high poverty rate as well as lack of jobs. From what I understand, there’s a waiting list to actually get hired in town somewhere. Basically, they would have no options. Most don’t have vehicles, so they can’t drive to Cape Girardeau or Chester to get a job,” Schraer said.
“I would’ve probably been doing nothing this summer,” confirmed Harrell, who crafted a documentary about the festival and the city’s history instead.
Both Harrell, who hopes to become a lawyer, and Johnson, who has medical school aspirations, said the experience will give them a leg up on college applications.
“I want to minor in business, and it’s shown me how to talk to people,” Johnson said.
She helped gather history to be displayed at the fest, recruit vendors and informational booths, and secure the entertainment, which includes Chicago rappers Tony Lacy, Haley and Sam-I-Am.
The highlight of the festival is a performance by Stace England, whose critically acclaimed CD, “Greetings From Cairo, Illinois” is based on the city’s story.
The work was a roots hit featured on National Public Radio and named one of the Village Voice Critics Pool “Top Ten Albums of 2005.”
“Greetings From Cairo, Illinois” continues to captivate fans across the world. In November, England and his band (Dane Spalt, drums; Ron Johnson, bass; and Charlie Tabing, guitar) will present the material at Holland’s Crossing Border Festival at the Hague.
England jumped at the chance to give his first public performance in Cairo tonight at no charge.
“We consider it an honor to be asked, and we’re delighted to come down there,” England said. “We try to be positive ambassadors for the city wherever we go.”
England, who has strummed his oral histories for the children in the program, was at first struck by how little they knew about their community’s past.
“I always tell them to be proud they are from Cairo,” England said.
From the look of things, they already are.