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The Soul of a Man
Click here to download a PDF of this lesson. (2.3 MB)

This lesson, focused on profile writing and its unique characteristics, considers the profiles developed in the film The Soul of a Man while also asking students to consider other profiles they are familiar with and to write some of their own. The film's profiles of three blues musicians provide the basis for complementary activities that ask students to consider the meaning of a man's soul and how a person's life exposes the contents of that soul.

Learning Objectives
By completing this lesson, the student will:

  • Practice note-taking skills while watching a film
  • Understand the difference between profiles and biographies
  • Explore the symbolic meaning of the soul
  • Write personal, literature-based and/or musician-focused profiles
Addresses the following themes in the National Curriculum Standards for English Language Arts:
Primary: 3, 6
Secondary: 8

Resources Needed
Segments from various television profiles (optional)
Web Sites:

Film Tie-Ins
Profile of J.B. Lenoir
The Soul of a Man (segments highlighting J.B. Lenoir)

Introductory Exercise
Many students are familiar with music profiles from MTV or VH1, but most are probably not familiar with the term "profile" and the characteristics of the form. This exercise is designed to introduce students to profiles and to compare them with more traditional biographies. Start by showing the class the segments of the film The Soul of a Man that focus on bluesman J.B. Lenoir. As they watch, ask them to record information that they learn about Lenoir from the segments. After viewing, discuss what students learned about Lenoir, then hand out a written biography of him. Ask students how the depiction of Lenoir in the film differs from that of the biography. [A Lenoir biography can be found at]

If you haven't already done so, suggest that the film version of Lenoir is known as a profile, whereas the written version is a biography. It's worth noting that profiles can be written as well as filmed (in case students wrongly assume a difference to be the medium in which the information is created). Assign students to make a compare/contrast chart that highlights the similarities and differences between profiles and biographies.

Both tell facts about a person's life; both highlight important people, places, and events in the person's life; both focus on struggles and successes; both present the information in an organized way.

More often topically organized
More often chronologically organized
Focuses closely on small amount of information
  Includes a large amount of information
Offers interpretation
  Presents facts
Structured around a theme
  Structured around factual information
Based largely on observation and interviews
  Based largely on research
Informative and entertaining
  Informative, less emphasis on entertaining

Conclude this exercise by asking students to discuss the profiles they viewed the previous night for homework. Assign prior to starting this exercise. MTV, VH1, Fox Sports, and 60 Minutes are all good places to find profiles. Discuss how the viewed profiles illustrate the profile characteristics discussed in class.

Focus Exercise
The title of Wim Wenders' film The Soul of a Man suggests a theme around which the film's profiles are focused. This exercise explores the idea of a human's soul, using song lyrics, the film, and literature. Start by asking students to write out a definition for "soul." Then, read a dictionary definition that defines soul as largely synonymous with self. Other common synonyms are spirit, courage, life, and ardor. Ask students, given these definitions, to share what they think the soul of a human represents.

Hand out lyrics to the Blind Willie Johnson song "The Soul of a Man" (featured in the film). Ask students what the song is about, how it relates to the class discussion, and what literary devices are employed in the song. If you haven't already watched the J.B. Lenoir segments of the film, view them now. If you watched them in the Introductory Exercise, review them with students briefly. After viewing and/or reviewing, ask students:

  • What is the theme of the profile? What unique perspective on Lenoir does the director present?
  • Does the director suggest an answer to Johnson's question "What is the soul of a man?" for Lenoir? Or, does he support the song's notion that the soul of a man—and Lenoir's soul, in particular—is impossible to define?
[Lyrics to Johnson's song can be found at]

Conclude this exercise by asking students to compose a piece of writing which describes either the soul of a character in a book they are currently reading, using quotations to support their assertions, or their own soul.

Research and Analysis
The Soul of a Man, in addition to profiling the life of J.B. Lenoir, profiles two other bluesmen: Blind Willie Johnson and Skip James. Ask students to research the life and music of one of these two men. Students should read a variety of print and Web sources on their performer, read a variety of song lyrics written by the artist and, if possible, listen to this person's music. Once students have compiled ample information, they should write a short profile of their musician, making sure to focus on a particular theme. When they've finished writing these original pieces, view the profiles from the film and then discuss how Wenders' view of the performer was similar to and different from their own.

The following resources would be good places to start research:

  • The Songs and Artists at
  • Harris, Sheldon. Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1979
  • Santelli, Robert. The Big Book of Blues: A Biographical Encyclopedia. New York: Penguin, 2001
Synthesis and Assessment
Many colleges and universities ask students to write a personal essay as part of their application. People reading these essays don't want to read straight biography after straight biography, so you can suggest to students that writing a personal profile could help their applications stand out. Assign students to write such a personal profile, focusing on some theme in their life. Regardless of their grade level or college ambitions, this piece could be of use in the future, either in the college-application process or in a job application.

Research and Analysis
Willie Dixon has said, "The blues is the facts of life." Using this statement, have students research the life and the songs of Johnson, James, and Lenoir. These songs can include, but should not be limited to, songs in the film. Students should also research the time periods during which the musicians lived. Following their research, ask students to either agree or disagree with Dixon's assertion, using historic information, song titles and lyrics, and facts from each musician's life for support.

Synthesis and Assessment
The narrator at the end of The Soul of a Man comments that the two men featured in the film, Skip James and J.B. Lenoir, both left a legacy. Assign students an essay in which their thesis focuses on what they believe that legacy to be, using biographical information, as well as music to support their assertions.

Supplementary Resources

  • Calt, Stephen. I'd Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
Web Sites:


Blues in Society
Men, Women, and the Blues
Identity, Oppression, and Protest: To Kill a Mockingbird and the Blues
A Snapshot of Delta Blues: Skip James and Robert Johnson
Blues as Culture
Folk Traditions in the Blues
Crossroads Blues
Blues Lyrics
Legacy of the Blues
White, Blacks, and the Blues
The Soul of a Man
Finding the Blues



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