The years a student spends in middle school are ones of transformation from childhood (ragtime) to young adulthood (jazz), but to successfully evolve one must experience the “blues”. Adolescence is a time of growth through personal and social reflection. The expression of these growing pains and joys can be considered equivalent to the musical blues intonations of melancholy.
The blues is defined as a type of music that uses a twelve-bar format and has a ‘flattening’ of the third and seventh notes, also called blue notes. These blue notes are not notes found in the scales of European music, yet they are often used in African music. The blues notes are what gives the special emotional quality to the music. The notes and the flattening or bending of the notes allows the musicians to put more feeling into the music.
The musical notes are not the only different quality of blues music; the words also have a special presentation. Most lyrics are written in a three line format. The first line usually makes a statement which is repeated by the second line. Then, the third line concludes the thought. For example,
I went lookin’ for my baby, but she ran away from me
When I couldn’t find her, I was blue as I could be.
I went lookin’ for my baby, but she ran away from me
The repetition of verse adds to the emotionality of the singer’s cause, whether it be lost love or a wandering spirit.
The blues as a musical genre dates from the period after the Civil War and reflects the changing life-style of freed slaves. Emancipation forced many black people to roam from one migrant labor job to another. The train, the popular mode of transportation at the time, was used by many blacks. There are numerous blues songs about jumping the boxcars, riding the rails and various other train travel related pieces. Most of the songs are lyric poems that express personal joys or sorrows in response to everyday matters, such as work or love. Other common subjects for blues singers were poverty, illness, wealth, liquor, and luck. Some blues songs are notable for their social comments. This unit will have students investigate aspects of the blues from a historical and personal viewpoint.
It is an interdisciplinary unit, approximately ten weeks in length, with a two fold purpose:
1) to have students explore the writings, music and art of the 1920’s and 30’s, particularly in Harlem. One poem that I propose to use with students to show the mood of the era is Langston Hughes’
The Weary Blues.
The historical occurrences within the United States will be discussed to clarify the social climate of the time period.
2) to have students explore their own ‘blues’ in relation to their physical and social development. They will be encouraged to explore their feelings through written, artistic and musical expression.
The ultimate goal is to have the students do a comparative analysis of the blues influence of the 20’s and the ‘blues’ impulse of the adolescent years.
Middle school students should relate to this topic quite well. While they are quite talkative, conversations about their inner feelings are often difficult. They think, or at least hope, that their friends are also worried about friends, relationships, looks, clothes, being cool and growing up. Many urban students are also concerned with drugs, disease, gangs, child birth and often troubled parents. Positive vehicles of expression are vital to these student’s futures.
One might frown and say school is a place where students should feel safe and free from the pains of the world. But urban schools have become much more than just educational institutions; instead, they have been expected to be social change agents. So a unit such as this one is quite appropriate to teach historical prospectus, while having the students confront their own pain and joy. Much of the blues deals with pain and a vital question a teacher must ask is, “Do we teach pain to children?” My response is that children feel and inflict pain, particularly during adolescence, and must be helped to work through that pain in an intellectually productive manner. Systems that teach social development and/or conflict resolution are already dealing with the issues of pain. Adolescence itself might be described as the affirmation of the value of one’s self—pain and joy experienced help us become us. Granted, some students have experienced situations too personal and painful to share, but expressions of the blues do not have to be that deep at the instructional level.
The instructional level requires students to read and listen to others expressions of ‘blues’. Then, discuss, critique and reflect upon the author’s or musician’s concepts relative to their lives, remembering that there is joy in the blues too. Adolescent blues can be as simple as a bad hair day or as complex as a drug addicted parent, yet students can all appreciate a vehicle to express themselves that does not feel like it is subject specific. A classroom full of students, then, can become a living play woven together much as the seven characters are in August Wilson’s
. The students will be instruments of adolescent blues representing their segment and perspective of a cultural blues. The image of up to twenty seven guitars playing a collective blues reflecting their experiences is enlightening.
This is a curricular unit that should take approximately ten weeks or one marking period to discuss all of the information and complete the projects planned. Ideally it would be coordinated between the two specialties, preferably music first and then art.
The concept of blues music and the historical time period effecting the music would be covered first. Second is a concentration on the blues women and their contribution to the era, musically and through their lyrics. Thirdly, a literary introduction to blues language in literature would be done with the study of
by Gwendolyn Brooka and “Karintha” a story from
by Jean Toomer. An emphasis would also be given to Langston Hughes’ poetry. Intertwined within the lessons would be art lessons to help students express their impressions of the blues. The culminating project would be the students own blues productions, as well as a presentation on their family’s migration history. The following piece outlines in more detail information and materials for teacher preparation. This is by no means an exhaustive unit, but merely a suggestive piece to excite a teacher to address the ever prevalent need for adolescents to express