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Blues Geography
Click here to download a PDF of this lesson. (1.6 MB)

Overview
This lesson enables teachers to use blues styles and performers to think about various geographical regions of the United States. By studying different blues styles from the Mississippi Delta, Texas, and the Piedmont region of the Southeastern Coast, or from cities like Memphis and Chicago, students can explore regional geography and culture while also learning about the effects of different environments on musical styles, the relationships between natural resources and social organization, and the cultural legacies of migrations of people from region to region in the United States.

Learning Objectives
By completing this lesson, the student will:

  • Explore the major blues styles associated with various regions of the United States
  • Understand the relationship between music and place
  • Learn about the cultural adaptations involved in migration
  • Explain how environments change over time
Standards
Addresses the following themes in the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies:
Primary Themes: I, III
Secondary Themes: II, V

Resources Needed
Music:
The Blues Teacher's Guide CD:
Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"
Skip James, "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues"
Bukka White, "The Panama Limited"
B.B. King, "Three O'Clock Blues"
Muddy Waters, "Mannish Boy"
Topographical Map of the US or US Atlas
Web Sites:
http://www.pbs.org/theblues
http://www.weightlessdog.com/bluesmap.nsf/map!OpenPage

Film Tie-Ins
Blues Regions
The Road to Memphis ("Coming Home", "Heaven for a Black Man", and "The White Embrace 1968" segments about the city of Memphis and Beale Street and their importance in blues history)
Godfathers and Sons (past and present footage of Maxwell Street and the Chicago Blues Festival)

Introductory Exercise
This exercise will introduce the idea of a region and its relationship to music and to the blues. Many musical styles have a strong relationship to place and often play a part in shaping these identities. For some musical styles, the place is a particular city or urban area (Detroit, Memphis, Seattle); for other styles, the place is larger (Texas, New England, the West Coast). To help students comprehend the notion of regional music, you might talk about bluegrass and Appalachia, Tex-Mex and Texas, Motown and Detroit, or Dixieland jazz or Cajun music and Louisiana. If available, play examples of one or two of these musical styles for students to help them think about their meaning and geographic context. Next, discuss your region. Have students volunteer what might be a local or regional music; if possible, consult The Rough Guide to Music USA for guidance and ideas. After putting ideas on the blackboard, ask, Why is this music associated with your locality? Is there something in the sound of the music, its history, or the backgrounds of its players, that corresponds with the characteristics of your area?

Suggest that the blues is a music often associated with particular regions and cities. To illustrate, identify the following blues styles for the students with a short lecture:

  • Delta blues—unamplified guitar, rhythmic and spoken vocals, drones, moans, "bottleneck" slide techniques, and a generally "heavy" texture
  • Memphis blues—smooth and arranged, brass and/or saxophones prominent, soulful vocals, and a lighter feel
  • Chicago blues—simple structure, electricity, amplification, bass-drums-guitar-harmonica instrumentation, "raw" sounding
Following the lecture, split the students into groups and have them listen to each of the following songs: As they listen, they should record characteristics evident in each song. Then, using their notes and lecture information, the group should try to determine the region from which each song comes. As they share their guesses with the rest of the class, press them to identify specific regional characteristics that led them to their answers.

Conclude this exercise by discussing what forces such as globalization and the Internet have done to regional styles of music. Are such regional styles as common as they were in the early decades of the 20th century?

Focus Exercise
Knowing a bit about the regions associated with the blues deepens one's understanding of the music. Introduce the notion of blues regions as places with distinct histories by showing clips from The Blues films, which discuss Memphis' Beale Street and Chicago's Maxwell Street. [See Film Tie-Ins section for specific film information.]

Split the students into seven groups, asking each group to research the histories of one of the following blues regions:
New Orleans
The Delta
Texas
Louisiana
Memphis
Chicago
Los Angeles

Groups should consider the following questions: How has the region developed over time? What groups of people have lived there and how have they transformed the landscape? Why is this region considered a blues region? This exercise has the potential to expand infinitely, so give students specific time periods (1900 to the present, for instance) or limit the kinds of information you want to know (economic resources, urban development, racial and ethnic groups, etc.). Once groups have completed their research, assign them to teach the rest of the class about their respective regions. This instruction can take the form of a presentation, an illustration, or a Web site.

Suggest to students that the following might be helpful resources:

Research and Analysis
In the 1920s, the blues was often seen as a source of "race pride," a movement meant to enable blacks to take pride in their ancestry and elevate their status in American society. But the blues began to wane in popularity in the late 1950s in the African American community, a point that can be introduced by showing the segment "Like Being Black Twice" from the film The Road to Memphis. Assign students to research African American history in both the 1920s and 1950s, and come up with a list of reasons why the blues might have held a larger appeal to blacks in the 1920s than in the 1950s.

Using topographical and/or other maps from an atlas, ask them to discuss the following questions about their region: How might people have moved from place to place? Are there transportation links, like trains, highways, or rivers that might have aided movement? Why would people have gone from one place to another? Are there geographical relationships between the original places and ultimate destinations? What would have been the geographical reasons for going to particular cities and not others? What are the cultural, economic, and social environments of the original and ultimate destinations?

As a way to enable students to present their findings, ask them to create a poster advertisement for prospective migrants, enticing them from their original homes to the new destination. The posters should focus on a particular time period during the Great Migration. Students should research happenings during their selected time period in order to guarantee the authenticity of their posters. When complete, individuals should present their posters to the rest of the class, explaining how the content and design of the poster would appeal to migrants from their assigned region, during their selected time period.

Synthesis and Assessment
1. Ask students to write lyrics for a blues song that reflects their region. They might use another song like "Cross Road Blues" or "The Panama Limited" as a template and then fill in their own local references.

2. Alan Lomax worked, as his father John Lomax before him had, to record and collect blues songs for the Library of Congress. Lomax traveled throughout the South as well as to Europe in his effort to document folk music, including the blues. During his research, he observed and commented on the ways in which the mass media work to homogenize, and thereby erase, the distinctive, regional musical cultures of the United States, something he labeled as "gray-out". Assign student to write an essay that addresses the following prompt: "Gray-out" is a problem in contemporary society. Agree or disagree using music as your evidence.

Extensions
Research and Analysis
1. Between 1914 and 1945, many blues performers participated in the Great Migration, moving from rural areas to cities in the South, West, and North. Assign students to individually research the life of one of the following performers and his or her participation in the Great Migration:

Questions to consider include: What motivated them to move? What did they think about city life? Did they adapt their music to their new environments? Why and how exactly?

Students might begin their research with the biographies of each musician at:

  • All Music Guide at http://www.allmusic.com/
  • Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of the Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin Books, 1993
2. Ask students, in groups, to visit the Web sites for the following regional blues organizations and make a report to the class. What does each feature? How are the blues and its history described in each and what does that tell you about the region? Links to the Web sites of additional blues societies can be found on the Year of the Blues' Web site at http://www.yearoftheblues.org/societyLinks.asp.

Supplementary Resources
Readings:

  • Barlow, William. Looking Up at Down: The Emergence of Blues Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
  • Keil, Charles. Urban Blues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.
  • Stokes, Martin, ed. Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place. Oxford, UK and Providence, RI: Berg, 1994.
  • Tracy, Steven C. Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
  • Unterberger, Ritchie. The Rough Guide to Music USA. Rough Guides: 1999.
Web Sites:


 

Approaching the Blues
Blues as African American History
Poetry: Blues Style
The Beat of Blues
Locating the Blues
Blues Geography
The South, the North, and the Great Migration: Blues and Literature
Blues Masters: Muddy Waters and B.B. King
Making the Blues
Blues, Urbanization, and Technology
Oral Tradition and the Blues
Playing the Blues


 

 
 

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