The Blues: The Sound of Rural Poverty

Essential Question

How do the Country Blues reflect the challenges of sharecropping, racial injustice, and rural poverty in early 20th-century African-American life?


“As I began to get into the history of the music,” writes Amiri Baraka (writing under the name LeRoi Jones) in his book Blues People, “I found that this was impossible without, at the same time, getting deeper into the history of the people. [The Blues] was the history of the Afro-American people as text, as tale, as story, as exposition, narrative… the music was the score, the actually expressed creative orchestration, reflection, of Afro-American life.”

In the beginning, the Blues was a music performed by poor African Americans for audiences of poor African Americans, and a reflection of their common experiences in the Jim Crow South. The Blues were one of the few forums through which poor, rural African Americans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries could articulate their experiences, attitudes, and emotions. They made music about heartbreak, about the challenges of their lives as sharecroppers, about the relentless Mississippi River floods, about the harsh mastery of white landowners.

This lesson focuses on the music through which those hardships were expressed and on the daily lives of southern blacks in the sharecropping era. It is structured around an imagined road trip through Mississippi. Students will “stop” in two places: Yazoo City, where they will learn about the sorts of natural disasters that periodically devastated already-struggling poor southerners, and Hillhouse, where they will learn about the institution of sharecropping. They will study a particular Country Blues song at each “stop” and examine it as a window onto the socioeconomic conditions of the people who created it. Students will create a scrapbook of their journey, in which they will record and analyze what they have learned about the difficulty of eking out a living in the age of sharecropping.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (Knowledge):
    • How Country Blues music reflected the socioeconomic experiences of southern African Americans in pre-World War II America
    • The basic workings and challenges of the sharecropping system
    • The effects of sharecropping on the daily lives of African-American and white tenant farmers
    • The effects of natural disasters such as river floods on poor southerners in pre-World War II America
    • How the paintings of Jacob Lawrence represented African American life in the South before World War II
  2. Be able to (Skills):
    • Closely read song lyrics for information, point of view, and argument
    • Extrapolate arguments about music by assessing sound, mood, tone, and instrumentation
    • Use maps to find locations and construct a logical travel sequence