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Barrelhouse Bonni: Bio

Barrelhouse Bonni - Piano Vocal

bonnibeltstheblues-cropped-two.jpg  "Barrelhouse Bonni" McKeown is a journalist, blues piano player, teaching artist, and citizen activist who presents and supports heritage musicians upholding the blues and soul tradition. Her motto: PRAY FOR PEACE; WORK FOR JUSTICE; BOOGIE FOR SURVIVAL.

 Bonni's blues piano, singing and songwriting style echoes back to the upright pianos in the juke joints and barrelhouses of the South, and the Bessie Smith era of vintage 1930s blues. From Chicago to her home state of West Virginia and beyond, she takes the blues to concerts, classes, parties, senior homes, and festivals. True to the tradition of this community music, Bonni involves the audience. For seniors, she leads a campfire-style sing-along of early 20th century favorites.

Bonni has performed in a series of duos with distinguished senior blues musicians including Chicago singers Gloria Shannon and Larry Taylor, guitarist Eddie Taylor Jr. and sax player Abb Locke, and fine West Virginia horn players like Bob Redd, Marshall Petty and Dugan Carter. From tastefully naughty ragtime era tunes to goodtime dances and beautiful ballads, fans learn that good music never fades away! 


Bonni’s music sounds best on a traditional acoustic stringed piano, as in this

But she also has piano, will travel: a sound system, microphones and an electric keyboard if needed. Financial arrangements for concerts, classroom workshops, and book talks are negotiated depending on time, effort, travel, and causes. An advocate of sustainable transportation, she often carpools or takes trains and public transportation to her gigs.

On Bonni's own 2003 CD, Barbershop Blues, three of Washington DC’s finest acoustic bluesmen—Jay Summerour, Mike Baytop and NJ Warren—play as guests, recording several songs at the landmark Archie Edwards barbershop.

Bonni co-produced and played on Chicago West Side singer and bandleader Larry Taylor’s debut CD in 2004, They Were in This House, which the Chicago Sun-Times called “one of the year’s best blues albums.”  Wolf Records in Austria reissued Taylor's album in 2011. In 2017 they produced an EP of four of Larry's original tunes: "New Chicago Sounds of Larry Taylor." She has often played with Larry Taylor's blues and soul band:

Chicago School of Blues - Educational blues workshops


 During the early 2000s, Bonni taught blues history and music with elementary students at Austin Town Hall, Donoghue Elementary in Chicago; Piedmont School in Charleston WV; with seniors at Charleston’s FestivALL Elderhostel; and on the road in Morgan County, WV with West Virginia singer-songwriter “Lady D,” Doris Fields.

Since 2009, she has helped reconnect generations through a traveling educational workshop called Chicago School of Blues.  Students learn to compose their own blues tunes, and a band of South and West Side musicians introduces them to musical instruments.  Through blues, students discover the history of African Americans and America in general. Blues is at the root of much of America's popular music-- rock, hiphop, R&B jazz, and even country.


Blues on Film - Producer

Working with videographer Chris Wilkinson in July of 2013, Bonni produced a concert video of bluesmen in action at BBF, a West Side social service agency. You can hear up close and personal blues and soul performed by singers Willie D and Larry Taylor, backed by Joe B on guitar, Curtis LaBon drums, J.R. "Bootsie" Lee on bass, plus herself on keys and guest guitarist Jon McDonald.  Working with Wilkinson using footage shot by Darryl Pitts, she produced videos of Larry Taylor "On Drums"  and "On the Blues."

That year Bonni launched her own company, Stepson of the Blues LLC, and began producing her own feature film about a family of Chicago blues musicians in the 1960s-70s, based on part of Larry Taylor's life story, The Rhythm and the Blues . Featuring the actor Leon as Eddie Taylor and bluesman/actor/storyteller Guy Davis as Jimmy Reed. With producing partner Darryl Pitts, they filmed several scenes in 2015 and are currently raising money to complete the movie.


Larry Taylor: Promotion, Keyboard - Soul Blues Healers

Bonni has served as publicity and promoter, and often keyboard player, for Chicago West Side blues and soul singer/drummer Larry Taylor--oldest in the talented musical family of the late Eddie Taylor Sr. and Vera Taylor.  Bonni co-wrote and published Larry's limited-edition autobiography Stepson of the Blues, and co-produced his album They Were in This House.  Larry is a leader in the blues and soul tradition of Chicago. He and Bonni use the blues--the root of all American popular music--to bring people together.  He calls his band the Soul Blues Healers.  He and Bonni occasionally perform in a piano-vocal duo. 

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Peaceful Patriot Press - Publishing and writing; organizing history


Bonni's writings and presentations convey a lifetime of grassroots citizenship and a respectful, constantly growing knowledge of African American culture.

 She organized the archives of Capon Springs and Farms, a historic spa with 200 year old buildings in eastern W.Va., and wrote the book on these buidlings.  She helps people sort through their history--see this website section on "Organize Your History." 

Her blog "West Side Blues" plus freelance articles on neighborhood business and culture, appears in the Austin Weekly News, based in Chicago's farthest-west West Side neighborhood.

In 2006-07 she helped organize the Charleston WV Blues Society and arranged for a Humanities lecture by WVU jazz professor Dr. Christopher Wilkinson about the history of African-American swing bands traveling through West Virginia. She wrote an article on today’s Charleston area black musicians for the magazine Metro Valley, spring issue 2007, and wrote the cover story on Chicago West Side musicians for Big City Rhythm and Blues magazine in August 2006.

Bonni is also a contributing writer to West Virginia Encyclopedia and the author of Peaceful Patriot: The Story of Tom Bennett, the 1980 biography of a West Virginia conscientious objector and Army medic killed in Vietnam.  In 2010 she co-wrote the autobiography of West Side Chicago blues singer/drummer Larry Hill Taylor, Stepson of the Blues, and gave a series of talks in Chicago area public libraries during Black History Month 2011. Stepson of the Blues was a limited edition and currently out of print. A second edition is planned.  

Books are listed on Bonni's own Peaceful Patriot Press.

Organize Your History