To participate in discussion, read these thoughts below, including the instructions “DISCUSSION ASSIGNMENT” below— and then click on “Post New Entry” above to begin your participation in this conversation.
Songs in the playlist “(Pre-war) City Blues” include some of the first popular examples of the blues form. The lyrics of these songs were developed by black artists who were already famous for singing spirituals, musical theater, or minstrel shows. The music certainly reflects a popular notion of how African American musicians expressed themselves, and their conditions, through singing. But these recordings contain a mixture of “Parlor Song” performance practices, with the practices of traditional, rural, African-American “blues” songs. This is because the musicians were discovering the types of songs known to the blues tradition, as outsiders. They saw themselves less as “authentic” carriers of a tradition, as representatives of black America, trying to bring an unfamiliar tradition to a new audience.
And much of that audience was the early 20th-c. Anglo-American middle-class. As a result, we have to consider the possibility that these lyrics, and this music, “romanticize” the black experience. Furthermore, from Angela Davis’ article, we know that references to sexual freedom in some of these blues recordings backfired, perhaps reinforcing hyper-sexualized stereotypes of Black Americans.
DISCUSSION ASSIGNMENT (Due October 15 — or submit by October 10 at noon to get TA guidance toward an essay):
Choose one recording from the “Pre-war City Blues” playlist, and analyze what you hear. Treat each of the elements of the song separately. How are the lyrics expressed — does the expression change in any way from one part of the song to another? What is the form of the song, and what words would you use to distinguish one part of the form from another? Do the lyrics of the song, or the sounds that the performers make, seem to express any concepts in the readings or our lecture-discussions? Try to answer at least two of those three questions.
Your initial post (submitted through the “Post New Entry” button above) should be about two paragraphs, about 200 words. Once you’ve posted, please read your classmates’ posts and begin commenting on them…your TAs will contribute to the conversation as well. Full participation requires you to comment on your classmates’ posts and try to keep the conversation going!
ESSAY ASSIGNMENT (Due October 15 — if you choose to write an essay in this unit):
After reading Angela Davis’ “Mama’s Got the Blues,” choose one of the songs on the “Pre-war City Blues” playlist, and write your own thoughts on what might motivate the way a singer expresses herself musically, and lyrically, in that song. What Davis says about “Empty Bed Blues” might be a good model for what you can say about another song, whose layers of social meaning might also be very complex.
To begin, think carefully about one of the recordings on this list. What is the music like? When does it change, or stay the same? What do the lyrics express, and how does the music itself (how it sounds, how it changes or stays the same) make a difference to the expression of the lyrics? How and why would these performances be heard differently by audiences from varied backgrounds? What does the song imply about power dynamics in sexual relationships, or the status of women in relation to men? Does the music play any role in that expression?
(You don’t need to answer all of these questions—and you may choose to focus on just one or two. But consider them carefully as you plan your comparison of the songs.)
Optional: compare and contrast the presentation of sexuality and empowerment in one of these songs, to a represention of sexuality by a contemporary blues, R&B or hip-hop artist.
To write your essay, carefully follow our instructions on the “How to do the essays” page.
Your finished essay (due before noon on Thursday, October 15) should be between 600-800 words long, about the length of four double-spaced pages. Please keep in mind your peers will want to respond to what you say, so make your thoughts intelligible, organized, and easy to read. When you are finished, post the essay to the Blues Divas Essays page, under Unit 1 in the discussion section of the website.
When you are done, please take time read your peers’ posts and essays, compare and contrast your thoughts, and continue discussion.