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How to Blues

June 29, 2018

Originally Published: Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

 

 

The Blues as a Teaching Unit

 

The teaching of the musical elements of the blues has been an important part of my curriculum. However, the improvisation associated with the blues and jazz has always been challenging for me since I studied European music for much of my life. My goal in pursuing this unit is to develop depth in the understanding of the blues’ improvisational practices, and take this knowledge and share it with my keyboard students in a meaningful way.

 

The word improvise is defined as “To invent, compose, or recite without preparation. To make or do something using whatever you have or without arranging it or planning it in advance… play music, speak, or act without set music or words, using imagination instead.” 1

 

This word could also be said to mean unforeseen, deriving from the Latin word provisus, “to foresee.” 1  

 

In simpler words, one could say to improvise means to make it up as you go along. As it is an important factor in the blues philosophy of poetry and music, improvisation will be the focus in my unit about the blues.

 

Around the turn of the century, this unique African-American music and poetry art form was born. More than just music and poetry commonly defined as being only about feeling blue, low, or troubled, the philosophy of the blues is a universal one. The blues shows us that by confronting your situation, sharing your troubles with others, and being self-reliant in learning to deal with your problems, you have learned how to live; you have become a hero, so to speak. The improvisation of lyrics and music with style and flexibility in this art form addresses the pain of discrimination, oppression, and personal discontent.

 

Through readings in prose and poetry, I have learned to more fully appreciate the philosophy of the blues, which has given me greater perspective and depth of understanding of this art form. Cane, by Jean Toomer, is a literary masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance from the early part of this century, which is part drama, part poetry, and part fiction.2 In a contemporary criticism of this book, it was said “the difference between the possibility of black life and the reality of black life is the blues. Yet the blues idiom itself celebrates life; it celebrates the will to endure and the necessity of survival, to keep on keeping on.”3 In this book, the main character, Kabnis is tortured as he confronts his problems of being a northern teacher in the South; he is one of them, yet set apart from them. He gives intellectual expressions to the burdens of oppression and persecution through descriptions of his personal pain and dialogues with his friends. In Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, the title’s namesake has to confront poverty, an unsatisfactory social life and the general feeling of being trapped.4 She overcomes this by being thankful for the little things, such as the dandelions in her yard, or freeing a mouse from a trap; she uses her imagination to cope with a distressing reality.

 

Goals and Objectives

My unit is for fourth-grade students in the Martin Luther King and Lincoln Bassett elementary schools in New Haven who are mostly materially disadvantaged African Americans. Becoming more knowledgeable about their African American heritage can help to develop further self-esteem and pride. As the students learn about and participate in the various African and African American experiences in poetry and music that make up the blues, they will become more apt to increase their knowledge of geography, historical events, the contributions of musical performers, the vocabulary associated with this art form, and most importantly, a relevant philosophy of life.

 

In addition, this unit addresses the Core Music Standards of 2014 (PK-8) developed by the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards. They include 1) Creating by conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work, 2) Performing/Presenting/Producing by realizing and sharing artistic ideas and work through interpretation and presentation, 3) Responding by understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning, and 4) Connecting by relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

 

Students have music classes for two half-hour sessions per week. Throughout September and October, my strategy is to have everyone first read aloud a brief background of a section of the unit, and then learn to sing either an African song or African American spiritual or work song with the accompaniment of at least one African type percussion instrument. The last part of each class will incorporate some type of assessment, whether oral, or visual or written homework. The musical elements explored will include singing, playing instruments using particular patterns, the “call and response” form, syncopation, ostinatos, polyrhythms, and vocal and instrumental improvisations.

 

From January through March, students will continue to read together a brief historical and musical background, and listen to and sing the blues. In the second class of the week, they will learn to accompany their singing by playing a sequence of chords in the blues form on small keyboards, as well as a pentatonic scale with two blues notes. The last part of each class will incorporate some type of assessment, whether oral, or visual or written homework. Students will write, sing and accompany their own blues verses as a culminating project. The musical elements explored will include singing, playing a pentatonic scale, blue notes and chords on a musical keyboard, vocal and instrumental improvising, and listening to and recognizing instruments, compositional form and various vocal and instrumental performers and styles related to the blues.

 

Eleven lessons comprise this unit:

  1.  African Roots – Activities 1 to 4

  2. Spirituals – Activities 5 to 9

  3. Work Songs – Activities 10 to 15

  4. The Blues – Activities 16 to 19

  5. The Classic Blues, W.C. Handy and Bessie Smith – Activities 20 to 24

  6. The Country Blues and Blind Lemon Jefferson – Activities 25 to 27

  7. Leadbelly – Activities 28 to 31

  8. The Chicago and Urban blues with Muddy Waters and B.B. King – Activities 32 to 36

  9. The Blues and Louis Armstrong – Activities 37 to 40

  10. The Blues, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald – Activities 41 to 44

  11. Playing and Creating a Blues – Activities 45 to 48

Songs used in the lessons can be found in notation on the internet by their title followed by image results.

 

Lesson One: African Roots

Students will learn the roots of the blues in African culture, and demonstrate or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm, and improvisation.

 

Activity 1: Students will read about music in African society. 5

 

Music is a vital part of African life from the cradle to the grave and covers the widest possible range of expression, including spoken language and all manner of natural sounds. It means poetry, singing, dancing and playing on instruments, which is shared by and serves the whole community. Music marks the special events of life, as well as being a comprehensive preparation for life.

 

Vocal music is the center of such music. The utilization of the voice includes its different qualities obtained by such means as stopping the ears, pinching the nose, vibrating the tongue, and producing echoes. The objective is to translate everyday experiences into living sound. Anyone can sing, and everyone does; it is not a specialized affair. This is the essence of the collective aspect of African music. People perform it every day of their lives as a confirmation of the importance it has in their society.

 

A great variety of musical instruments are used, all handmade. Children even make their own instruments at an early age.  Instruments, critical to African music, are primarily used to support the spoken or sung language. The xylophone and drum are especially important. Drums are always present in this music, or hand clapping and stamping as a substitute. They are even used to communicate messages from one place to another. The types of drums used differ in construction and techniques from region to region.

 

African music is structured to promote the participation of all people, such as in the “call and response” song. Improvisation (“to make it up as you go along”) is encouraged and individual contributions are welcomed. Thus from a young age, as children learn traditional songs, they also learn to improvise around these songs, both with their voices and instruments.

 

Activity 2

Students will read a definition of improvisation. Selected students will demonstrate improvisation on three African types of percussion instruments—the conga drum, agogo bells, and affouchet, in addition to a demonstration of the pentatonic scale on the xylophone.

 

Activity 3

Students will learn an African call and response song “Kye Kye Kule” by repeating each short phrase with movement after the teacher demonstrates it.6 It is a very popular motion game played by young children in Ghana. The words do not have a specific meaning, and the emphasis is on mastering the traditional movements. A student leader will then sing the call alone, followed by the student response.

 

Activity 4:

Students will read definitions of ostinatos—short repeated patterns and polyrhythms—contrasting rhythms heard at the same time. They will then create ostinatos and play them together to create polyrhythms on African type instruments for a musical accompaniment to the African song.

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) conga drum, agogo bells, affouchet, and xylophone.

 

Video: Kye Kye Kule

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the class will sing the African song “Kye Kye Kule” with the correct pitch, rhythm and movement.  They will also be able to demonstrate or describe in an oral or written format the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation used in African music.

 

 

Lesson Two: Spirituals 

 

Activity 5:

Students will read about the history and musical practice of African-American spirituals. 7 

 

Slaves were brought from West Africa to the United States from around 1600 to the 1800s, especially from Senegal, the Guinea coast, the Niger Delta, and the Congo. The first expressions of these enslaved peoples in music were limited to church songs and work songs. As African vocal performance practices included slides, slurs, notes slightly flatted or sharped, whistles, yodels, and changes in rhythm and types of sound, when they combined their musical style with the church hymns of white people, a whole new type of music was created—the spiritual.

 

There was always tension in the words of the spirituals, and despite the troubles they faced and the wish to leave them behind; the early African Americans expressed an affirmation of hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The spirituals were an act of striving for humanity in the face of a society of fierce oppression and racial hatred. For example, in the spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine,” the hope of people was symbolized by a light that was going to shine or endure through the pain of the black experience in this society.8 Improvising the music as a solo singer or collectively with the group was a way that each person could express his or her joys and sorrows, and somehow get the courage and strength to make it through. The music united them as a community and gave them power; the music was functional in their life in the New World, as in their home in Africa.

 

The African American tradition of singing these spirituals was in a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment) style using the pentatonic, or five-tone scale, commonly used in Africa. As a part of congregational hymn singing, the “call and response” form that was used would include a proposition or “call” by a lead singer, with the congregation responding to the soloist in the same convincing tone, mood, and emotion. A strong beat was kept throughout the singing. Each singer would be encouraged to improvise to better express the lyrics, and improvisation was collective—a group of singers simultaneously asserted itself within a group. There was space for innovation, which caused healthy competition. Foot stomping and clapping with upbeat tempos were sometimes used in this religious music. The philosophy and style of this singing as a powerful and unique expression of early oppressed African Americans provided the roots for modern blues and jazz.

 

Activity 6:

Students will read a definition of syncopation—shifting the rhythmic accent to a normally weak beat of music, and sing a cappella the familiar spiritual “This Little Light of Mine,” with clapping on the second and fourth beats of the measure to demonstrate this element, important in African rhythm.8 They will share with each other what the words mean to them.

 

Activity 7:

Students will improvise the pentatonic scale on small xylophones.

 

Activity 8:

Students will learn to sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” as well as other spirituals. Students will sing each phrase after it is modeled by the teacher and then sing the whole spiritual.9 A selected student will sing the verses in an improvised style, followed by the group singing the response “Comin’ for to carry me home.”

 

Activity 9:

Students will create their own African American Music Book by having a page for the words of each spiritual with questions to answer, and a space to draw a picture to accompany such words, as shown in the sample lesson below. They will reflect on how African Americans expressed hope and joy in a difficult situation.

 

1. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Refrain (repeated part): “Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin’ for to carry me home, Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin’ for to carry me home.

Verse 1: I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, Comin’ for to carry me home? A band of angels comin’ after me, Comin’ for to carry me home.

Refrain

Verse 2: If you get there before I do—Tell all my friends I’m a comin’ too.”

Refrain 9

 

1. What words are repeated many times? _________________

2. What did home mean to the early African slaves? _________________

3. Even though the words express suffering, the music itself is (a) angry (b) sad (c) pleasing.

4. What is a spiritual? _________________

5. Draw a picture to express these words.

 

2. Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John10

“I want to be ready, I want to be ready,

I want to be ready to walk in Jerusalem just like John.  

Verse 1: John said the city was just four square,

Walk in Jerusalem just like John,

And he declared he’d meet me there,

Walk in Jerusalem just like John.  

Verse 2: Oh, John, oh John, what do you say?

Walk in Jerusalem just like John. 

That I’ll be there in the coming day,

in Jerusalem just like John.”

 

1. What words are repeated many times? _________________

2. How is this spiritual like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?” _________________

3. What does “walk in Jerusalem” mean? _________________

4. Draw a picture to express these words.

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) African American Music Books.

 

Video: This Little Light of Mine

Video: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Video: Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John

 

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the class will be able to describe the history of, and sing with correct pitch, rhythm and style, one or more African-American spirituals, and define or demonstrate syncopation, improvisation and pentatonic scale.  They will also complete the included written questions with optional drawings that express the song text.

 

Questionnaire for Lesson 2

1. Slaves were brought from __________ to the__________ from around ___ to ___.

2. The first musical expressions of these enslaved peoples were the__________ and__________ .

3. This new type of music, the __________, was created when African performance practices were combined with the church hymns of the white people.

4. Despite the troubles they faced and the wish to leave, the early African Americans expressed an affirmation of life in that there was always a__________ and a faith in the ultimate__________ of things.

5. The spirituals were a striving for humanity in a society of__________ and__________.

6. __________ the music as a solo singer or collectively with a group was a way by which each person could express his or her joys and sorrows, and get the courage and strength to make it through.

7. The music united them as a __________, and gave them __________.  It was functional in their life, as in their home.

8. A cappella means to sing without __________ .

9. The call and__________ form was used with a call by a lead singer with the congregation giving a__________.

 

 

Lesson Three: Work Songs 

Students will learn the roots of the blues in early African American work songs, and demonstrate or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm, and improvisation.

 

Activity 10:

Students will learn about the history and practices of African American work songs through a group reading. 11

 

Songs were a natural part of group work in the African tradition. Early African American slaves in the South developed songs to help lighten the load, and keep up the pace. They cleared and ploughed the land, as well as harvested crops on plantations and prison farms. They also built roads and railroads and worked on the boats.

 

The work songs had a steady rhythm and short rhymed phrases and were sung in a “call and response” style between a leader and the work team. Often the leader would holler in a higher type voice, in order to be heard. Songs had to engage the imagination of the workers in order to get the work done and keep their spirits up. The leader had to be able to improvise on topical events; being a lead singer meant beingexcused from the regular labor. The early blues came out of this tradition, particularly in the Mississippi Delta region.

 

Three Times:

“Take this hammer—huh! (in a growl)

Carry it to the captain—huh! (3 times).

Two times:

Tell him I’m goin’—huh!

Tell him I’m goin’—huh!” (2 times)12

 

Activity 11:

Students will read about the background of the song “Pay Me My Money Down.”13 This call and response work song originated in the Georgia Sea Islands. In the ports of the southern United States it was not unusual for captains to insist that their ships be unloaded as soon as they arrived at the quayside, promising to pay the dock workers the next morning.  But come the next morning the ship had gone, and the workers were left unpaid.

 

Activity 12:

Students will read about the background of the song “Pay Me My Money Down.”13 This call and response work song originated in the Georgia Sea Islands. In the ports of the southern United States it was not unusual for captains to insist that their ships be unloaded as soon as they arrived at the quayside, promising to pay the dock workers the next morning.  But come the next morning the ship had gone, and the workers were left unpaid.

 

“I thought I heard the captain say – Pay me my money down

Tomorrow is our sailing day – Pay me my money down

Pay me, pay me – Pay me my money down

Pay me or go to jail – Pay me my money down”

 

Activity 13:

Students will sing each phrase of the song after the teacher models it, and then sing the whole song. A selected student will sing the verses in an improvised style, followed by the group singing the response “Pay Me My Money Down.” A strong, steady beat will be kept with clapping and stamping, and an improvised tambourine accompaniment. Students will learn how a difficult situation is made more bearable with words that are direct and often humorous.

 

 

Activity 14:

Students will sing the work song, “John Henry” in a “call and response” style. 

 

John Henry was a famous folk hero, and there are many songs and stories about him. A six-foot African American who could out sing and out-drive any other man on the job, Henry worked on the Big Bend Tunnel in the West Virginia mountains for the C & O Railroad. When the newly invented automatic steam drill was brought to the Big Bend, a contest was staged between the man and the machine. John Henry was said to have swung 20-pound hammers for thirty-five minutes of the test, beating the machine.

 

Activity 15:

Students will sing the work song, “John Henry” in a “call and response” style. 

 

“Oh John Henry – Oh John Henry

Told his captain – Told his captain

Well a man’s got to – Well a man’s got to

Act like a man – Act like a man

And before – And before

Steam drill beats me – Steam drill beats me

I will die – I will die

Hammer in my hand – Hammer in my hand” 15 

 

Team one holds the tied notes as Team two repeats the phrase (shown above).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Materials needed:  a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) African American Music Books.

 

Video: Pay Me My Money Down

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the students will be able to describe the history of, and sing with correct pitch, rhythm and style, one or more early African American work songs, and demonstrate syncopation and improvisation in the vocal parts and instrumental accompaniment.

 

 

Lesson Four: The Blues

Students will learn the meaning of the blues through its philosophy, history, and definition, and demonstrate or describe the word form and content and the musical elements of form, scale and chords.

 

Activity 16:

Students will read a definition, philosophy, and history of the blues. 16  

 

Around the turn of the century, a unique African-American music and poetry was born—the blues. The early blues singer, with guitar accompaniment, confronted his life situation, shared his troubles with others, and learned to deal with the problems in his world through improvisation in this special form of song that commonly had a length of twelve bars (measures) using three basic chords, such as C, F and G.

 

The roots of this music lay in Africa, where music was at the core of daily life, and in the early African slave music of the spirituals and work songs. After the Civil War, as African Americans looked for employment, they wandered from one migrant labor job to another, facing discrimination and difficult lives. The blues came about as a response to this life; they affirmed the essential worth of African Americans and expressed through words and music their strength to survive.

 

The form of the text was “AAB,” with the first line of text (A) a statement that was then repeated (A), and followed by a comment (B), often humorous or with an ironic twist. The musical style, coming from African roots, included what is known as blue notes, high cries, hums, growls, moans, and shouts. The singer improvised with his voice or on his instrument in the “break,” the space between each line of text, which later evolved into jazz, America’s unique contribution to music in this century. The pentatonic or five-tone scale was used with blue notes, the flatted third and seventh notes of the common major scale, such as E and B flat of the C major scale.

 

 

Activity 17:

Students will read three blues verses, find the repetition, and explain the problem and how it is addressed.

 

“Good Morning, blues, Blues, how do you do?

Good Morning, blues, Blues, how do you do?

Good morning, how are you?” 17  

 

“Ain’t got nobody in all this world, Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

Ain’t got nobody in all this world, Ain’t got nobody but ma self.

Is gwine to quit my frownin’, And put my troubles on the shelf.” 18 

 

“The railroad bridge’s a sad song in the air.

The railroad bridge’s a sad song in the air

Every time the trains pass I want to go somewhere” 19

 

 

Activity 18:

Students will learn to sing two verses of “St. Louis Blues” by imitating each phrase as modeled by the teacher. 20

 

“I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,

hate to see the evenin’ sun go down

Cause my baby, he done left this town.

 

Feelin’ tomorrow, like I feel today,

Feelin’ tomorrow, like I feel today,

I’ll take my bag, and make my getaway.”

 

 

Activity 19:

Write at least one blues verse, example:

 

Problem: “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,

Repeat: Hate to see the evenin’ sun go down;

Comment: Cause my baby, he done left this town.”

 

Problem: _____________________________

   

Repeat:________________________________

 

Comment:______________________________

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the group reading and question sheet, b) words and music of the “St. Louis Blues,” by W. C. Handy. 20 

 

Video: St. Louis Blues – Bessie Smith

 

 

Lesson Five: The Classic Blues and Bessie Smith 

Students will learn about the role of W.C. Handy in the blues development, and demonstrate, identify or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation of the classic blues style as expressed by Bessie Smith in “St. Louis Blues.” 21

 

Activity 20:

Students will read together short biographies of W.C. Handy and Bessie Smith. 

 

W.C. Handy was a composer, bandleader, cornetist and music publisher born in Alabama in 1873. Prior to his death in 1958, he was known as the “Father of the Blues.” Handy valued the universal appeal of the blues, writing the first published blues works as well as some of the most famous published blues songs of the era. Through songs like “St. Louis Blues,” his most famous, Handy helped bring about a fundamental change in the popular music of this country. 20 

 

Bessie Smith was a hugely successful blues singer known as the “Empress of the Blues” before her death in a car accident in 1937. Born in Tennessee in 1894, Smith began to sing professionally in her early teens in what is called the classic blues tradition, a type of blues in demand as a popular form of entertainment in the theaters of American cities. She recorded over fifty records in the twenties with one record selling over a million copies. Smith was so successful that she was earning close to two thousand dollars per personal appearance in her heyday. The type of blues Smith was famous for was designed for a female singer, and accompanied by a ragtime or stride style piano, or even a New Orleans style jazz band. In the recording of “St. Louis Blues,” she is accompanied by a harmonium, a kind of organ, and a trumpet, played by one of the most famous American jazz musicians in history, Louis Armstrong. 21

 

Activity 21:

Students will identify the trumpet improvisation in the “St. Louis Blues” by putting their thumbs up. 21

 

Activity 22:

Students will identify the emphasized words “sun,” “see,” “tomorrow,” and “feel” with changing pitch and tone quality by clasping their hands.

 

Activity 23:

Students will sing the two verses of the “St. Louis Blues” by first following the recording, and then by following the teacher’s piano accompaniment, changing the third line of verse one to the words “I’m on my last go-around,” as sung by Bessie Smith. 21

 

Activity 24:

Students will answer the following questions orally.

  • What problem was expressed by the singer? How was it addressed?

  • Choose some of the following adjectives to best describe Bessie Smith’s voice: soft, strong, loud, sweet, direct, or entertaining.

  • How did she improvise? Did she use few or many notes?

  • Was the music slow or fast?

  • What words did she improvise for the third line in the first verse?

  • How was the trumpet’s part a contrast to the singing? How did it support the singing?

  • Does an improviser repeat or constantly vary his or her musical lines?

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “St. Louis Blues” by Bessie Smith. 21

 

Video: St. Louis Blues – Bessie Smith

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the students can define, describe, and sing a song in the classic blues style, and answer the listening questions correctly.  They can identify the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm, and improvisation used in the classic blues style.

 

 

Lesson Six: The Country Blues and Blind Lemon Jefferson

Students will learn the history of the country blues style, and demonstrate, identify or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation as expressed by the blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson in “The Matchbox Blues.” 22

 

Activity 25:

Students will read together about the country blues style, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and the words to the first verse of “Match Box Blues.” 23  

 

The country or downhome blues originated around 1890 to 1905 in the Mississippi Delta and east Texas. A male singer accompanied himself with an acoustic steel-stringed guitar. All singers used the blues inflections, that is, the lowered 3rd and 7th and sometimes 5th notes of the major scale, but varied the voice quality, contour, enunciation, and range. Typically, rhythms were layered, called polyrhythms, an important aspect of African music, and avoided a stressed rhythm, such as a march in European music. Individuality was very important; each blues singer had a unique expression. For example, some musicians sometimes used the guitar bottleneck technique. This practice originated by stretching a broom wire on a board and striking the string while sliding a glass bottle along its length.

 

This region produced the most blues artists during the early part of the century. This rich agricultural land had opened up in the late nineteenth century, and big plantations were established. The prosperity and opportunity attracted African-Americans to work on the farms. Blues musicians provided entertainment for this largely African-American community, as well as for the cities and towns nearby. The blues derived from the “field holler” style in which the singer sang at the top of his range in loose rhythms from high to low pitch, using the pentatonic or five-tone scale, important to African music, as well as the work songs, which emphasized a steady rhythm and short rhymed phrases.

 

Blind Lemon Jefferson was a famous country blues singer known for being a great virtuoso on the guitar. He was born blind in 1897 in Texas and started performing in his early teens. Jefferson used the Texas style of guitar playing by thumping the rhythm on the bass string while playing a rhythmic figure on the higher strings. He would freely improvise on the guitar after each vocal line, and as a result was often accused of breaking the time, which made it difficult for people to dance to his music. Known for his strong, expressive, high and clear voice, and for his ability to improvise lyrics, Jefferson recorded over one hundred blues songs. Like many blues singers, he traveled much of his life between Texas and Mississippi towns, and big blues cities like Chicago and Memphis. His tragic death occurred in Michigan after he lost his way traveling, and froze to death in the snow.

 

Matchbox Blues

“I’m sittin’ here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes. 

I’m sittin’ here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes.

I got so many matches, but I got so far to go.”

 

Activity 26:

Students will identify the guitar improvisations in the “Matchbox Blues”  by raising their right thumb, and they will cross hands when a change occurs. 22

 

Activity 27:

Students will answer the following questions orally:

a. How is poverty expressed in the words of this blues song?

b. Compare it with Bessie Smith.

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson. 22

 

Video: Blind Lemon Jefferson - The Matchbox Blues

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the students can define and recognize a song in the country blues style, and answer the listening questions correctly.  They can identify the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation used in the country blues style.

 

Activity 28:

Students will read together a short biography about Leadbelly, and the words to the first verse of “Good Mornin’ Blues.” 17

 

Huddie Ledbetter, better known by his nickname Leadbelly, is one of the most influential figures in all of twentieth-century American popular music. He was born in 1889 in Louisiana and performed all kinds of songs as he traveled around the area when he was young, even working with Blind Lemon Jefferson. He used a twelve-string guitar that produced a stronger sound than the regular six-string guitar. Unfortunately, he got into trouble with the law several times and spent much of his time in prison. Though he was performing for years prior, Leadbelly was discovered and first recorded in the Louisiana prison by John and Alan Lomax, who were recording and writing about African American folk music in the United States. Once released from prison, Leadbelly gave concerts around the country, married his girlfriend Martha Promise, and went on to live and perform in New York. He was the first folk blues singer to give concerts to white people and even toured France. He initiated a revival in the country blues and other folk music, and many of his songs gained great popularity during his life and after his death, such as “Good Night, Irene.”

 

Good Morning Blues

“Good morning blues, blues how do you do?

Good morning blues, blues how do you do?

I’m doing all right, good morning, how are you?” 17

 

Activity 29:

The blues uses a particular harmonic structure in the twelve bars (measures) it is composed with. Using the C, F and G chords, Chord C would be used for bars one to four, and chords F C G C would alternate every two bars, with the last bar being a bridge for a return to the beginning. Students will identify the chord changes in “Good Mornin’ Blues” by raising their right thumb. 17

 

Activity 30:

Students will identify spoken improvisation by clasping their hands.

 

Activity 31:

Students will answer the following questions orally.

a. What words does Leadbelly use to confront his troubles in a positive way?

b. Does Leadbelly sing in a higher or lower voice?

c. Describe his style of singing. Is it fast, loud, clear, slow, energetic or soft?

d. How does he differ from Bessie Smith or Blind Lemon Jefferson?

e. Name the instruments that accompany him in a New Orleans jazz style.

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “Good Mornin’ Blues” by Leadbelly. 24

 

Video: Good Morning Blues - Leadbelly

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the students can describe the role of Leadbelly in the development of the blues and popular American music, and demonstrate, identify or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation as expressed in his “Good Morninn’ Blues.”

 

 

Lesson Eight: The Chicago and Urban Blues with Muddy Waters and B.B. King

Students will learn about the role of Muddy Waters and B.B. King in the Chicago and urban blues, and demonstrate, identify or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation as expressed in “Long Distance Call Blues.” 25

 

Activity 32:

Students will read about Muddy Waters, B.B. King and the Chicago and urban blues, and the words to the “Long Distance Call Blues.” 25

 

McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, was born in Mississippi in 1915. As a country blues singer, Alan Lomax, a researcher of African American folk music in the United States, recorded him in 1941. He migrated to Chicago in the mid-1940’s like many African Americans from that area. Waters started working in a paper mill while he aggressively sought out club jobs. The future blues legend eventually had success with his first recorded blues hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948. As an important leader in the development of the Chicago electric blues, referred to as “electric” because of the use of electronic amplification, he made this music very popular in the post-World War II era.

 

In the Chicago and urban blues style, a male singer led an instrumental group. The composed lyrics of these blues songs often told a story that expressed the group experiences of rootlessness and the anxiety of the city. The harmonica, piano and electric guitar players heard marvelous improvisations from blues singers such as Muddy Waters, showing the influence of gospel music.  These songs used the regular blues form but added strong dance rhythms with ostinatos or repeated patterns through the drums and bass. In the urban blues as represented by the famous modern-day blues musician, B.B. King, saxophones or brass sustain chords and play riffs (short melodic ideas or motives) in the accompaniment, thus sounding closer to the jazz band style.

 

Long Distance Call Blues

“You say you love me,

Darlin’, please call me on the phone sometime.

You say you love me,

Darlin’, please call me on the phone sometime.

When I hear your voice, Hear that word of mine.”

 

Activity 33:

Students will clap a steady beat to “Telephone Conversation Blues,” and they will identify each line of words by raising their hand.

 

Activity 34:

Students will identify the polyrhythms (layered patterns of rhythm, deriving from African musical practices) in the improvisations by the harmonica, guitar, and bass players by raising their right thumb.

 

Activity 35:

Students will answer the following questions orally.

 

• What is the problem expressed by the singer? What is he going to do to solve it?

What instruments besides the guitar are used in this type of blues?

How does the singer improvise the words in music? Does he shout, hold and change notes, or speak?

Does he use a high or low voice?

How would you describe the quality of his voice—rough or smooth, and how

does he compare to Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Leadbelly?

 

Activity 36:

Students will see a short video of B.B. King. 26

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “Long Distance Blues” by Muddy Waters, c) a B.B. King video. 25, 26  

 

Video: Long Distance Call Blues – Muddy Waters

Video: B.B. King

 

Evaluation: At least eighty percent of the students can define and recognize a song in the Chicago and Urban style blues, and answer the listening questions correctly.  They can identify the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation used in this style.

 

 

Lesson Nine: The Blues and Louis Armstrong

Students will learn about the development of jazz from the blues, and demonstrate, identify or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation of the “West End Blues,” a jazz masterpiece by Louis Armstrong.27

 

Activity 37:

Students will read together about jazz, blues, and Louis Armstrong.

 

Jazz can mean a style of playing or a piece of music. This musical sound developed from the pauses or breaks between the lines of the blues. The singer or instrumentalists with improvisations filled in these breaks; a section that then came to be referred to as “the jazz.”3 In W. C. Handy's “The Memphis Blues,” these breaks developed into solo variations on a theme with the repeat of each chorus (the twelve-bar blues), and were called “hot jazz.” The “hot jazz” sound became the standard technique for many of the bands traveling up and down the Mississippi. Such improvisations, as those found in this sound, provided an outlet for individual expression amongst the instrumentalists. These breaks provided them a means of dialoguing and competing with each other within a framework of set parameters, such as musical form and chords and improvising together.

 

Besides the polyrhythms and syncopation (African roots), an important element of jazz is the unpredictability of the music that comes from the improvisation. Unusual instrumental tone qualities and sounds are utilized, as in the solo blues singer’s style creating a sound that can surprise, shock, or provide a grim humor for the listener. Nicknamed "Satchmo," Louis Armstrong was a master trumpet player and one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Born at the turn of the century in a New Orleans slum, Armstrong had a rocky childhood. His father left at an early age, so Louis spent time between living with his single mother and other caregivers. After getting into some trouble as a young boy, Louis was sent to a special home for boys where he learned the cornet (like a trumpet). After leaving the home, he sought work as a musician, eventually playing with Kid Ory’s Jazz Band in his late teens. In 1922, following the closing of many of the clubs in New Orleans, he joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago where he made a name for himself.

 

Armstrong eventually rose to fame with his own band going on both national and overseas European tours and appearing in many films. Some of his most significant recordings were made from 1922-28 with his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” bands, and one of his most famous songs from this era is “West End Blues.” In addition to his horn skills, Armstrong was famous for his “scat” singing—using nonsense syllables and other peculiar vocal effects, which can be heard in this recording showing a dialogue ("call and response") with the clarinet.

 

Activity 38:

Students will identify the chord changes in “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five Band by raising their right hand.

 

Activity 39:

Students will identify the order of instruments by placing a number, one through five, next to the correct instrument.

 

______ Trumpet

______ Trombone

______ Vocal

______ Clarinet

______ Piano

 

 

Activity 40:

Activity 40: Students will answer the following questions orally.

• What is the main function of the banjo and drums in this piece?

Describe the trumpet solo.

New Orleans jazz style is referred to as Dixieland jazz and features everyone improvising together.

How is this achieved in West End Blues?

Would you describe the improvisation styles as slow or fast, energetic or calm, direct or timid?

Where is scat singing heard in this piece?

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong. 27 

 

Video: West End Blues – Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five

 

Evaluation: At least eighty-five percent of the students will demonstrate and/or describe the blues elements of form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation in the jazz piece “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, as well as answer the listening questions correctly.

 

 

Lesson Ten: The Blues, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald

Students will learn the contributions of Duke Ellington to the development of jazz, and demonstrate, identify or describe the form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation of his “C Jam Blues” performed with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. 28

 

Activity 41:

Students will read together about Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. 29

 

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1899, Edward Kennedy Ellington, known as “Duke,” would go on to be considered by many to be the most important jazz composer, bandleader, and pianist. Ellington's greatest genius was in his ability to produce distinctive, inventive sounds in his orchestra. He was able to use the individual qualities in each of his instrumentalists and vocalists and weave them together into a unique musical sound. Ellington was like a visual artist, and thought of each of his musicians as a particular color on his palette; he liked to mix them in startling combinations.

 

Growing up, Ellington was raised in a Christian household and his parents provided a comfortable lifestyle for the family. He loved baseball throughout his life, but after being hit on the head with a baseball bat during a game when he was young, his mother decided he should take piano lessons instead, which was a natural fit since both of his parents played the piano. Ellington formed his own band in high school and showed ambition as he was also their agent. In 1923, he went to New York and was hired by the Kentucky Club to be the orchestra's bandleader, followed by an engagement with the famous Cotton Club. It was around this time that he increased the size of his orchestra from nine to fifteen pieces in order to realize his arrangements.

 

Ellington had crossover success appearing in movies while playing onstage in New York, Europe, and recording often. One of these recordings he was especially famous for is his song, “Take the A-Train.” His musical prowess attracted the greatest instrumentalists of his day to join his band, many of them staying for decades. A dedicated artist and loyal friend, he paid his band members all very well, even when he had to use his own funds to do so.

 

All of his musical success made him a world-renowned figure, earning him 119 awards and citations from nations around the world, including fifteen honorary degrees from colleges before his death in 1974.

 

Referred to as the "First Lady of Song," the "Queen of Jazz," and "Lady Ella," Ella Fitzgerald was one of the most famous jazz vocalists known for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation and a "horn-like" improvisational ability particularly in her scat singing. An orphan at 15, she went on to become a star at a young age singing with jazz bands and would later go on to perform duets with many different musicians throughout her career. Before her death in 1996, she recorded dozens of hit jazz songs, pop songs, and show tunes, appeared in movies, and won thirteen Grammy awards including a lifetime achievement award in 1967.

 

Activity 42:

Students will clap a steady beat to “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington, and improvise scat singing with Ella Fitzgerald; selected students will dance after being shown a video that illustrates people dancing to this music. 29

 

Activity 43:

Using the numbers one to five, the students will indicate the order in which they hear a featured instrument or the voice of famous jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald.

 

______ Trumpet

______ Piano

______ Ella Fitzgerald

______ Saxophone

______ Clarinet

 

Activity 44:

Students will answer the following questions orally.

• What is the problem expressed? How is it addressed? How are the words varied?

How does the musical style help convey the meaning of the words?

What type of vocal improvisations does Ella Fitzgerald use? Circle the appropriate ones. Scat singing-shouts-bending-slurs-speaking voice-held otes-wide range/volume

Which instruments (or voice) improvised alone and then were accompanied by a band?

 

Materials needed: a) copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington with Ella Fitzgerald. 28  

 

Video: C Jam Blues -  Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald

Video: Take the A-Train

 

Evaluation: At least eighty-five percent of the students will demonstrate and/or describe the blues elements of form, instruments, vocal techniques, scale, rhythm and improvisation in the jazz piece “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington, as well as answer the listening questions correctly.

 

 

Lesson Eleven: Playing and Creating a Blues

Students will learn how to perform the keyboard accompaniment for a blues using the chords C F and G and pentatonic scale and blues notes. They will sing both a traditional and an original blues to such accompaniment. 

 

Activity 45:

Students will play/improvise a pentatonic scale C Eb F G Bb, the C, F and G chords, and the C, F and G chords in a twelve bar blues form (see attached).

 

Activity 46:

The class will be divided into two sections.  One will improvise the accompaniment of chords or melody, and the other will sing the “St. Louis Blues,” beginning the second and third lines when the F and G chords are played.  Selected students will add the drums and bass part to complete the musical sound.

 

Activity 47:

Students will write a three line blues, and a selected student will improvise one vocally with the chord and melodic accompaniment performed by the class.  They will begin by finishing the lines “I hate__________(two times), ‘Cause __________, then write their own blues lyrics based on this model.

 

Activity 48:

A final “Blues Book” will include all students’ work.  Visual interpretationsof blues poetry studied or created will be encouraged in cooperation with an art teacher.  A presentation of students’ original work will occur as part of a final school assembly.

 

 

Conclusion

The blues is a twentieth-century African American music which is the foundation of many other musical styles as evidenced by the great jazz compositions of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as well as in its influence on gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, rock, pop, and rap. By learning the musical and poetic elements that comprise the blues, my students have developed a greater appreciation for the contributions of African Americans to the world of music.

 

Personally, it has been an enlightening journey to learn more about the world from an African American perspective. It has been enlightening to not only read about but to better understand the black experience as told by the black writers who lived it. The use of symbols and improvisation, such as those in Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray, were a revelation to me during my studies.30 Murray wrote, “I use to say my name is also 'Jack the Rabbit' because my home is in the briar patch, and 'Little Buddy' (than whom there was never a better riddle buddy) used to say my name is 'Jack the Rabbit' also because my home is also in the also and also of the briar patch because that is also where 1 was also bred and also born.” 30 

 

The briar patch is the thorny and problem-filled world. "Jack the Rabbit" is described of the main character as someone that can move quickly, and that confronts where he comes from. The bear refers to the oppressive world that puts him down. This prose writing helped me to unlock the mysteries of the musical elements of jazz, which, although I have listened to, and can play to some extent, never really understood as musical composition, having been trained in European classical music for twenty years.

 

I could relate to the conflicts in the religious attitude towards the blues expressed through the course readings, as I was raised in a Protestant home and had a rigid attitude about what is correct music to study and perform, reinforced by music teachers and the church. Fortunately, my father’s love of the big band music of the 30’s and 40’s, which was played much at home, was important to me as later in life I developed an interest in the blues and jazz. At least, I had some knowledge of American music.

 

I look forward to listening to and playing the blues and jazz with greater comprehension and understanding as well as sharing with my students the new insights I have gained with a study of the blues — truly the most unique musical and poetic art form of the previous century. In the preface to Nothing But the Blues, Lawrence Cohn states my feelings perfectly, “The blues has helped me through troubled times... afforded lessons in American history that could not be gained through books... blues is not only a people’s music, blues is the music of the people.” 31

 

 

Citations

1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1992.

2. Toomer, Jean. Cane. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988.

3. Ibid.

4. Brooks, Gwendolyn. Maud Martha. Chicago: Third World Press, 1953.

5. Bebey, Francis. African Music, A People’s Art. New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1975.

6. Adzinyah, A.K. ed. Let Your Voice Be Heard! Songs from Ghana and Zimbabwe. CT: World Music Press, 1984.

7. Spirituals and Gospels. New York: Wise Publications, 1975.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Lomas, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960.

12. Busnar. Gene. The Rhythm and Blues Story. New York: Julian Messner, 1985.

13. Lomax, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960.

14. Ibid.

15. Kersey, Dr. Robert E. Ed. Just Five Plus Two. USA: Belwin Mills Corp., 1975.

16. Randel, D.M. ed. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1986; Handy, W.C. ed. Blues: An Anthology. New York: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1975.

17. Mann, Woody. The Blues Fakebook. New York/Paris/London: Oak Publications, 1995.

18. Brown, Sterling and Hughes, Langston, Selected Poems CT: Yale Teachers’ Seminar, 1997.

19. Ibid.

20. Handy, W.C. ed. Blues: An Anthology New York: Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1975.

21. Legends of the Blues, Volume One. #7464-46215-2. 1990 CBS Records, Ind.

22. Blues Masters, Volume 3: Texas Blues. #8122-71 123-2. 1992 Rhino Records Inc.

23. Mann, Woody. The Blues Fakebook. New York/Paris/London: Oak Publications, 1995

24. Negro Folk Songs for Young People. 1967 Folkways Records VC 7533.

25. Chess Blues Classics, 1997 MCA Records Inc., CHD 9369.

26. Blues 1 Video. Bennett Group Presentation: Produced by Skylark Savoy Production Ltd for Genesis Production. Catalog-CVOO3 Venice, CA 90291

27. The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. 1987 CBS Records, LP R033 P7-19477

28. Essentially Ellington. The Lincoln Center High School Jazz Band Competition, 1942.

29. Harlem Harmonies Video. Volume II. 1987 Jazz Classics.

30. Murray, Albert. Train Whistle Guitar. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1974

31. Cohn, Lawrence. ed. Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

 

 

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, Volume V, 1997; Curriculum Unit 97.05.03. and in conjunction with her National Music Foundation 1998 Grant “How to Blues”. Updated in 2018.

 

Authorship: Patricia M. Bissell

 

 

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