American Patchwork: The Land Where The Blues Began

Grade Level
3-6, 7-9, 10-12, Adult

One of the finest explorations of the African-American tradition of the blues, this is Alan Lomax's award-winning journey into the vocal music expressions of the Mississippi Delta region. From work songs to toasts, and from music for the diddly-bow to prison songs of lifers in the state penitentiary, the blues of African-American men and women are given broad coverage for their texts and their contexts. This DVD offers glimpses of the way things were in Mississippi and Louisiana, principally, where the urban blues began and are still heard by singers with beat-up guitars who never went electric and are permanently "unplugged".

American Patchwork: The Land Where The Blues Began
The film can be streamed at,128 or purchased at
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Mississippi Hills
Level: Grades 4-6, 7-8, 9-12
Focal-point questions:

Q: To what part of the world can the roots of the blues be traced? 
A: Africa, West Africa.
Q: What is a "diddly-bow"? 
A: A musical bow made with two nails and a wire.
Q: What instruments and traditions have African "parents?"
A: Electric guitar, fife and drum ensemble, tradition of audience dancing while listening.


• Find Mississippi on the map, identify region.
• Make your own diddly-bow with floss and a chopstick.
• Sing "Frog Went a'Courtin'".

Work Songs
Level: Grades 4-6, 7-8, 9-12
Focal-point questions:

A: How do people use music in work?
Q: To keep their work tempo, to lift their spirits, to help them persevere in their work.
Q: What kind of work did Lucius Smith do?
A: Cotton picking.
Q: What instrument accompanies the voice and guitar in this piece?
A: Harmonica.


• Discover "work song" as a musical genre that is widespread, by singing work songs from various American and world cultures.
• Explain the meaning of "It take a man that have the blues to sing the blues." 
• Discuss issues of slavery as they are conveyed in musical genres like the blues, spirituals, field hollers.

* Cautionary for Teachers: The content of this segment is related to infidelity.
Level: Grade 9-12
Focal-point questions:

Q: What is a roustabout?
A: A man who works loading and unloading riverboats, or performs other temporary, unskilled work.
Q: What are the names of some of the famous Mississippi riverboats? 
A: The Natchez, the Tennessee Belle, the Kate Adams.


Investigate the musical movie of 1964, Roustabout, starring Elvis Presley and Barbara Stanwyck.

Women and the Blues
* Cautionary for Teachers: This segment includes sexual content.
Level: Adult
Focal-point questions:

Q: What is the typical subject matter of the blues? 
A: Unevenness, dishonesty, mistreatment in male-female relationships, alienation, loneliness.
Q: Why do you think people still relate to traditional blues today?
A: The subject matter is relevant for all people in all times, and the combination of the pulse, the chord changes, and the melody can be quite powerful.


Investigate the life and works of women who sing the blues, including Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Alberta Hunter.

The Railroad
Level: Grades 3-5, 4-6
Focal-point questions:

Q: What did the railroad provide for the African-Americans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? 
A: Escape from plantation lifestyle, new jobs, and new rhythmic work songs.

Activity #5:

Sing railroad songs like "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad", "New River Train", "Freight Train", and "Chickahanka".
Add work movements and percussive ostinati to railroad songs, emulating the sights and sounds of railroad workers.

Levee Camps
*Cautionary for Teachers: This segment contains violence and inappropriate language.
Level: Adult
Focal-point questions:

Q: What is a levee and why is it constructed?
A: A levee is a floodbank, a natural or artificial slope or wall that parallels the course of the river, to stop the overflow of the water in floods and in the rainy season.
Q: What was levee work like in the Mississippi Delta region?
A: Men worked with their mules to load barges, tend to the river banks. They spent their pay on gambling, drinking, and carousing.

Activity #6: 

• Seek out the history and culture of the Louisiana levee camps.
• Listen to levee camp hollers and compare them to the nature of the blues, with their blue notes, melodic slides, and improvisatory melodies.

Prison Songs
*Cautionary for Teachers: There are images of violence, nudity, and prisoner abuse.
Level: Adult
Focal-point questions:

Q: What sort of work did prison inmates do? 
A: They hoed the fields and chopped wood.
Q: What is the name of the woman the prisoners sing about?
A: Rosie. (It contains call-and-response segments.)


Sing the song, "Rosie", a version of it which is portrayed as a singing game in some children's song collections. The lyrics are as follows:

"Rosie, darling Rosie, ha-ha Rosie.
Rosie, darling Rosie, ha-ha Rosie.
Way down yonder in Baltimore, ha-ha Rosie.
Got no carpet on my floor, ha-ha Rosie." 

Discuss the similarities in function (and music) between prison songs and work songs. Reflect upon the challenges of maintaining humane conditions for prisoners.

Level: Grades 4-6, 7-8
Focal-point questions:

Q: Does the particular congregation sit quietly during the service? 
A: No, it is actively involved in the musical act.
Q: Does this church look and sound like your church? 
A: (Open answers).

Activity #8: 

Discuss call-and-response as a part of African American music, and trace it to the technique's use in African music traditions. Sing call-and-response songs like "Shortnin' Bread", "Shoo Turkey", "Funga Alafia".

Level: Secondary school
Focal-point questions:

Q: What are toasts? 
A: Rapid-fire delivery of lyrical, poetic statements and stories with veiled, often political meaning or roots in Black pride. 
Q: Can you think of similar verbal traditions? 
A: Dozens, kudeketera, calypso.
Q: What modern forms derived from toasts? 
A: Reggae and rap/hiphop.

Activity #9: 

Compare forms of verbal dexterity across cultures: African American dozens, Shona kudeketera, calypso picong, rap/hiphop. Read and discuss the stories of Brer Rabbit and the hidden meanings of the clever rabbit outwitting his nemesis.

Designed by Sarah J. Bartolome