Music, Community and the Power of The Blues

I am a Vicar in Highbridge.  It’s a small town that few people outside our local area have heard of.  I usually tell people that it’s between Weston and Bridgwater.  Actually, this description says quite a lot about how Highbridge is generally perceived by those who don’t live there:  it’s a town you pass through.  On the surface it might seem there isn’t much here to make you stop.  But that’s gradually changing, and at St John’s Church, we’re doing our small bit to be a part of it.

Not long after I arrived to take up my post at St John’s, I was walking around the parish, getting a feel for the place, its story and people. I often find the best ideas come when walking around.  What kind of event could we put on in addition to the normal stuffthat churches do? What might help us engage in a different way with our community, and our community with us?   As I walked, looked, thought, (yes, and prayed) – a little rhyming phrase planted itself in my head, and I immediately went home and googled it, as you do.  ‘Blues in the Pews’ has been used before, but not very widely, and certainly not as a trademark!

The idea emerged for a jam night, held in the church, which is a great space for performance.  PA and lights would be brought in, a house band would oversee proceedings, and it would be an open stage for musicians.  I had gone to and performed at blues jams before, back in Edinburgh.  I called up my good friend Jed, a prominent Scottish blues guitar player and bandleader.  He gave me the low down on what worked and what didn’t, and how to run the night. My little band, Mossflower, would handle the house band duties, and after a couple of intensive rehearsals learning blues classics and a few obscure gems, we were all set – musically at least.

At the same time, Jane MacPherson at the Morland Hub let me know about Seed. Seed’s Creative Accelerator consultation had taken place towards the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns.  One of the key findings of that consultation was that local people would love to see more things happening in Highbridge; things they could walk to on a night out, without having to travel.  People were also keen to see live music back on the scene again after the miserable restrictions of lockdown.  Seed’s objectives and Blues in the Pews seemed like a perfect fit.


A zoom call with Laura at Seed revealed that they loved the idea and wanted to pursue it further.  What followed was a big learning curve in terms of applying for a Seed commission, getting the premises license to run a bar, as well as doing a lot of advertising and networking. The church got behind it with permission and people power, and Seed were supportive every step of the way. Ollie Davies, a great local sound engineer and musician, was on hand to help in many ways. The first night, held back in September 2021, was a huge success and we’ve been hosting the event monthly ever since.  We have also run a masterclass, and a weekend of workshops in the first year – many of which sold out – and we are running another such weekend in May 2024.

What amazes me about Blues in the Pews is the range and depth of local talent, as well as visitors from further afield.  No two months are the same. Blues has developed into a very inclusive space, where musicians from 8 to 80 can get up and have a go – and where sometimes the younger musicians are the more experienced!

People have found an opportunity to learn new performance skills, or to get back into skills they thought they’d forgotten.  It’s also been a place where people of different levels of need and ability can get involved.  Two of our regulars have additional needs, and come along with their carers.  They often sing a nursery rhyme (given a suitably blues-ifed backing by the band) and it brings the house down.  One of our participants, a young man who lives with schizophrenia, recently spoke movingly in a BBC Radio 4 interview, about how Blues in the Pews helps his self-expression and opportunities to for socialising.

We’re not purists about the blues genre; we interpret it generously.  Blues just provides an simple framework with variations that almost any musician can join in with. The genre understandably attracts a certain number of middle-aged blokes – and we love them!  But we’re also delighted that a growing cohort of female performers now come along too and show us how it’s done.


We’ve worked hard to foster this inclusive atmosphere – but at the same time, I think it’s also happened naturally because of the values and beliefs of those who run the event. Someone confessed to me that when they came at first they were worried that, because it’s in a church, there might be a veiled attempt to interest people in religion.  But when he actually come along and experienced it, his fears were soon allayed. From my perspective, Blues in the Pews shows what can happen with different areas of a local community emerge from their siloes and find they have a whole lot in common: good music, kindness, decent beer and a great night out. Plus, you know, that mysterious thing that is life itself.