Assign students to read Handout 1: “Got a Right to Sing the Blues” by Muddy Waters. Each student will complete an entry ticket to bring to class on the day of the lesson.
Entry ticket questions:
- Where did Muddy Waters grow up? What was his name before he became known as Muddy Waters?
- Muddy Waters writes: “Somebody once asked me what my blues meant. I answered him in one word — ‘trouble.’” Describe what you think he means.
- If your family has ever moved, for what reasons did you move? If you have never moved, what are some reasons people move today? How does it feel to move?
1. At the start of class, select three or four student volunteers to share their entry ticket answers. Discuss how a person’s life might change when he or she moves several hundred miles from their original home.
2. Display two paintings created by the artist Jacob Lawrence. Explain that these images are a part of Lawrence’s Great Migration Series, which he completed between 1940 and 1941, the same year Muddy Waters recorded his first songs in Mississippi. This series of sixty paintings is considered one of the most famous artistic expressions of the Great Migration, a period between the 1910s and 1970 when over 6 million African Americans left their homes in the South for new lives in the North, Midwest, and Western parts of the country.
Call on student volunteers to describe what they see in each painting. Guide the class through the specific details in each image.
Note to teacher: In the panel on the left, direct students toward the painting’s rural setting, earth tones, migrating birds, the forward motion of the people, and the sacks the people are carrying with them. In the panel on the right, direct students toward the painting’s urban setting, vibrant colors, people crowding into doorways labeled as different cities, and the eclectic styles of clothes people are wearing.
3. Ask students: If the painting on the left is a “departure” and the painting on the right is an “arrival,” what do you think the people are leaving behind? Where do you think they are going?
4. Jacob Lawrence set several scenes from his series in the heart of Mississippi. Ask students:
- What do you think were some of the reasons why so many African Americans from the South wanted to move during the Great Migration era?
- What do you think it means to be displaced? How does the Great Migration, as depicted in these paintings, continue the story of African-American displacement in the U.S. that began during the era of slavery?
- How might the reasons people moved during the Migration era compare to the reasons people move today?
This lesson follows Muddy Waters on his journey north from Mississippi to Chicago, examining how the Blues served as a way for African Americans not just to entertain themselves, but to process their experiences and connect during a period of mass displacement.
1. In his 1955 article “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” Muddy Waters says that when he first started playing in Chicago, people called his songs “sharecropper music.” Begin the class with a brief review on sharecropping. Discuss as a class:
- How did the sharecropping economy in the southern United States function, and how did the system keep sharecroppers stuck in a cycle of poverty?
Note to teacher: After assessing what your students already know about sharecropping, you may refer them to the handout on sharecropping from the Blues: The Sound of Rural Poverty lesson.
2. Distribute Handout 2: Blues Lyrics and direct students to “Burr Clover Farm Blues” by Muddy Waters. Explain that Muddy Waters recorded this song in 1941, when he was living on a Mississippi farm and working as a sharecropper. Muddy was recorded by Alan Lomax and John Work, two musicologists working for Fisk University and the Library of Congress to study the folk traditions in rural communities. Muddy Waters left the farm and moved to Chicago in 1943, two years after recording this song.
Play audio clip of “.” Ask students to follow along with the lyrics. Ask students:
- According to the lyrics, what seem to be the singer’s feelings about the possibility of leaving the farm? How do the lyrics convey the singer’s sense of “displacement”?
- Why might some audiences have identified this sound as “sharecropper music”? How do you visualize the setting for a song such as “Burr Clover Farm Blues”?
3. Display photos of plantation workers taken near Clarksdale, MS in 1936 and a sharecropper’s cabin on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1939. Muddy Waters lived just outside Clarksdale.
- What are your first impressions of the photograph on the left? How many people do you see, and how would you describe the way they look in this photo? What relationship do you think these people might have to each other?
- What are your first impressions of the photograph on the right? How would you describe the size of the house?
- Notice the proximity between the house and the cotton pile. What might this proximity suggest about the relationship between work and home life for someone working as a sharecropper? How much leisure time do you think a sharecropper living in this cabin had?
4. Display photos of “juke joints.” Explain to the students that during much of the 20th century, juke joints were places where many southern African Americans came together during their limited off-hours from work to relax, gamble, dance, and hear music. Private living quarters often doubled as juke joints. Some historians argue that even Muddy Waters’s cabin on the Stovall Plantation, where he entertained guests by playing the Blues on his guitar, doubled as a juke joint.
- How would you describe the mood of the juke joint patrons in the photo on the left? How does the mood in this photo compare to the mood in the photo of the plantation workers?
- Why do you think so many African Americans living in rural communities found music to be a source of relief in their everyday lives?
- Where else do you think music provided relief for struggling populations of African Americans in the South? (In church, and even at work, in labor songs.)
5. Display a page from the 1940 U.S. Census. Explain that a census is a process of recording information about a population. This page is a record of the people who lived on a plantation outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, and was taken around the same time as the photographs we previously examined.
Help students navigate and interpret the data contained in the form. If the image is too small to read on the board, you can access a high-resolution scan of the full census page here.)
Discuss as a class:
- What kind of information is collected on this census form? Guide students to the top row of the table for possible answers, which include name, gender, race, age, etc. Point out that that under the Race category in column 10, “Neg” delineates “Negro” and “W” delineates “White.”
- What race are most of the people who live on the plantation? Can you find anyone who is not a member of that race? Answer: Most people are listed as “Negro,” except for three people, who are listed as “White.”
- Direct students to column 28, which lists “Occupation.” What is the reported occupation for most of the African Americans on this list? What is the reported occupation for one of the white people on the plantation? Answer: The African Americans are all reported as farmers, while the white occupant is reported as a manager.
- Direct students to column 7, which lists the names of the plantation’s inhabitants. Locate the name “McKinley Morganfield.” Remind students that this was Muddy Waters’ birth name. What sort of information does the census tell us about Muddy Waters in 1940? Answer: Follow the information recorded in row 68 to learn that he was 27, born in Mississippi, and working full-time as a farmer.
- Based on the materials discussed thus far, what are some general conclusions we can make about the lives of many African Americans living in Mississippi around 1940? Why do you think so many African Americans were determined to leave the South?
6. Distribute Handout 3: Letter to the Chicago Defender. Ask a volunteer to read the handout introduction to the class, then discuss as a group:
- How did the Defender reach African Americans who didn’t live in Chicago?
- What kind of content did the Defender publish to persuade African Americans to leave the South?
- How might northern business owners have benefited from having the Defender distributed throughout the South?
Display image of a newspaper clipping titled “‘The Defender’ Banned.” Ask a volunteer to read the article aloud to the class.
- What does this article suggest about the risks people encountered for distributing the Defender in the South?
7. Return to the handout and ask another volunteer to read the letter aloud to the class. Discuss as a group:
- How does the author of the letter describe his life in Lutcher, Louisiana in 1917? What is he trying to achieve by writing to the Defender?
- Why does the author ask for the newspaper not to publish his letter?
- The distance between Lutcher in southern Louisiana and Chicago is over 900 miles. What mode of transportation might have been ideal for such a long trip if you did not own a car?
8. Display map of the Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR).
- What cities does the Illinois Central Railroad connect? Have a volunteer locate Clarksdale, the town closest to Muddy Waters’s home, and Lutcher, Louisiana, the home of the author who wrote the letter to the Chicago Defender.
9. Play video clip of Howlin’ Wolf performing “” in 1964. Ask students to follow along with the lyrics. (Note to teacher: mention that Howlin’ Wolf first recorded the song in 1956. The song reached No. 11 on the Billboard R&B chart, a chart geared towards African-American listeners.)
To help make sense of the lyrical imagery, read students the following quote attributed to Howlin’ Wolf: “We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.”
- Why might someone living “out in the country” be captivated by the image of a train? Why do you think a train is such a potent symbol in Blues music?
- Why do you think “Smokestack Lightnin’” encapsulated feelings relating to the Great Migration so effectively? How does the song connect to the idea of “displacement”?
- How might you connect the lyrics of “Burr Clover Farm Blues” to “Smokestack Lightnin’”? What story might these two songs tell us when looked at together?
Tell students that like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf was born in Mississippi. He later migrated to Chicago, where he recorded “Smokestack Lightnin’” for Chess Records, a company with a focus on recording Blues musicians including Muddy Waters and others.
10. Distribute Handout 4 – Chess Records. Read through as a class, then ask students:
- What did Phil and Leonard Chess observe about the changing demographics of Chicago? How did this influence the music they chose to record?
- How did the Blues music recorded at Chess sound different from earlier Country Blues recordings? Why did the Chess brothers want their recordings to be loud?
- How might the music recorded at Chess have fostered a sense of community for African Americans who had relocated from the South?
11. Play video clip of “” performed by Muddy Waters in 1963 with other Chess recording artists. After the clip, show two side-by-side photos of Muddy Waters, the first on the plantation in 1941, and the second from after moving to Chicago.
- How has the sound of Muddy Waters’s music changed since his 1941 recording of “Burr Clover Farm Blues”? (Possible answers include: the inclusion of amplified electric instruments, a full band playing, and faster rhythms.)
- Help students identify the other musicians in the band, four of whom are mentioned on the Chess Records handout – Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica, Willie Dixon on bass, Otis Spann on piano, and Matt Murphy on guitar. Based on information from the handout, what do all these musicians have in common?
- Display side-by-side photos of Muddy Waters: the first photo from when he lived on the Stovall Plantation and the second photo from after he had established his career in Chicago. How does Muddy’s “look” reflect his transition from “country” to “city”?
In addition to the artists who came to Chess during the Great Migration, many Blues musicians settled in other cities. Los Angeles had T-Bone Walker and Johnny “Guitar” Watson; Big Joe Turner and Reverend Gary Davis lived in New York City; John Lee Hooker made his home in Detroit.
12. Think back to Muddy Waters’s statement from “Got a Right to Sing the Blues”: “Somebody once asked me what my blues meant. I answered him in one word — ‘trouble.’” Discuss as a class: What kinds of “trouble” do you think African Americans might have encountered living and working in large urban centers like Chicago? Why do you think the Blues continued to resonate in African-American communities?
Break students up into small groups. Distribute to each group Handout 5: African-American Life in the North. Instruct groups to analyze the materials in the handout to gain a sense of what living quarters, employment opportunities, and community activities were like for African Americans who had moved to the North during the Great Migration era.
Each group will jointly compose one letter in the imagined voice of an African American who has moved to the North and is writing to a relative back in the South. Students should reference details from their handout to illustrate what their life is like in a northern city. Students should be sure to answer the following questions:
- What state are you originally from? Where do you currently work, and how does it compare to the work you did before moving? How would you describe your living situation? How do you spend your time when you are not at work?
- How has your new life in the North met the expectations you had before moving? How has it not?
- What role has Blues music played in your life since moving from the South? Where, when, and how do you most often listen to Blues music?
At the close of class, have a student volunteer from each group stand and read their letter aloud. Each group must also explain what evidence from the handout they chose to highlight in their letter.
Assign students to read “…Howlin’ For The Wolf,” an article written by Cliff White in 1973, after Howlin’ Wolf’s death. After reading, refer back to Handout 1: “Got a Right to Sing the Blues” by Muddy Waters. In a written response supplemented by original research, have students address the similarities and differences between the experiences and careers of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Think about their upbringings, their respective recording careers, their individual migrations northward, and how their music and performance styles compare. Students should cite relevant excerpts and quotes from these two texts and reference specific songs by each artist to support their argument.