THE BLUES: THE SOUND OF RURAL POVERTY
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.
Video pages: J.B. Lenoir - Alabama Blues (1965) | Son House - Death Letter Blues (1968) | Howlin' Wolf - I'll Be Back Someday (1964) | Charley Patton - Bo Weavil Blues (1929) | Nas - Bridging the Gap (2004) | Lightnin' Hopkins - Cotton (1959) | Bessie Smith - Homeless Blues (1927)
Image pages: Chopping Cotton in Greene County, Georgia, 1941 | Cotton sharecroppers. Greene County, Georgia, 1937 | Poor Mother and Children, California, 1936 | Refugees from the Mississippi River Flood, 1927 | Sharecropper's cabin and sharecropper's wife. Ten miles south of Jackson, Mississippi, 1937 | Thirteen-year old sharecropper boy near Americus, Georgia, 1937
Upon completion of this lesson, students will
"[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."
1. Explain to students that in this lesson they will take an imagined road trip through Mississippi to visit two sites where they will learn about African-American life in the South in the early part of the 20th century, and how that life was reflected in Country Blues music. Students will visit two stations where they will examine a series of artifacts including film clips, photographs, visual art, and readings. They will answer a series of questions about these artifacts. For a post-lesson homework activity, students will be asked to research a third stop, the hometown of famed Blues musician B.B. King, Indianola, Mississippi. The stations are:
2. Explain to students that after visiting the two stations, they will be asked to create a scrapbook based on their imaginary travels. (Note: It is up to the instructor whether this project will be completed at home or if additional class time will be provided, and whether it will be completed on an individual basis or by groups.)
3. Distribute Handout 2: Scrapbook Guidelines. Invite several students to read, having each read one part of the assignment aloud. Clarify any part of the assignment that remains unclear to students. Instruct students to be mindful of these guidelines as they visit the stations. Assign a deadline for completion of the scrapbook.
4. Divide students into groups of 3-4. Distribute Handout 3: Mapping Your Trip Through Mississippi, and instruct each group to complete the requirements on the handout.
5. Distribute Handout 4: Questions for Road Trip Stations. Inform students that they now begin their journey through the stations. In order to accommodate the needs of the classroom, they will not actually follow the route they have planned. Instead, divide groups evenly between the two stations, instructing them to finish the first and then move on to the second.
6. Instruct students to discuss the questions for each artifact as a group. Students should take notes on their own copies of the handout.
Have students complete the Scrapbook Activity, and have them also research a third station: Indianola, Mississippi, the hometown of Blues superstar B.B. King, who was born into a family of poor sharecroppers in 1925.
How did the Country Blues reflect the challenges of sharecropping, racial injustice, and rural poverty in early 20th-century African-American life? Be sure to make specific references to the artifacts seen and heard in this lesson.
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.