General reading

A very good introduction to the search for American folk or traditional music, including the blues, is the first chapter of B. Filene’s Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music (2000). The chapter stretches from German Romanticism to the prisons in the Deep South of the US, crossing the Appalachian Mountains on the way.

You will not be expected to read all of Lomax’s book, The Land Where the Blues Began, but I think the Preface will definitely help you understand where he was coming from and where he wanted American culture to go.


For March 13

You are going to write a text of around 500 words about the work song “Rosie”. John and Alan Lomax recorded several versions of the song at different times. The oldest available version can be heard on Youtube under “Jail House Bound John Lomax’s First Prison Recordings, 1933”. Another was recorded in 1947, the one we heard in class. There is also a brief re-enactment in the documentary “Land Where the Blues Began”, which you can find on Youtube. If you look at the transcript, in the Resources folder, and type “Rosie” in the “Trovi” search box (it’s a Word document), you’ll find the relevant passage and indication of the point, in terms of minutes, in the documentary which corresponds to the passage in the transcript. Lomax also speaks briefly about the song in the book The Land Where the Blues Began. Consult the index at the back of the book for the page numbers. There are useful observations on Azizi Powell’s blog as well, pancocojam. Also note her approach to the transcription of the lyrics. Finally, you should also check out contemporary covers, in particular David Guetta. It’s also worth reading some of the thread.

There are several purposes to an assignment of this type. One is to encourage you to consult and critically assess a range of sources (and media) on the same topic. What information is included, what excluded? What point of view is reflected? How does the author of the source seek to interact with the reader/viewer/listener? Another block of questions revolves around the subjectivity of the student. How do I react as listener to this or that performance of the song? What conditions have I created for the listening experience (smartphone walking down the street, at home in silence with a high fidelity sound system, alone or together with others)? Do I feel I need to share common experiential ground with the performers to appreciate the “meaning” of the song?

You are free to focus on whatever aspects of the song and its context you feel relevant to your own interests. You may refer to any of the sources given above, or none. Your reflections will be a point of departure for an exchange with a partner at the beginning of the next lesson.

For March 20

In completing the assignment for last week, many students noticed that the audio quality of the 1933 recording of "Rosie" was far inferior to that of the 1947 recording. This will consitute a handicap for all old recordings, making it especially difficult to "listen away" from the weakness in sound quality when attempting to compare old versions with recent ones. A challenge you'll have to meet in this assignment.

Compare the "original" recording and a recent cover of ONE of the following songs:

 "Crossroads Blues"   Robert Johnson vs Cream (album)

"See that my grave is kept clean"  Blind Lemon Jefferson vs BB King OR Lou Reed (full)

"Where did you sleep last night"  Lead Belly vs Nirvana

In each case, of course, you'll have to try to make sense out of the lyrics, figure out how the performer renders this meaning, and take into consideration the significantly different audiences the performers are trying to reach.

For March 27

In the closing scene of the biopic “Leadbelly” (1976), the protagonist asks John Lomax (not Alan, who was 17 years old at the time), what he intends to do with the recordings he has just made of his songs. The answer is that they will be deposited in the Library of Congress, in the folksong collection. Leadbelly’s reply is that recording and collecting songs amounts to killing them, and that his songs must continue to live through live performance. Leadbelly is suggesting that Lomax’s aim is to expropriate, plunder, or steal his, and by extension African Americans’, intellectual property. This is the issue we will tackle in this assignment.

Background reading. Read the piece “Know your history”, link in the Internet Resources folder. The question as to whether reparations are due to African Americans for a wide range of reasons has been debated for decades now but only recently has the issue really entered mainstream debate. The article “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2014), in the Internet Resources file, widely regarded as a significant voice for African American rights, constitutes an important contribution to the debate. The piece opens with a discussion of the claim of (presumably) contemporary descendants to an early photograph of their ancestors (slaves) displayed in the collection of Harvard University. Who has rights to the photograph? You may want to look briefly at section VI “Making the Second Ghetto”, which explains in detail how Chicago came to be institutionally segregated, leading to the demographic map I showed in lesson 1. Essentially reading, on the other hand, is section IX “Toward a New Country”, which begins, sadly, with a reference to Parchman Farm and goes on to set out prospects for reparations. Students interested in the history of Israel will find the treatment of the debate on reparations from Germany illuminating, and probably surprising.

If you suspect that the issue of reparations is entirely marginal to current political debate, check out the recent Guardian article on Reparations and Presidential hopefuls (Internet Resources). If you need to feel the issue coming closer to home, just consider that the bulk of the artefacts on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, just down the street at Pza SS. Annunziata, 9b, come from abroad, via a range of routes: Egypt, the Middle East, and so on. Indeed, the question as to whether European and American museums should “repatriate” their treasures is under serious discussion today among governments and museum authorities. You could also consider the demand for reparations advanced by former European colonies, like Jamaica, but also Libya.

The assignment. The song is “Grizzly Bear”. A good place to start is Azizi Powell’s blog pancocojam. Then the brief extract from another Alan Lomax documentary ( Please pay attention to what he says about symphonies, quartets and jazz. Finally, the remake by Betty Bonifassi (Youtube).

You should write a short text (ca 500 words) in which you discuss “Grizzly Bear” (field recordings) and the Bonifassi remake in the light of cultural property rights, expropriation, your sense of how we (whatever “we” means) should behave with respect to the peoples whose cultural heritage we have borrowed from/plundered/whatever verb you consider appropriate.

For April 3

Below you will find a few sources to check out. Clearly, you may search for others as you like. The central figure is Son House. We met House briefly in R. Crumb’s illustrated biography of Charlie Patton. In the documentary “Howlin’ Wolf”, House is featured singing an extract from a religious song, “John the Revelator” (lyrics at link below). We will focus on the blues standard “Walkin’ Blues”. Go to “Poetry on the Loose” and check out the range of texts the author comments on. In section 5. Other Criticism you’ll find a considerable variety to choose from. If you want to test the credibility of the author on a subject you may be familiar with, try “On Marinetti’s Avant-Garde Fascism” (subsection B). In subsection D. Songs you’ll find a comment on Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues”, which we have already mentioned. You’ll also find Son House’s version of “Walkin’ Blues”. Read the commentary carefully. Here, clearly, the text is not treated merely as a testimony to oppression and mistreatment. It is treated as a poem.

Your task is to choose two different versions of “Walkin’ Blues” (House, Johnson, Waters, Clapton, etc.) and compare them primarily as texts, and secondarily as sung performances.



“Howlin’ Wolf Story” (YouTube) to 6:15

Son House: “John the Revelator”

Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, pp. 16-20.

Poetry on the Loose,

For April 10

The following illustrate different approaches to the transmission of historical and cultural heritage. Each serves in its own way to reach a public. You are not required to hand anything in on April 10, but these readings will help you consolidate and extend what we said about levee work and sharecropping. There will be a short simulation of an essay based on these materials designed to help you test your ability to integrate different sources.

Mississippi Encyclopaedia (Internet resources) : Levee Camps, Sharecropping

Lomax, The Land Where on sharecropping pp. 93-98, Chap 5 “The Levee”, esp. pp. 216-19 and 230-35.

Scene (3 min) from “Mississippi Burning” (1988, dir. by Alan Parker) in which the protagonist, an FBI agent originally from Mississippi, played by Gene Hackman, explains how white people (in this case his father) become so racist:


You should also read up on Muddy Waters and the Chicago blues. This will not only give you a framework for the next lesson but also allow you to draw comparisons between different ways of remembering a great artist. A good place to start is Lomax's account of his meeting with Waters in The Land Where, pp. 405-18.

For May 8

I would like to suggest a few things for you to choose from.

Debora Devi, The Language of the Blues (2006). Skim through introductory material, read entry “Back Door Man” (available on Google Books)

TEDx talks: “Why do we say ‘That’s cool’?” (ca. 15 min). Emphasis on contribution of African culture and languages (Yoruba, Ibo) to US English.


A few classics; add whatever others you like:


Howlin’ Wolf: “Back Door Man”, ”Smokestack Lightning” (scene from “Cadillac Records”), “Spoonful”

Muddy Waters: “I can’t be satisfied”, Got my mojo working”, Hoochie coochie man”

Lightin’ Hopkins: “I woke up this morning”, “Bring me my shotgun”


When the issues become political and philosophical:

Joel Rudinow (1994) “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can white People Sing the Blues?”, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Ultime modifiche: martedì, 23 aprile 2019, 16:06