<< Blues Classroom
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This lesson shows how the blues can be used to enable students to explore gender divisions in the United States, both in the past and
the present. Most blues songs are about the relationships between men and women, as are many songs in American popular music. But blues
artists have always addressed love with a directness and realism absent in many mainstream songs. Between 1923 and 1945, women blues
singers in particular offered a powerful alternative to the narrow, mainstream image of women as domesticated wives and mothers,
creating a new feminism that drew on the fight for women's rights in the voting booth and the work place that took place between 1913
and 1919, and prefiguring the later women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By looking at both men's and women's performances of the
blues, students can learn much about sexual differences, identity, changing gender roles, and patriarchy throughout American history.
By completing this lesson, the student will:
- Explore gender stereotypes and their influence on everyday behavior
- Consider different sides in debates about the role of women in society
- Understand how blues women were both limited by and defiant of the gender expectations under which they lived
Addresses the following themes in the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies:
Primary Themes: IV, V
Secondary Themes: II, X
The Blues Teacher's Guide
Muddy Waters, "Mannish Boy"
B.B. King, "Three O'Clock Blues"
Shemekia Copeland, "The Other Woman"
Instruments and Gender
Warming by the Devil's Fire (segment in which Buddy talks to the boy
about female blues performers, including performance footage of Sister
Rosetta Tharpe, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Victoria Spivey)
Red, White & Blues ("The Post-War Years" segment, which includes a discussion
among British musicians about Sister Rosetta Tharpe's tour in England in the 1950s)
Blues songs provide an interesting lens through which to consider relationships between men and women as well as gender stereotypes. The
following exercise asks students to consider this lens by listening to three blues songs.
As students listen to the three songs named below, have them take notes on the following questions:
First, play and discuss "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters, which depicts a ladies' man who boasts of his sexual
prowess. This is the typical "bluesman" stereotype, one that emphasizes men's interest in sex and their desire not to stay in one
place too long. Juxtapose this selection with "Three O'Clock Blues" by B.B. King, which depicts a man whose woman has left him because
of a sin he's committed. He is at turns defiant (remarking that he should go down to where "the mens hang out") and repentant, hinting
that he'll die without her ("I believe this is the end"). Finally, play Shemekia Copeland's "The Other Woman." This song depicts a
woman who has been manipulated into a relationship by a married man. Note the twist on the typical situation in which a married woman
finds out that her husband was cheating. Here, instead, a woman finds out that she's participated unwittingly in a man's cheating.
After listening to all three selections, discuss students' thoughts on the above questions, comparing the three songs to one another.
- What are the circumstances in the song? Who is to blame for the problems between the couple?
- How are men and women portrayed in the song? Specifically, how are the actions of men and women portrayed?
- What gender stereotypes, if any, are evident in the song?
Broaden this discussion by considering gender roles and stereotypes in general. Ask students to cite examples of such
stereotypes from print media, music, and television. Using student examples for a springboard, discuss: What kind of pressures do these
stereotypes place on men and women? Are men and women always boundby biology or natureto fulfill these stereotypes? Or are
there ways in which men and women can avoid the stereotypes and change things?
Conclude by asking students to voice their opinions on whether or not the blues songs support or refute the gender
stereotyping in contemporary mass media. How so? How not? Does Copeland's song from 2000 more accurately capture today's stereotypes,
or do the messages of Waters' and King's songs still hold true today? What, if anything, would have to change in the lyrics of the
earlier pieces in order to make them reflect 2003 thinking?
Musical instruments are often considered appropriate for either men or women. To start a discussion about this phenomenon, ask the class
to think about the instruments that men usually play and the instruments that women usually play. Answers usually link men with the
guitar, trumpet, and drums, while women are linked with the flute, piano, or voice. List student answers on the board, then take each
one, discussing: Why might this instrument be appropriate for a man or a woman? Does appropriateness have to do with the sound, the
shape, or weight of the instrument and/or how one must play it? Tie this discussion into the blues by noting that many early bluesmen
were guitarists, harp players, or pianists, and most blueswomen were singers. Ask why that may have been.
Next, consider exceptions to the idea of gendered instruments. Ask students for examples, aiding the discussion if
necessary, by asking: Are there men who excel at flute? Voice? Piano? Women who are guitarists? Trumpeters? Drummers? Another tool to
help students think about such exceptions are the films Warming by the Devil's Fire,
which includes footage of Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing
electric guitar and Red, White & Blues, which discusses Tharpe and her guitar playing.
To follow up on film viewing, point out to students that in the late 1940s, the image of a female electric guitar player was
completely incongruous with a woman's role. Then ask whether women guitarists provide the same shock today. Ask students what they
think about the exceptions discussed. Does going against the grain give the performers a different image or edge? How so? [See
Film Tie-Ins section for detailed film information.]
Conclude this exercise by tying the discussion of gender and instruments into a greater discussion of gender roles.
Inform students that two stances exist in terms of men, women, and the roles they play. Stance one suggests that women have the
physical and mental ability to do whatever a man can do but have been oppressed by gender stereotypes and sexist laws. They should
promote their equality with men and push for equal treatment in employment, politics, sports, etc. The opposing stance argues that
women are quite different than men, possessing unique and powerful emotional and intuitive qualities. They should enhance their
power in society by focusing on caregiving, homemaking, and the arts, where emotion, nurturing, and intuition are valued and useful.
Ask students which stance they believe women musicians most support. Then, broaden the discussion to allow students to express their
own opinions on these two definitions of appropriate female roles in society.
Research and Analysis
Good starting points for research include:
Assign students to research the life of one of the following women blues singers. Specifically, their research should focus on how
these women were constrained by the times in which they lived as well as the ways they challenged the status quo. Student research
should consider biographical information as well as the music associated with their chosen singer.
Synthesis and Assessment
- American Women's History: A Research Guide. Middle Tennessee State University.
- Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988
Have students, in partners, make a collage of photographs of women musicians who they feel are good role models
for young women. They might find such photos in magazines like Rolling Stone or on the Internet. Collages should include at
least one blueswoman. When collages are complete, students should present them to class, explaining the reasons behind their
In order to introduce the Women's Movement in American history, talk about the different social roles available to women before the
turn of the century. You might gather evidence for the discussion from a history textbook or from literature, with the goal, in the
end, for students to understand traditional Victorian gender roles.
Then play "Lost Your Head Blues" by Bessie Smith. Ask students, How did Bessie Smith present an alternative to
traditional Victorian gender roles in this song? Suggest that beyond this song, Bessie Smith represents a woman who defied gender
roles. Introduce her as someone who worked in the public as an entertainer, recorded some of the first blues on record, became a
national star, and made lots of money. She also embraced masculine traits typical of the time: She was "tough"once scaring off a
group of Klansmen who tried to disrupt her concertsang openly about sexual desire, addressed issues like rape, and was known to
be able to outdrink any challenger, man or woman. Ask students to account for Smith's image and behavior. Why could Smith (and other
blues singers) break free from the typical constraints on women in American society in the 1920s? Discussion should include:
Finally, ask students to compare Smith's sexuality and toughness to other attempts by women to gain equality. Start
by handing out a timeline of women's history. After students have read the timeline, ask them to compare Bessie Smith's life and music
to the events on the timeline. Specifically, discuss:
- The 1920s were a time of shifting expectations for women. The suffrage movement and World War I challenged Victorian gender roles.
- Blueswomen were African Americans, which already separated them from middle class white America. Breaking gender roles was, in this way, somewhat easier.
- Urbanization and the African American Great Migration found many black women in the factory workforce. Here, in these urban settings, gender roles were challenged every day.
[A good timeline of women's history can be found at
- Does Bessie reflect the times in which she lived? How so? How not?
- Did she prefigure some of the values of the Women's Movement in the 1960s, as Angela Davis has argued in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism?
Research and Analysis
1. Ask students to locate images of Bessie Smith in the 1920s. Then ask them to locate other images of women during the 1920s.
Ultimately, students should write a short report that describes the photographs, analyzing the meaning of Smith's poses and image.
Students should consider how the pictures fit with other images of women in the 1920s and 1930s. How do they compare to images of
women now in magazines and on television?
Good starting points for research include:
2. Bessie Smith and other blues singers were working-class women. But there were also middle-class and educated
women, like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, in the early 20th century who tried to take a stand against both racism and women's
oppression. Using your school library or the Internet, ask students to investigate the contributions of these two women to American
history, comparing their behavior and thinking to that of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.
- America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945.
Library of Congress. http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/fsahtml/fahome.html
- American Memory. Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amhome.html
- Murray, Albert. Stomping the Blues. New York: McGraw Hill, 1976
Synthesis and Assessment
Ask students, in an essay, to agree with the following prompt: Blueswomen have resisted the roles set out for them in society.
Papers should use both biographical information and song lyrics as proof.
- Brown, Sterling. "Ma Rainey." Write Me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader. Tracy, Steven C., ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
- Davis, Angela. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Random House, 1999.
- Feinstein, Elaine. Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues. Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1985.
- Garon, Paul, and Beth Garon. Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues. New York: Da Capo, 1992.
- Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988.
- Lieb, Sandra. Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981.
- Blues Masters. Rhino R2 976075.
- But Some of Us Are Brave: A History of Black Feminism in the United States. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- National Women's History Project. National Women's History Project.
- Primary Documents. Pace University.
- Whitney, Ross. Reflections of 1920s And 30s Street Life In The Music Of Bessie Smith. BluesNet.
- Women's History. About.com.