Contributing Editor: Steven C. Tracy
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Many students will be totally unfamiliar with the blues tradition and will therefore benefit greatly from the playing of blues recordings in class in conjunction with the selections from blues lyrics printed in the text. In fact, playing these blues selections in class will help introduce the important point that the blues is an oral, not a written, tradition. Asking the students to write down what they hear on the recordings played brings up not only the problems that scholars have deciphering texts but also the issue of how one should render an oral production on the printed page.
Students should be encouraged to respond to the voices of the lyrics. Are they voices of resignation and defeat, of hope and transcendence, of strength and pride, or of some mixture of all of these? What is it that has given the blues their staying power? And what is it that writers like Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Al Young, Alice Walker, Shirley Anne Williams, and Allen Ginsberg see in them that makes these writers draw on them for their own writing? Certainly comparing these blues lyrics to various blues poems will help clarify authors' differing attitudes about the blues.
Religious and sexual themes are generally the most controversial. Students question the image of women in the blues and wonder whether the blues singer is weak and self-pitying or strong and self-sufficient. The Furry Lewis lyric is often seen as being bizarre and sick: a good starting point for a discussion of the place of humor in the blues.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A number of important subjects are covered in these selections, including love, hate, sex, violence, hope, superstition, religion, and protest, indicating that the blues in fact deal with a range of subjects in a variety of ways. When blues are performed, they often provoke laughter from an audience that identifies with the experience being described or that appreciates the novel way the experience is described. There are a number of humorous verses here that could be compared for the way they achieve their effects, from Bracey's hyperbole to Carter's prurience to Cox's unexpected assertiveness to the startling images of Wheatstraw and Lewis. Such a discussion would emphasize the idea that the blues, though often discussing sadness and hardships, contain a pretty fair amount of humor. Ellison includes a good discussion of this subject in Shadow and Act, as does Garon in Blues and the Poetic Spirit (pp. 77-87).
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
An advantage to playing the songs for the students is that it allows them to hear how the various stanza structures are fit into the music. For instance, the lyrics of Childers and Wheatstraw are both sung to eight-bar musical stanzas, but the lyric patterns are different. Students can discuss the advantages of one stanza over the other. The selection from "John Henry" is a ten-bar blues ballad, presenting in narrative form the story of the folk-hero whose strength and perseverance in the face of incredible odds is a paradigm for the African-American experience (see Sterling Brown's "Strange Legacies"). The selection from Margaret Carter is from a sixteen-bar vaudeville blues especially, but present in other kinds of blues as well. The rest of the examples included come from twelve-bar blues, but certainly the examples from Jefferson, Bracey, Cox, Robert Johnson, and Holmes are sufficiently different to indicate the possibility of diverse phrasing in the blues, even within what is sometimes considered to be a rather restrictive form.
We can also see in "Got the Blues" the presence of several stock phrases--lines or parts of lines that turn up regularly in blues that are similar to but not the same as the formulaic lines discussed by Parry and Lord. Students might be encouraged to take the first line of stanza two or six and generate an individual rhyme line that completes the thought in some kind of personal manner as a way of helping them understand how tradition has an effect on the individual blues singer.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The only blues lyric quoted in its entirety here is Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Got the Blues," interesting because, rather than developing a single theme, it progresses through associative linkages and contrasts. While some early commentary argued that the blues were often incoherent, more recently texts have been discussed as nonthematic, partially thematic, or thematic, and the presence of such associative linkages and contrasts is important to see and recognize as a textual strategy rather than an example of textual incoherence. Again, students can be encouraged to discern the associations among lines and stanzas the way they might be asked to do for poetry by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, or Amy Lowell.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Have students listen to recordings by Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Michael Harper, Allen Ginsberg, or Jack Kerouac that have musical accompaniment (or are sung performances, in Hurston and Ginsberg) and discuss how the music affects our response to the words.
2. Have students write a blues song and discuss their rationale for choice of stanza form, themes, images, diction, and voice, establishing clearly the relation of their song to the tradition.
3. Have students survey the various methods of transcribing blues lyrics and defend one method as superior to the others.
4. Have students pick a theme developed in a blues-influenced poem by an author like Langston Hughes and search out blues lyrics that deal with a similar theme to see how the literary artist revises the traditional treatment of the theme.
Interviews with blues performers are included in:
Oliver, Paul. Conversation With the Blues. New York: Horizon Press, 1965.
Pearson, Barry Lee. Sounds So Good to Me. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
For explanations of unfamiliar words, phrases, and places in blues lyrics see:
Gold, Robert. Jazz Talk. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.
Townley, Eric. Tell Your Story. Chigwell, Essex: Storyville, 1976.
Other valuable discussions of blues include:
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.
Evans, David. Big Road Blues. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Garon, Paul. Blues and the Poetic Spirit. London: Eddison Press, 1975.
Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1975.
Jahn, Janheinz. A History of Neo-African Literature. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
--. Muntu: An Outline of the New African Culture. London: Faber and Faber, 1961.
Jones, Leroi. Blues People. New York: Wm. Morrow, 1963.
Oliver, Paul. The Blues Tradition. New York: Oak Publications, 1970.
--. The Meaning of the Blues. 1960. Reprint. New York: Collier Books, 1972.
--. Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues. Kibsibm Studio Vista, 1970.
--. The Story of the Blues. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1973.
Titon, Jeff Todd. Early Downhome Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.
For discussions of the importance of the blues to African-American literature see:
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Williams, Sherley A. "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry." In Chant of Saints, edited by Michael Harper and Robert Stepto. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Bracey, Ishmon. Complete Recordings (1928-30). Wolf WSE 105, n.d.
Carter, Margaret. Pot Hound Blues. Historical HLP-15, 1970.
Childers, Virgil. Piedmont Blues Vol. 2. Flyright LP 107, n.d.
Cox, Ida. Ida Cox Vol. 2. Fountain FB 304, n.d.
Davis, Walter. Think You Need a Shot. Victor 731015, n.d.
Holmes, Wright. Country Blues Classics Vol. 3. Blues Classics 7, n.d.
Jefferson, Blind Lemon. Complete Recorded Works Vol. 1. Document DOCD 5017, n.d.
Johnson, Robert. The Complete Recordings. Columbia C2K 46222, 1990.
Johnson, Tommy. Complete Recorded Works (1928-29). Document DOCD 5001, 1990.
Lewis, Furry. Furry Lewis 1927-29. Document DOCD 5004, n.d.
McClennan, Tommy. Travelin' Highway Man. Travelin' Man CD 06, 1990.
Rainey, Ma. Ma Rainey. Milestone M 47021, 1974.
Tucker, Bessie. Bessie Tucker 1928-29. Document DOCD 5070, n.d.
Wheatstraw, Peetie. Peetie Wheatstraw Vol. 2. 1931-41. Old Tramp OT 1200, n.d.