Songs from (and Conversations with) the Bluesmen

Grade Level

Click here for recording
Recorded: New York, 1946
Performers: Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson

Activity 1: Life is Like That 

1. Ask students questions that will lead them to listening to the recording to find the answers: “What instruments play the blues?” (Answer: Guitar, drums, bass, harmonica, saxophone, piano, the singing voice) and “What topics emerge in the lyrics of a blues song?” (Answer: Unrequited love, lost love, pain). 

2. Play the recording of “Life is Like That”, and follow it with a discussion of what instruments were played (Answer: Piano, guitar, harmonica, the singing voice) and about what topic the singer sang (Answer: Crying, feeling “held down”, “your best friends don’t even want you around”, “people, happiness…is never complete”, feeling helpless, “keep on strugglin’”)

3. Clarify that not all blues songs follow the blues form of poetry (in which a first “question” phrase is sung and then repeated, followed by an answer or “clinching” phrase). Still, it is blues music by way of the minor-keyed melody (flatted third and seventh degrees of the scale) and the melancholy feeling, the improvisation of the melody and/or the lyrics, and the 12- (or 16-) bars that features the I, IV, and V chords. Listen again to “Life is Like That”, encouraging students to find these features in the sound.

4. About 7-8 seconds into the recording, the 12-bar blues chord progression begins. In this listening, challenge students to hear the chord changes, clapping the first beat of every bar (or measure) and tapping beats 2, 3, and 4. The progression in D-Major follows in this order:

Measure 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10 11 12 Chord D D D D G G D D A G D

5. Direct students to playing the 12-bar blues chord progression on keyboards, or guitars, or any other chording instrument. They can choose to play the chord once per bar or four times per bar, accenting the first beat and playing lightly on beats 2, 3, and 4.

6. Share the notation for “Life is Like That”, suggesting that the students listen again to the recording while reading the notation and/or singing the melody and lyrics 
Insert: “Life is Like That” (in staff notation)
Transcription by James B. Morford

7. In a live performance, perform chords and melody together. Consider adding drums and bass, too, and inviting solo instrumentalists in, too, to improvise over the 12-bar blues.

Activity 2: Why the Blues?

1. Explore the meaning of the blues by listening to the description by Memphis Slim (Interview with Memphis Slim about “Life is Like That”). Focus students with the question, “What does blues pianist and singer Memphis Slim say about why he composed ‘Life is Like That’? (Answer: He explained that he could not find an affordable room to live in, he had no recording offers, and he had little weekend jobs that did not pay enough. As he was feeling “down and out”, the song came along.

2. In 1946, following a performance at New York City’s Town Hall by Memphis Slim (blues pianist), Big Bill Broonzy (blues guitarist), and Sonny Boy Williamson (blues harmonica-player), Alan Lomax recorded their conversation about the blues. Play the recording (Conversation, 7), listen to them speak, and fill in pieces of their conversation:

Big Bill Broonzy (BBB): “Some people say that the blues is ________ (a cow wanta see her calf).
BBB: “I say it’s a man that’s got a companion, _________ (and she turn him down).
Sonny Boy Williamson (SBW): “…me and this girl used to go to school together, you know, and then er, uh, well, her parents thought _________(I wasn’t the right boy for her)
Memphis Slim (MS): “If I have lots of troubles, for instance, _________(rent situation)
BBB: “It (blues) didn’t start in the North—in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wha’soever it is. It didn’t start in the East—neither in the North—it started in________(the South)
BBB: “And it’s what poor people…they got their, they got their _______(rent and their grocery bill)

3. Later, the conversation drifts in the direction of places and people of the blues. Play the recording (Conversation 11), listen to them speak, and fill in pieces of their conversation:

BBB: “I worked on levee campus, extra gangs, road camps, rock camps, and rock quarries and every place, and I hear _________ (guys singin’ un-hmmm, un-hmmm this and mmmm that)
BBB: “I’ve known guys that wanted to cuss out the boss and he was afraid_________(to go up to his face and tell him what he wanted to tell him, and I’ve heard them sing those things (back to the boss).
MS: “Like a friend of mines I know were down working on the railroad long years ago..but he sang some songs for me, a little number called…(sings “ratty, ratty section”). Well he couldn’t speak up to ______(the cap’n and the boss)

4. The bluesmen continue the conversation, but these points are enough to launch discussion (or set off a writing assignment) to respond to these questions: “What are some of the causes of the blues?”, “Why does the Big Bill Broonzy claim that the blues began in the South?”, “What reasons might you have for singin’ the blues?”, and “Do you think that the act of singing can really cure the blues? Why or why not?”.

5. Assign students to seek out some information about the three musicians featured in the conversation. Include a search for video recordings of their music: Memphis SlimBig Bill Broonzy, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Lesson plan by Patricia Campbell