W.C. Handy was a composer, bandleader, cornetist and music publisher. He was born in Alabama in 1873, and died in 1958. He has been called the “Father of the Blues” because he valued the universal appeal of the blues, and wrote the first and several of the most famous of the published blues, thereby bringing about a fundamental change in popular music in this country. One of his most famous blues is “The St. Louis Blues.” (20)
Bessie Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894, and died in a car accident in 1937. She began to sing professionally in her early teens in what is called the classic blues tradition. These blues were in demand as a form of entertainment in the theater in the cities. She recorded over fifty records in the twenties, one record selling over a million copies. She was so successful that she was earning close to two thousand dollars for a personal appearance, and was known as “Empress of the Blues.” This type of blues was for a female singer, and accompanied by ragtime or stride style piano, or a New Orleans style jazz band. In the recording of “The St. Louis Blues,” (21) she is accompanied by a harmonium, a kind of organ, and a trumpet, played by a most famous jazz musician, Louis Armstrong.
Students will identify the trumpet improvisation in the “St. Louis Blues” (21) by putting their thumbs up.
Students will identify the emphasized words “sun”, “see”, “tomorrow” and “feel” with changing pitch and tone quality by clasping their hands.
Students will sing the two verses of the “St. Louis Blues” (21) by first following the recording, and then 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.
Students will answer the following questions orally.
a. What problem was expressed by the singer, and how was it addressed?
b. Choose some of the following adjectives to best describe Bessie Smith’s voice. -soft-strong-loud-sweet-direct-entertaining.
c. How did she improvise? Did she use few or many notes?
d. Was the music slow or fast?
e. What words did she improvise for the third line in the first verse.
f. How was the trumpet’s part a contrast to the singing? How did it support the singing?
g. Does an improviser repeat or constantly vary his or her musical lines?
a) Copies of the group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “St. Louis Blues” by Bessie Smith. (21)
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)
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 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. The guitar bottle-neck technique was sometimes used. This practice originally started 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 large 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. He was a great virtuoso on the guitar. He was born blind in 1897 in Texas, and performed in his early teens. He 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 often accused of breaking the time, and people could not dance to his music. He was known for his strong, expressive, high and clear voice, and for his ability to improvise lyrics. He recorded over one hundred blues. He traveled much of his life, like many blues singers, between Texas and Mississippi towns, and Chicago and Memphis. His tragic death occurred in Michigan after he lost his way; he 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.”
Students will identify the guitar improvisations in the “Matchbox Blues” (22) by raising their right thumb; they will cross hands when a change occurs.
Students will answer the following questions orally:
a. How is poverty expressed in the words of this blues? b. Compare with Bessie Smith.
a) Copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson. (22)
Students will learn the role of the 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 Mornin’ Blues.”(24)
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 as 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 which produced a stronger sound than the regular six string guitar. Unfortunately, he got into trouble with the law several times, and spent much time in prison. He was discovered and recorded in the Louisiana prison by John and Alan Lomax, who were recording and writing about African American folk music in the United States. He was released from prison, gave concerts around the country, married and went 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, 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)
The blues use a particular harmonic structure in the twelve bars. 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” (17) by raising their right thumb.
Students will identify spoken improvisation by clasping their hands.
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?
c. How does he differ from Bessie Smith or Blind Lemon Jefferson?
d. Name the instruments that accompany him in a New Orleans jazz style.
a) Copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “Good Mornin’ Blues” by Leadbelly. (24)
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)
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, known as Muddy Waters, was born in Mississippi in 1915. As a country blues singer, he was recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax, a researcher of African American folk music in the United States. He migrated to Chicago in the mid 40’s like many African Americans from that area, and at first found work in a paper mill. He aggressively sought out club jobs, and eventually won fame 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, so called because of the use of electronic amplification, he made this music very popular in the postwar era.
In the Chicago and urban blues style, a male singer led an instrumental group. The composed lyrics often told a story. They expressed the group experiences of rootlessness and anxiety of the city. Marvelous improvisations were heard by the harmonica, piano and electric guitar players with such blues singers as Muddy Waters, showing the influence of gospel music. The form was the regular blues form, but with the drums and bass establishing strong dance rhythms with ostinatos or repeated patterns. In the urban blues as represented by the famous blues singer of today, 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. The words of the “Long Distance Call Blues” are “You say you love me, Darlin,’ please call me on the phone sometime.(2x) When I hear your voice, Hear that word of mine.”
Students will clap a steady beat to “Telephone Conversation Blues;” they will identify each line of words by raising their hand.
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.
Students will answer the following questions orally.
(a) What is the problem expressed by the singer? What is he going to do to solve it?
(b) What instruments besides the guitar are used in this blues?
(c) How does the singer improvise the words in music? Does he shout, hold and change notes, or speak?
(d) Does he use a high or low voice?
(e) 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?
Students will see a short video of B.B. King. (26)
a) Copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “Long Distance Blues” by Muddy Waters (25), c) a B.B. King video. (26)
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)
Students will read together about jazz, blues and Louis Armstrong.
Jazz can mean a style of playing, or a piece of music. It developed from the pauses or breaks between the lines of the blues, which were filled in with improvisations by the singer or instrumentalists, and were called “the jazz.” (3) In the blues played by the instrumentalists in the band led by W. C. Handy, such as “The Memphis Blues,“ these breaks developed into solo variations on the theme with the repeat of each chorus (the twelve bar blues), and were called hot jazz, and became standard technique with all the bands traveling up and down the Mississippi. Such improvisations provided an outlet for individual expression, as well as dialoguing and competing with each other, in the framework of set parameters, such as musical form and chords, and improvising together. An important element of jazz, besides the polyrhythms and syncopation (African roots), is the unpredictable music (improvisation), which can surprise, shock, or provide a grim humor for the listener. In addition, unusual instrumental tone qualities and sounds are utilized, as in the solo blues singer’s style.
Louis Armstrong, a trumpet player, was one of the greatest jazz musicians. He was born in a New Orleans slum in 1900, and was raised by his mother. He got into some trouble as a young boy, and was sent to a special home for boys where he learned the cornet (like a trumpet). He joined Kid Ory’s Jazz Band in his late teens, and, following the closing of many of the clubs in New Orleans, in 1922 he joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. He became famous and toured across the United States; later he performed in Europe. He also appeared in many films. He made significant recordings from 1922-28 with his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven“ bands, one of the most famous of which is “West End Blues.” He became 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.
Students will identify the chord changes in “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five Band by raising their right hand.
Students will identify the order of instruments by placing a number one to five beside the correct instrument. Trumpet _ Trombone _ Vocal _ Clarinet _ Piano _
Students will answer the following questions orally.
(a) What is the main function of the banjo and drums in this piece? (b)Describe the trumpet solo. (c) New Orleans jazz style is referred to as Dixieland jazz, and features everyone improvising together. How is this achieved in West End Blues? (d) Could you describe the styles of improvisation used, whether slow or fast, energetic or calm, direct or timid? (e) Where is scat singing heard in this piece?
a) Copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong. (27)
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” with jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. (28)
Students will read together about Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. (29)
Edward Kennedy Ellington, known as “Duke,” is considered the most important jazz composer, band leader and pianist. His 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. He was a visual artist, and thought of each of his musicians as a particular color on his palette; he liked to mixed them in startling combinations. He became a world figure, receiving 119 awards and citations from nations around the world, including fifteen honorary degrees from colleges!
He was born in Washington, D.C. in 1899, and died in 1971. His parents provided a comfortable life style for the family, and he was raised a Christian. He began taking piano lessons after he had been hit with a baseball bat, and formed his own band in high school with himself being the agent. In 1923 he went to New York, and was hired by the Kentucky Club. Later he played at the Cotton Club. He increased the size of his orchestra from nine to fifteen pieces in order to realize his arrangements. He was in a movie and appeared onstage in New York. He made many recordings, and toured Europe several times; he was especially famous for his “Take the A-Train.” He attracted the greatest instrumentalists of his day, and they stayed in the band normally for decades. He paid them all very well, even when he had to use his own funds.
Ella Fitzgerald was the most well-known jazz vocalist. She was born in 1918, and died recently. She was an orphan at 15, and tried out in talent shows; she became a star at a young age, and sang with many important jazz bands. She made many recordings of jazz, show tunes and popular songs. She is most famous for her scat singing.
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 which illustrates people dancing to this music. (29)
Using the numbers one to five, the students will indicate the order in which they hear a featured instrument or the famous Ella Fitzgerald jazz singer.
Trumpet ___ Piano ___ Ella Fitzgerald ___ Saxophone ___ Clarinet ___
Students will answer the following questions orally.
(a) What is the problem expressed? How is it addressed? How are the words varied?
(b) How does the musical style help convey the meaning of the words?
(c) What type of vocal improvisations does Ella Fitzgerald use? Circle the appropriate ones. Scat singing-shouts-bending-slurs-speaking voice-held notes-wide range/volume
(d) Which instrument s(or voice) improvised alone, then were accompanied by a band?
a) Copies of the student group reading and question sheet, b) a recording of “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington.(28)
Following a curriculum book, students will learn how to perform the keyboard accompaniment for the blues, using the chords C F and G and pentatonic scale and blues notes, as well as to sing both a traditional and an original blues to such accompaniment.
(figure available in print form)
Activity (a): Students will play/improvise the C major and pentatonic scales and blues notes E and B flat.
Activity (b): Students will play the C, F and G chords.
Activity (c): Students will play and improvise the C, F and G chords in the following twelve bar blues form. Each bar or measure has four beats.
Activity (d): 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 (e): All students will write a three line blues, and a selected student will improvise one vocally with the chord and melodic accompaniment as performed by the class. They will begin by finishing the lines “I hate......................... (2x), ‘Cause....................., and then write their own, based on this model.
Activity (f): A final “Blues Book” will include all the students’ verses.
Activity (g): Visual interpretations of the blues poetry studied by the students will be done at the Lincoln Bassett school, in cooperation with the art teacher.
Activity (h): A music program in March will include a presentation of original blues by one or more selected students; if possible, a blues singer will be invited to participate.
a) Copies of the curriculum book. b) musical keyboards.
In conclusion, the blues is a twentieth century African American music which is the foundation of many other musical styles, such as evidenced in great jazz compositions of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, as well as in 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
For myself, it has been an enlightening journey to view the world from an African American perspective; not to just read about, but to understand the black experience as told by black writers. The use of symbols and improvisation, such as in
(30) by Albert Murray, were a revelation to me; for example, he wrote “I use to say My name is also Jack the Rabbit because my home is in the briarpatch, and Little Buddy (than whom there was never a better riddle buddy) used to say Me my name is Jack the Rabbit also because my home is also in the also and also of the briarpatch because that is also where 1 was also bred and also born.” The briarpatch is the thorny and problem-filled world; Jack the Rabbit is a description 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 this 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)