How to Make Your Blues Music History Lessons Fun
Blues Music History
There is a lot of debate around Blues Music History, mainly because it was not documented very well at the time.
A brief, and considerably basic explanation of blues music history, and how this lasting style of music developed is that it was born out of Jazz Music and the hardship faced by many people during the Great Depression in the Southern States of America.
There are several musical influences that led to the development of this style of music. Blues music history has its origins in work songs, ragtime, church music, gospel and Jazz.
Most of the original Blues singers are male, and one song that people consider to be the first blues song ever is W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” written in 1909.
Another famous Blues Singer and musician was Robert Johnson. He recorded his first 16 songs in November of 1936. His first song was “Kind Hearted Woman Blues”, but one of his most famous blues songs, that has been recorded by many musicians since is “Sweet Home Chicago”.
12 Bar Blues Structure
There are lots of different styles and sub genres of Blues Music, but most blues songs have one thing in common – the use of the 12 Bar Blues chord progression.
This chord progression is one of the most common chord progressions used in music! It can be heard in Jazz, Blues, Country, Rock and Pop music songs.
The 12 Bar Blues is a chord progression built using the 3 Primary Chords from the given key signature the music is written in. Often these chords have added “seventh” notes to the chord, this note is a flattened note, that helps to give the music that “bluesy” sound.
If you would like to know more about the Elements of Music – Structure, Harmony and Tonality, use the links below to read more.
The 12 Bar Blues Chord pattern is:
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I
Another common feature of a blues song, besides the 12 Bar Blues chord pattern, is how the lyrics are structured within the chord pattern.
Usually, the lyrics follow the AAB pattern, in a four-bar phrase,
Line 1 – poses a question
Line 2 – repeats line 1
Line 3 – Gives a solution or answer to the question
A great example of this use of the chord and lyrics structure of the 12 Bar Blues is by the female blues singer Bessie Smith in the song “St Louis Blues”. Many regard Bessie Smith as the Empress of the Blues, and her place in blues music history cannot be ignored. This song was featured in the short movie in 1929, that starred Bessie Smith herself.
St Louis Blues
I hate to see that evening sun go down,
I hate to see that evening sun go down,
‘Cause my lovin’ baby done left this town.
If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today,
If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today,
I’m gonna pack my trunk and make my getaway.
Studying blues music history in the classroom can be a daunting task. The history surrounding this style of music is not well documented, and there are not a lot of surviving recordings to study and listen to.
To help your students engage in blues music history, there are 2 female blues singers that should be studied in class – Bessie Smith and Etta James. These two female blue singers are famous for different reasons and are from 2 different eras.
Bessie Smith is referred to as The Empress of the Blues because she was a pioneer for both women and this style of music at the time. She had a hard life, and to be a musician during this time in history was not easy. Bessie Smith often performed her music in venues that were known as “Tent Shows”. The musicians traveled from place to place and would sing and perform in a tent, like what you might know a circus tent to be, and they sang without a microphone! This technology did not exist, these singers had to sing using really good voice projection! They not only had to sing loud, but they needed to sing louder than the live band, and in extremely poor acoustic conditions.
Another female blues singer that has made a significant contribution to blues music history is Etta James. Etta James became famous as a singer in 1954 with the hit song – “If I Can’t Have You”. She went on to record many hits, and she is probably most famous for her 1961 signature song – “At Last”. One of her early hits, “Good Rockin’ Daddy” uses the 12 Bar Blues chord progression. It is an easy song to learn and play in class with students.
Black History Month – Music Resources Round Up
This year try celebrating Black History Month with some great resources about both Bessie Smith and Etta James.
There are a few different blues music history resources available and these middle school music lessons will ensure that your students will enjoy learning about blues music history and these female blues singers.
Blues Music History Appreciation Mini Units
These two mini units are jam packed with enough resources to last you quite a few lessons.
Each mini unit features:
- 3 Blues Music History lessons
- Super Six Reading Comprehension Strategies
- Elements of Music Listening Activities
- Writing About Music Paragraph Literacy Activities
- Music Listening Comparison Assignment
- Links to suggested pieces to play and perform in class
- Links for songs to listen to
Black History Month and Blues Music History Lesson Ideas
Below is a list of lesson activities that you can do with your students to celebrate these two female blues singers during Black History Month.
Class performance of the 12 Bar Blues
Let your students play along to some 12 Bar Blues YouTube videos. If you perform in G Major, then it is guitar, ukulele, and keyboard friendly! Add in percussion, drums, bass, and any other instruments that are available to you and your students. Try the play along link below:
Blues Music History Lesson
Use the lessons in the mini units with your students. With each lesson are reading comprehension activities. If you are teaching virtually, try reading the lesson information together, then ask the students to complete the comprehension activities independently or in small groups. Give them a time limit, then bring the class back together to discuss their answers.
Blues Music Appreciation Lessons
For these lessons, there are several Elements of Music listening activities to complete. Choose a song with the links provided and decide on what you want to focus the listening on. Listen to the music, display the Elements of Music questions, and discuss the possible answers. Assign the students the listening questions and play the music again and then give the students time to complete their answers. Again, this could be individually or in small groups. After the allocated time, bring the class back together and discuss the answers.
Writing About Music Lesson
For this lesson, choose one song to study and play for the class. Discuss the music and what they could hear in the music. They might need a little coaxing to get them talking about the music in a critical way. Next assign a different Element of Music to your students, this again could be in small groups if you prefer. Play the music, give some time for the students to discuss their answers, repeat as often as needed.
Bring the class back together and discuss their answers. At this stage, record their answers for each of the Elements of Music and display. Next, ask the students to use this information to write about the music in a critical way using the paragraph structure of your choosing. Provided in the resources are templates for the P.E.E.L & T.X.X.X.C. paragraph structures. This is a great assignment and would take several lessons to complete.
Writing About Music Comparison Assignment
For this, it is up to you to choose to compare two different versions of a song made famous by these two female blues singers – Bessie Smith and Etta James. In the resources are links to songs to use for this assignment or class activity. Follow the same lesson plan as given above in the writing about music lesson. The only thing you might want to do is make surer that you provide your students with some written examples of song comparison assignments from previous students. There are some examples in the resources for you to use to help your students.
Blues Song Performance
Choose a song to play as a class, or have the students perform in small groups on the instruments they want to use. Present the song to the class, or they could video their performance and submit in the format you prefer.
Compose a Blues Song
Get your students to compose and perform a song using the 12 Bar Blues and lyrics pattern used in most blues songs. There are several lyrics generator sites out there, but please screen them before suggesting use with your classes! Some do not use student friendly language!
Google Slides and Distance Learning
As well as the mini units of work described above, if you are teaching virtually, try these Musician Studies that have been created to use in the Google Classroom. The links are below for Bessie Smith and Etta James. You might even want to check out the bundle of resources that they are included in!
Included in the resource for each singer or musician are:
- 3 Google Slides Research pages
- 2 Google Slides Genre or Style research pages
- Links to 5 different pieces of music made famous by the musician
- 8 Elements of Music listening activities pages
Music Class Distance Learning Lesson Ideas
- Try completing as an independent or individual research activity
- Research activity on the music style of the musician selected for study
- Assign students different songs using the links to listen to and focus on an Element of Music.
- Assign one song to analyze, then group students to complete different Elements of Music. Then have students present their analysis to the class. You could even get other students to peer mark and grade the work before submitting to the teacher!
- Set as an assignment or homework
Elements of Music Classroom Resources
To help your students understand the Elements of Music, have you checked out all my blog posts or YouTube videos? There are blog posts and YouTube videos explaining each of the Elements of Music. In each of the blog posts, the YouTube video is embedded for your convenience.
There are many ways to help your students learn about blues music history as part of Black History Month. I hope these lesson ideas will excite your students about these two female blues singers – Bessie Smith and Etta James.
Until next time
Julia from Jooya