This class will explore the history of the blues and culminate in the students’ creating lyrics and a standard blues progression for their own blues tune. Slaves’ work songs, spirituals, and early Appalachian music, all of which intermingled or influenced each other, will all be explored both as expressive cultural vehicles and as musical forms. The students, many of whom are bilingual and challenged by written expression, will also explore the emotional concept of “feeling blue” with attention to semantic range to amplify literacy and, I hope, compassion. What is sad? Why did the blues emerge from the African American culture in particular? How do we use songs to express what cannot be directly discussed?
Above, the students act out stanzas from “Conversation with Death,” an Appalachian spiritual. Creating physical tableaus helped the kids to immediately internalize the meaning of the lyrics whether or not they were challenged by English, and also to consider the very powerful message of those lyrics.
Below, a student’s journal reponse after listening to “Po’ Lazarus”, a 1950s field recording of a prison work crew singing in call-and-response style while working. The children were asked to consider: what might the lyrics of this piece (concerning a confrontation between an outlaw, Lazarus, and a deputy charged with capturing him dead or alive) indirectly convey about the prisoners’ perspective on incarceration? How does this compare with a slave work song, “Hoe, Hannah, Hoe”, also sung in call-and-response style? What kinds of situations and feelings lead to these kinds of songs?
Manny is extremely bright, I think even gifted. He consistently makes observations and connections that are sophisticated, empathic, and ahead of his classmates. I hope that our work will provide him with the extra challenge he may need to stay engaged.
Ruth is highly intelligent and seems to grasp concepts quickly and completely,
In this assignment, students were asked to find a newspaper article that was
somewhere on the "sadness continuum" and to explain in a short essay why they
found it sad. This was in preparation for a blues songwriting assignment: students, when asked what made them blue, seemed to equate sadness solely with tragedy. I hoped that choosing articles would demonstrate that there was a wide range of "sadness" in the world, as well as many synonyms for "sad" appropriate to discussion of those topics. I found out later through their classroom teacher that many of the students were experiencing challenging, indeed tragic, personal circumstances.
Jonathan responds to written questions with a good deal of thought and is very articulate. He tends to get lost in this very rambunctious class because he is so well-behaved.
As part of my classroom work with the homeroom teacher, we created a “sadness continuum” of adjectives and expressions pertaining to sadness, placing them on the continuum in a range from so-so sad to “suicidal”. We were hoping to enhance the students’ vocabulary, as well as to encourage more specificity in their usage of these words and in discussing the blues in general. Once we had established that the blues tend to be in the middle of the continuum in terms of emotional tone, I asked the students to write personal essays about what makes them blue to use as material for blues lyrics. Here we have students reading their essays and discussing the musical structure of the blues.
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Manny reads with compassion about ladybugs stepped on by accident, forgetting his lunch. . .
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Ruth discusses the musical structure of the blues.
We’ve had challenges with this class this year, but once we started staging and rehearsing the blues song they composed, their creativity and positive attitudes blossomed! Many children wanted to have dramatic solos in the song, and one student who has been an intermittent disruption took on a vocal solo with perfect pitch and aplomb! “It’s the lunch I forgot, it’s the cold that I caught, it’s the pencil that breaks, or not getting what YOU got!” I find that sometimes, with difficult classes, they just need a chance to vent. Don’t we all sometimes feel like singing the blues? We’ve also practiced playing instruments while singing to reinforce blues chord progressions.
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Here Genove discusses how we needed to edit our blues composition.
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Here Oscar explains that he enjoyed writing lyrics for a blues song because. . .
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Kiara here talks about her blues experience. . .she shared with me the fact that one of the things that made her blue was that her uncle was in jail. He writes her lovely letters.