If you listen to blues music long enough, you’ll hear stories about the “one strand on the wall” upon which old time blues legends learned to play guitar. The strand was a length of baling wire nailed up on a wall and stretched tight with bricks. A broken bottleneck or old nail was used as a slide or pick.
Imagine a six-year old child, dressed in ragged overalls, barefoot with fingers wrapped around the glass neck from a broken whiskey bottle, coaxing a lonesome note from baling wire nailed up on the side of a Mississippi Delta sharecropper cabin and you will understand why he grew up to play the blues. B. B. King related much the same story about his childhood to William Ferris at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss.
Big Joe Williams told music writer Debra Devi how as a child he made himself a one string guitar with baling wire and two thread spools. He went on to a 40-year career as a bluesman and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1992. During his career, he used a nine-string guitar to trademark his unique sound. His grave marker reads “King of the Nine String Guitar,” but it was the one strand on the wall that got him started.
One strand on the wall was opportunity in the midst of a very personal poverty. Parents and siblings who saw a child’s talent had to create the strand out of necessity. They could not afford the $10 that a cheap guitar cost from Sears and Roebuck. Being a little less poor than his Delta peers, Doc Watson, known more for bluegrass than blues, sawed lumber as a child to earn the $10 for his first guitar and he was blind.
Doc Watson later left Deep Gap, North Carolina and attended the NC School for the Deaf and Blind. He went on to Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s where he became a major influence in the American folk music revival. Big Joe Williams toured around the South and finally found international fame in Greenwich Village about the same time as Doc. B. B. King went north to Memphis and then to Los Angeles where he became the larger than life B. B. King. These musicians and a host of others with similar backgrounds went on to become major influences in American music, all because of one strand and a little help from friends and family.
If we define poverty generally as having insufficient or unreliable resources, South Carolina has many communities that are impoverished on a generational level. They lack the one basic building block that would allow them to pull themselves out of poverty: a reliable tax base. Before my conservative friends call for a straight jacket and admit me to the nearest Trump property before I call for a tax increase (which I’m not doing, just to be clear) allow me to elaborate.
A tax base consists of activities that generate tax revenue from current tax rates. Retail sales, real property ownership and improvements, wages earned and large and small business activity are the basic components of a tax base. Long established rural communities that never developed these components have great difficulty pulling out of generational poverty.
When it comes to creating a modern educational system, these communities are caught in a catch-22. In our current economy, education improves people whose skills attract business that creates wealth that fuels the tax base that sustains the educational system that communities need to improve in the first place.
How do we avoid the old “throw money at the problem” impulse, which is just redistributing tax revenue from elsewhere, and help communities build their own tax base? By requiring local school districts to offer classes in subjects that students will actually need in our modern technology driven economy, classes that can be that one strand on the wall that sparks the student to develop greater skills and attract business to the community. Or better yet, creates the opportunity for that student to start his own business in the community.
House Bill 3427 creates an important one strand among many that will be needed in the future. Filed as the South Carolina Computer Science Education Initiative, it requires all public school districts to offer students at least one substantive computer science class in each high school. The Initiative goes on to require grade appropriate computer courses for k-12 students and creates the process for communities to earn a STEM designation that can be used to showcase their progress and attract business.
Then, when you are not in a dark place listening to Lightning Hopkins, take a moment to ruminate on the high school computer science requirement. The fact that these classes are not already required speaks loudly as to why generational poverty continues to exist in South Carolina.