Powerpoint presentation introducing course (in Resources folder). The links to internet resources, which didn't collaborate during the lesson, are in the Internet Resources folder, in particular the interactive representation of slave trade and the plantation museums.
The lesson began with students discussing their thoughts about “Rosie” in pairs or threes. This kind of exchange is an essential component of the course. We then moved on to the well-known “Black Betty”, here in the Ram Jam version, used for an Actimel commercial. There followed the versions by Ironhead and Lead Belly, both on Youtube. Lead Belly is the next subject. After a few introductory biographical observations, we watched the 1935 “March of Time” newsreel, which depicts the meeting between Lomax and Lead Belly. In preparation for the viewing of excerpts for the biopic “Leadbelly” (1976), students brainstormed what they knew of Rai (state TV) biopic productions. We continue with Lead Belly next week.
The lesson began with some general feedback on student papers, emphasizing in particular the need to be fully aware of the impact that a listener's cultural provenance, age, musical tastes, and immediate environmental conditions can have on the listening experience. In this connection, it should not be overseen that the visual input (live performance or video) can influence the listener's experience in subtle and tricky ways. An example is the Response to commentary on "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" in the following blog http://music16group2.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2016/09/29/cover-song-analysis-where-did-you-sleep-last-night/ (By the way, what is the nature of the blog?).
Students then exchanged their impressions about the versions of the song they wrote about.
Finally, we turned to the biopic "Leadbelly". We first examined the iconic movie poster (Search: Leadbelly poster 1976). We then watched the first ten minutes or so, which depict the meeting between Lomax and Leadbelly in Angola Prison, Louisiana, and a brief flashback to Leadbelly's earlier life playing at a Saturday night "bar". The scene showcases wild dancing, drinking, competition for women, violence, and so on. The last couple of minutes of the movie close the frame with Leadbelly going back to work, swearing that his songs will not end up in a Library, as he will get free and keep them alive himself.
We warmed up with a couple of performances. The first was Antonio Sorgentone who preceded his piece for the final competition in the "Italia's Got Talent" show with a very brief, decontextualized excerpt from a Sardinian tenores song. We heard a few seconds of the costumed singers do their thing, and then they disappeared. Hard not to draw a comparison with Davide Guetta's "Hey Mama". The second was Lynyrd Skynyrd's rock classic "Sweet Home Alabama". We listened to a few seconds without video (just enough to start enjoying the beat). Then we turned on the video and saw as a backdrop to the stage an enormous Confederate flag. I expressed my doubts about the appropriacy of expressing (legitimate) southern identity by means of a symbol of the political and military defense of institutional slavery. The main point, however, is that different listeners with different backgrounds will "process" songs differently.
We then moved to pair work and the discussion of the homework. Finally I introduced the underground comic artist Robert Crumb and his mission to educate young (white) Americans about the heritage of country blues. We looked at cards depicting the "Heros of the Blues" (not unlike baseball cards) and then looked at selected frames from the artist's illustrated biography of blues giant Charlie Patton (Internet resources).
I began by clarifying scheduling issues (see main page of course). We then began to look at the reality of levee construction in the south of the US, especially along the Mississippi. Working on the levee was one of the few opportunities African Americans had to “escape” sharecropping, earn a little cash and perhaps stay out of debt. We looked at a few historical photographs and watched a scene from Lomax’s documentary The Land Where the Blues Began (minutes 33:15-39:30, see also transcript). We then went to a blog on the blues (“Uncensored Blues”, Internet resources, minutes 9:21-16:10) and listened to a Levee Camp holler and a similar song recorded commercially in 1927. The holler is widely considered, along with work songs, one of the decisive sources in the emergence of the blues.
Finally, we began our transition to Chicago. We watched the opening scenes of Cadillac Records (2005), which present on the one hand a young Leonard Chess, later with his brother co-founder of Chess Records, center of much of the most important recordings of Chicago blues and early rock (Chuck Berry), and on the other Muddy Waters, field worker and musician, recorded by Alan Lomax.
We began with a few exercises designed to help students reflect on different ways of organizing an essay. For example: “You are required to write an essay in which you compare two rivers, the Mississippi and the Po. Which features will you take into consideration for comparison and which will you ignore?” We then moved on to an essay you have already written in which you compared different versions of the “same” song. “Which features did you choose to compare and which did you ignore?” Finally we tried out a hypothetical exam item which requires students to mix the cards a bit, that is compare more than two “things” and think about what the organizing principle might be:
It is important for everyone to understand that even after the abolition of slavery in the US, African Americans continued to be subjected to systematic oppression. Choose at least three sources that deal with this aspect of sharecropping and / or levee work and explain how this awareness has been transmitted. Give your opinion as to the relative effectiveness of each.
Students drafted a rough outline of how they would structure the essay.
One feature in the comparison of versions of “Rosie” or “Grizzly Bear” or “Where did you sleep last night” that was generally not focused on was the medium. In no case were students participants in a live performance of any of these songs. That is, all the performances were mediated, whether by Youtube or Spotify or whatever. How does this impact on your experience of the musical, textual and social communication? The medium could, in fact, become an organizing principle for an essay.
Following this introductory reflection, we watched a few highly selected scenes from “Cadillac Records”. There were two purposes here. One was to inform students to some extent about the founding and development of Chess Records in Chicago, another to highlight how film directors condense and package historical “information” or “facts” in an effort to fulfill their didactic purpose as transmitters of cultural heritage. We saw how Muddy Waters went to Chicago, began busking in traditional Mississippi Delta bottle-neck guitar style, and, ridiculed as a sharecropper musician, turned electric and attracted attention. Another scene shows Little Walter’s innovative harmonica technique and, subsequently, a Hit Parade winner, leading him to fame. Walter’s “Bad Boy” attitude leads him to a direct confrontation with the Chicago Police, illustrating how the police can humiliate and beat African Americans with impunity. The movie closes with Muddy Waters’ 1967 London Tour, showing a flashback to his beginnings as sharecropper in Mississippi and his enthusiastic reception at Heathrow Airport, with photographers and fans. We did not watch the scenes with Beyoncè Knowles, producer and actress, playing the part of Etta James. Her performances of a few songs, “I’d rather go blind” and “At last”, are available on Youtube.
In this last lesson we went over some of the (perceived) defining features of the blues. Many students stressed the conditions of racism and oppression under which the originated. Others focused more on musical and textual traits. We touched on a few of the arguments raised in "Can white people sing the blues?" (Resource folder). Finally, we discussed the parody "Martin Mull sings the blues" (Youtube) to consider some of the issues of ethnic and class membership but also body language and facial gestures. Without introducing the term we practiced what is called multimodal analysis. Next week, in-class essay.