Any blues lover in the state of Virginia has long known Ellen Foster. She was the driving force behind the River City Blues Society, the blues society that serves the Richmond city and surrounding areas. She’s also been a staple at nearly every blues show and festival in the state, and even beyond.
Foster is a true lover of music, not just the blues, although that occupies much of her time and talent. Recently she stepped away from her role as President of the RCBS to pursue her passion even further. Below is an interview we conducted about that new direction.
Porter: Welcome to Conversing With The Blues. I’m John Porter, the co-host of Time For The Blues, heard on WCVE-Music in Richmond, VA and the internet on htttp://www.ideastations.org/. My guest at this time is Ellen Foster, and she is here to discuss the work of American Music Educators. Thank you for joining us.
Ellen Foster: Absolutely, I’m excited to talk with you.
Porter: I’m thrilled to have you here. Would you start off by telling us, what is American Music Educators?
Ellen Foster: American Music Educators is an opportunity for artists to share themselves. It’s a curated group that we chose because we know that they have the ability to educate and already have experience in that. The idea behind it is to share themselves – their knowledge, their experience, even their abilities – everything they’ve learned throughout their lives and not just in blues, but in the world of music. We’re trying to broaden it beyond blues.
Porter: What direction are you taking it beyond the blues? Americana?
Ellen Foster: Americana. Jazz. The idea that we have artists that can talk about the world of civil rights. We have artists that talk about African music and Creole music. So it’s not just blues, but it’s a broader sense of American music, even broader than Americana.
Porter: So you’re looking at it then as a social construct where you’re exploring the music that shapes our culture?
Ellen Foster: Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it because we believe that our music in any particular decade, sometimes the history comes first and sometimes the music comes first.
Porter: Who is involved? You mentioned you have a number of other people helping you.
Ellen Foster: Well, the most important person is my business partner and the person who really came up the idea, Tina Terry, who has been in this business for 25-some years as an agent and a manager before that. We wanted to find a way to broaden the opportunities for our artists, but also teach the world.
Porter: I like that idea. Tell me about your artists. Who’s involved?
Ellen Foster: One you know very well, Gaye Todd Adegbalola, everybody knows her from -
Ellen Foster: Saffire The Uppity Blues Women. She lives in Fredericksburg in the Central Virginia Area. Recently she was honored by the Library of Virginia as a Woman of Letters for 2018, so we’re thrilled that that happened for her. We may have to talk more about her a little later, she’s a whole couple of hours on her own. Guy Davis – musician, playwright, and educator. Phil Wiggins – all of these people are award winners. Phil Wiggins, of course, worked with John Cephas for many years, and he now travels the world to teach people about Piedmont Blues.
Porter: That’s an explanation in itself.
Ellen Foster: And we’re thrilled to have Bob Margolin now.
Porter: I love Bob Margolin. He was Muddy Waters’ guitar player for a number of years.
Ellen Foster: Yes. Yes. We are very happy to have him with us. He’s been an educator for many years as well. And he wanted to be a part of American Music Educators as well. Corey Harris -
Porter: Corey Harris is involved?
Ellen Foster: Corey Harris is involved and I think this takes us in another direction as I think he gives us a wonderful combination of contemporary and old school music. He’s played with Robert Jr. Lockwood, Honeyboy Edwards, and he studies the music of Africa. He’s over in Europe right now studying and I can’t wait to see what he brings back with him. Even beyond that Alvin Youngblood Hart who was part of the film Rumble, which was released in 2017, we’ve got a jazz artist that’s waiting to jump in, Joe Krown -
Porter: Oh, Joe Krown will be a great addition.
Ellen Foster: - And I can talk about Eden Brent.
Porter: Oh, I love Eden Brent, she’s so delightful.
Ellen Foster: Yes, and you know she’s always been involved in the teaching of the history of the music.
Ellen Foster: But I have to leave one out there dangling. I’ll save that for next time.
Porter: That’s alright, you always want to leave your audience wanting a little more. What do you accomplish when you do one of your shows? Take me through what it is you do, where you do it, and what’s the outcome.
Ellen Foster: Well, first of all, we want it to be known that we can produce a show for a particular audience. It doesn’t have to be the same thing. Like even if it is Gaye [Adegbalola], she can focus in a different direction. She can talk about the history of the blues, she can also talk about civil rights. I was thinking that when she finishes her autobiography, it will be a history of the last 70 years.
Porter: I’ve seen some of it and it’s amazing what she’s already put down on paper.
Ellen Foster: So you’ve got Bob Margolin and the history of electric blues, and also where electric blues came from. He could do a presentation for 12-year old children, or he could do one for adults. He can talk about stage presence or about where the blues came from in Mississippi and this would be at home in a university classroom. One of the things Gaye [Adegbalola] has done lately is a presentation for the Martin Agency and they wanted to hear her talk about diversity, and of course, that is a huge topic right now.
Ellen Foster: Corey [Harris] wants to bring the idea of the artists of Mali and combine that with the banjo and show everybody how that was southeastern music that became part of the blues and Americana, and its part of bluegrass. There’s that crooked path.
Ellen Foster: It can be in a classroom, it can be in an auditorium, it can be in a living room with a select group of people, performing arts centers – we’re not going to dictate where our audience wants to learn.
Porter: This program differs from Blues In The School, because, as their name says, it’s in the schools, in the classroom. You’re saying you would go into a museum for example. I know that Gaye [Adegbalola] recently did a lecture and performance in Richmond at the Black History Museum And Culture Center of Virginia and really put together a great presentation. I wonder if the students who saw it had ever appreciated how the music dovetailed into the social fabric of the country?
Ellen Foster: There was a whole classroom of students from across the street that was lucky enough to come see her. So many of them were asking her questions after the presentation and that’s exactly what we were hoping for. But then she turned around and did a presentation for an all adult audience at the Martin Agency. The topics may be broad but they all boil down to the music and society and how it all comes together.
Porter: How can people help? I imagine interested musicians can contact you or Tina Terry to offer their time, but how can community leaders take part in the program?
Ellen Foster: One of the things we’re looking for is connections. Connections with universities, with programming a foot in the door at the Mannes School Of Music or the Monk Institute for example. As you well know, sometimes it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door. I hope this interview will help me get the word out that we are here. And we want it to be a positive experience for the artists and a positive event for the institution. Maybe somebody reading this is in government and knows of a grant that could help us develop the program because we want the money that comes in to go to the artists. Part of our point aside from the teaching of the music is to give these artists a chance to make a living by not constantly being on the road, so if we can add one of these programs when the artists are touring, then it makes it easier. We hope that eventually, the artists will be able to do a short residency; maybe four days, somewhere like Howard University. Or Julliard.
Porter: That would be nice, wouldn’t it? How can people find out more information about American Music Educators?
Ellen Foster: Well, they can go on http://www.tinaterryagency.com/american-music-educators/ and that gives the basics about our artists and the program. People can email me at and they can also call me at (336) 255-7109.
Porter: Hopefully, someone who reads this has a great venue and are looking for a special event and will reach out to you and you’ll be able to get one of your artists out in front of their audience. Thank you, Ellen Foster with American Music Educators, for joining us here today.
Update: Since this interview was taped, American Music Educators has added Rory Block and steel pan player Jonathan Scales to their roster. In addition, all artists on the Tina Terry Agency are available as American Music Educators.