The blues has its principal expression in musical form. It is difficult to discuss blues music without mentioning Billie Holiday. John Chilton, who wrote a biography of Holiday, described her voice and style this way: “The timbre of her voice was completely individual, and her incredible sense of rhythm and intuitive knowledge of harmony enabled her to phrase songs in a unique way. She could reshape the bleakest melody into something that offered a vast range of emotions to her listeners; her artistry and timing gave her the ability to make poetry out of the most banal lyrics.”
Ms. Holiday’s biggest artistic triumphs were with songs that presented the reality of black life in America, and the reason for the blues- songs like “Strange Fruit” about lynchings in the South, and “God Bless the Child” about personal alienation.
It was that sense of alienation, that deep loneliness no one could share with her, that caused Holiday to become addicted to drugs and alcohol. As a singer , she remained professional , and she toured for number of years, but eventually her addictions caused her death. She died of lung congestion and other ailments in New York in 1959, at the age of forty-four.
Students will not only listen to selections from Billie Holiday , but also from artists such as Cassandra Wilson, and Wynton Marsalis.
Wynton Marsalis is a jazz musician and composer. Marsalis was born to a highly musical family. His father was a jazz musician and teacher. His mother sang with jazz groups. His brother is an established musician. It seemed inevitable that Wynton would be musically talented. This grammy award winning artist created a phenomenal, three hour long composition called
Blood on the Fields
. This work is about the Middle Passage and slavery. Of his work, Marsalis says,
It starts on a slave ship during the Middle Passage. We meet two Africans, Jesse and Leona, who until being forced into the equality of a tragic circumstance, occupied very different stations in life—he a prince; she a commoner. They get sold to the same plantation and are chained together on a coffle. Jesse gets wounded trying to escape, and in order to survive the journey to his new home (for lack of a better term), he has to lean on Leona. When they arrive, he doesn’t even thank her for saving his life. He had been a prince in Africa, so perhaps it was beneath his noble station to express gratitude to a commoner. But one thing is apparent, he’s caught up in the injustice of his circumstance. For him, freedom is a purely personal thing. He needs to have his understanding expanded, and Leona is equipped with the tools to do the job.
Eventually, Jesse goes to see Juba, a wise man posing as a fool. And Juba tells him that he needs to do three things. He has to love his new land, he has to learn how to sing with soul, and he has to learn who he will be when free—what will he call himself? nigger, colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African American or the next name (maybe just American). Juba’s advice sounds too “Uncle Tom-ish” . Jesse escapes and gets caught. He has a painful awakening under the bite of the lash. This convinces him to transform his attitude and ultimately his character.
This transformation is completed when he sings the blues chant ‘Oh , anybody hear this plaintive song. Oh, who wants to help their brother dance this dance? Oh, I sing with soul, heal this wounded land.’
Blood on the Fields details in music what I feel it takes to achieve soul: the willingness to address adversity with elegance.”
(quote taken from introduction to BLOOD ON THE FIELDS written by Stanley Crouch)
Blood on the Fields
is slave blues and a great learning tool to illustrate the degradation of slavery.
Students will not completely understand all of the lyrics. However, listening to the rhythm of the music can certainly set a mood of which the students can discuss. Students will answer such questions as:
How does the singer’s voice sound?
Is she angry, sad, depressed, joyous? Why do you think so?
Can this music be played to describe a slave child?
The musical selections can also be used to set a mood in Writer’s Workshop.