"Welfare Blues"

Grade Level
9-12, C/U


Audio file
Welfare Blues

Audio file
final 12 bars of "Welfare Blues"

Recorded: November 1, 1938 Detroit, Michigan
Performers: Calvin Johnson (guitar); Sampson Pittman, vocals and guitar
Composer: Sampson Pittman (1936)

Activity 1: Southern Blues Comes North

  1. Teacher introduces students a brief background of the blues.
    • Social context —Blues music emerged in the rural South in the early 1900s. Blues was a means of expressing feelings and coping with the frustrations and restrictions imposed by southern economic, political, and social institutions—such as the Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and sharecropping agriculture.
    • Performance context—Blues is a secular music, found most frequently at dances, clubs, bars, and house parties.
    • Blues music—Blues can be instrumental or vocal. Common instruments are the guitar, harmonica, and piano. Blues commonly uses a call and response structure, where the second phrase (here played by the guitar) provides commentary or response to the first (here, the vocalist).
    • Blues lyrics—Blues has been described as the poetry of hard times. Blues poetry relies on image and feeling more than plot, and addresses a range of subjects. The term "blues" refers to the serious, intimate, and often melancholy treatment of personal problems as well as to the style of music.
    • Blues migration—Blues moved north as musicians migrated to northern cities in search of employment, especially during the first half of the twentieth century. This lesson concerns a song written in Detroit by a southern-born blues musician who moved north in the 1930s.

Activity 2: "Welfare Blues" and Themes in Twentieth Century American History: Social Welfare in the 1930s

  1. Teacher may use "Welfare Blues" as a platform for student study of the origins of the national welfare system in the Social Security Act of 1935, and conditions (nationally, in Detroit, or in your community/state) that prompted its creation. A short summary of the act is provided below.
  2. Students listen to "Welfare Blues" (lyrics provided).

    Q—What is this song about? What hard times are described?

    • A—During the 1930s, the United States entered the Great Depression. So many people lost their jobs that private organizations and charities were unable to meet the needs of the unemployed, displaced, homeless, and destitute. During the presidency of the Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress passed the Social Security Act of 1935, landmark legislation that for the first time established a social welfare role for the national government. The act provided old age insurance, grants to the states for cash assistance to dependent children, the disabled, blind, and the aged. During 1938, one in five workers was unemployed. Conditions were worse in Detroit. Minimum wage was 25 cents.

    Q—What is Sampson Pittman’s personal commentary on welfare in Detroit?

    "Welfare Blues" by Sampson Pittman

    Welfare helping people that cannot help themselves
    Welfare helping people that cannot help themselves
    I said, "Boys, they ain't gonna help you unless you've lived in Detroit one year."

    Once your case is open they'll give you plenty of food and clothes
    Once your case is open they'll give you plenty of food and clothes
    I said, "Boys, they won't help you till you have told everything you know."

    You go down to the welfare, they'll make you sit there all day
    Go down to the welfare, they'll make you sit there all day
    Until they know they ain't gonna help you, they'll make you sit there and wait.

    Oh, boys, I believe I'll go there myself
    Yes, boys, I believe I'll go there myself
    I say, I tell 'em I ain't got nothing and I declare that I need their help.

  3. Students view the 1941 photo "Waiting their turn at the welfare office in the courthouse." Although taken in Heard County, Georgia, rather than Detroit, this image reflects the period Sampson Pittman wrote about in "Welfare Blues." Using the lyrics of "Welfare Blues," and background research on conditions in the 1930s, write a fictional monologue, perhaps set in the local community, for one of the individuals in the photo. What is the story behind the photo?
    "Waiting their turn at the welfare office in the courthouse," Heard County, Georgia.
     "Waiting their turn at the welfare office in the courthouse," Heard County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs, Library of Congress, 1941.


Activity 3: "Welfare Blues" and Themes in Twentieth Century American History: the Great Migration

  1. Teacher introduces another major theme of twentieth century American history: the Great Migration of African Americans.
    • From 1900-1960, an estimated five million African Americans migrated from the South to northern (and later western) cities in search of jobs and better living conditions.
    • Many blacks came during this period to Detroit.
    • The cultural impact of this mass migration continues to be significant, as southern musicians brought their traditions north.
    • In Detroit southern blacks were forced by deed restrictions to live in one area of the city, known as Paradise Valley or the Black Bottom. This is likely where Alan Lomax initially met southern-born bluesmen Calvin Johnson and Sampson Pittman, performers of "Welfare Blues."
    • Detroit developed a thriving African American blues scene and entertainment district in Paradise Valley. Calvin Johnson and Sampson Pittman likely made their living and played music there.
  2. Students examine (in the excerpt below) the biographies of Calvin Johnson and Sampson Pittman as case studies in the Great Migration.

    Q—How do Frazier and Pittman fit into the Great Migration? What are their stories?
    Q—What surprised you about their biographies?
    Q—What more would you like to know?

    [Alan Lomax returned to Detroit at the end of his music collecting trip, following up on an earlier meeting with bluesman Calvin Frazier.] Alan had written to [his boss] Harold Spivacke reporting an encounter with a guitar player who "commutes between here and Memphis and knows more Negro ballads (Brady, Stagolee, Stavin’ Chain, etc.) than any other one person either father or I have ever encountered." That man was Calvin Frazier.

    On November 1, Lomax drove into Detroit and headed to the Calvin Frazier's home at 8586 Russell Street, Where Frazier lived with his wife. His father, brother, sister, and mother lived in the home or nearby. The session, then, included Calvin's sideman Sampson Pittman and a host of Fraziers—Calvin, Lonnie, Clara, Belle, and Viola. The group cut thirteen lively discs of blues and gospel interspersed with occasional commentary.

    Born in northeastern Arkansas, Calvin Frazier had moved to Memphis in the early 1920s. Together with his brother Johnny and another musician named Johnny Shines, Calvin played music in the halls and streets of black Memphis during the 1920s and 1930s. In nearby Helena, Arkansas, in 1930, he met the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson and began to play backup guitar with Johnson around the Mississippi Delta.

    In 1935 a violent altercation left Calvin wounded and his brother dead. Shortly thereafter, Frazier, Shines, and Johnson headed north to ply their trade and escape the South, part of the African-American northern migration of the early 20th century. When the trio reached Detroit, Frazier decided to stay. Shines and Johnson continued.

    Johnson’s guitar technique and sound influenced Frazier…The sailing vocals and highly orchestrated polyphonic guitar techniques provide testament to the Mississippi delta blues as practiced during the 1930s. Lomax had heard it before on trips through the delta with his father. He would hear it again in his sessions with Son House and others during the early 1940s.

    Frazier’s sideman Sampson Pittman had a story similar to Frazier’s. Born in Blytheville, Arkansas, he made a living in the levee camps before relocating to Detroit in the early 1930s. Musically, his gravelly voice provided a contrast to Frazier’s and his guitar work proved an able accompaniment. [excerpted from Michigan-I-O": Alan Lomax and the 1938 Library of Congress Folk-Song Expedition, by Todd Harvey, published by Dust to Digital in association with the Library of Congress, 2013. Enhanced e-book with illustrations, audio tracks, and film clips. ISBN: 978-0-8444-9567-5.]

Activity 4: Poetry of Hard Times

  1. Teacher refers back to the segment on "blues lyrics" in Activity 1.
  2. Students listen again to "Welfare Blues" for the form and rhyme scheme of "Welfare Blues" (AAB form found in many blues lyrics. **Note how the first two (repeated) lines state a problem while the final line draws a conclusion or comments on it.)
  3. Students (individually or in groups) write a four-verse blues lyric, using the AAB rhyme scheme, which comments on hard times in their family, school, community. Alternatively, students write a blues lyric to accompany Jack Delano’s Farm Security Administration photo, or other period photos from the Great Depression. See the online collection from the Library of Congress athttp://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/
  4. Students perform their lyrics to the tune of "Welfare Blues," another blues tune, or their own tune. (Consider adding chord progressions—see below.)

Activity 5: Chord Progressions1

  1. Teacher demonstrates I-IV-V chords on piano or guitar. Provide each student with three sheets of paper or index cards, each of which contains a roman numeral for one of the chord types (I, IV, or V). Teacher plays different chords on the piano or guitar, while students respond by raising the appropriate card. (Note: either the recording or the original guitar tuning are higher than A440, making the G chords closer to G# in actual pitch.)
  2. Students chart the chord progression of the final guitar solo of recording, raising the appropriate cards when the guitar chord changes. 



  3. Students write a chord progression to their own blues lyrics and perform for the class, school, or community.

Activity 6: Musical Form

  1. Students listen to the final guitar solo of "Welfare Blues" for the total number of bars and beats per measure.
    Q—How many beats per measure do you hear? (4)
    Q—How many total measures in the excerpt? (12—teacher points out that this is a good example of the classic 12-bar blues that become more common after the advent of blues recordings in the 1920s. **Note, bluesmen did not necessarily follow this pattern. The sung verses of "Welfare Blues" are a case in point.
  2. Students listen to verse 1 of "Welfare Blues" to see if it fits the 12-bar pattern. They will discover that while the 12-bar blues form is clear in the final guitar solo, the sung verses are shorter, and have bars with 3 beats as well as 4.
  3. Students listen for the interplay between voice and guitar.

    Q—What is the relationship between the voice and the guitar? (the second phrase (here played by the guitar) provides commentary or response to the first (here, the vocalist). Notice how the guitar is less accompaniment than separate melodic line.)


  4. Teacher explains this type of musical organization is termed call and response. It has African roots and is common to much African American music
  5. Students listen to the interplay of voice and guitar in the call and response pattern, identifying the call and the guitar response.
  6. Students listen for the triple rhythm and triplets in the guitar, both common blues guitar patterns. One group identifies (with raised hands/note cards etc.) clear delineation of the triple rhythm; the other listens for the pervasive triplet rhythm.2

    Triple rhythm:
    Triple rhythm



  8.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Use of triplets:                                                                                                                    Use of triplets

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Activity 7: Blues Innovations

  1. Teacher summarizes the following innovations of the blues in American music and leads a student discussion of how "Welfare Blues" illustrates these themes.
    • Treated a far greater range of subjects with more depth and seriousness than ever before in American music. (See, for example, titles of other tracks recorded by Sampson and Pittman in Lomax’s 1938 recordings: "Lily Mae," "Cotton Farmer Blues," "This Old World’s a Tangle," "Highway 51 Blues," "John Henry," "Double-Crossin’ Woman," "Joe Louis," "Brother Low-down and Sister Doo-dirty" )
    • Introduced role of lead instrument as "second voice" in call and response formal structure. Before blues (other than purely instrumental music), instruments mainly provided rhythmic or harmonic background to singing.
    • Introduced AAB verse form to American folk music.
    • Took the "blue note" (flatted third or seventh of the scale), long a part of black folk music with roots in West African music, and brought it to widespread use and recognition. (**Listen for the flatted seventh in the final note of the piece.)


Explore the biographies of musicians in your area to see how many are a product of the Great Migration. For Michigan examples, search Michigan Heritage Award winners (a program of the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum) for awardees Johnny Bassett, Isiah Ross, Aaron "Little Sonny" Willis, Eddie Burns, Sippie Wallace, and Howard Armstrong (the latter also a National Heritage Fellow from the National Endowment for the Arts). http://museum.msu.edu/s-program/mh_awards/awardees.html

Explore other blues recordings by Calvin Frazier and Sampson Pittman. Search by name in the Alan Lomax Collection of Michigan and Wisconsin Recordings http://www.loc.gov/collection/alan-lomax-in-michigan/about-this-collect…


Biographical material on Frazier and Pittman from Todd Harvey’s eBook, Michigan-I-O": Alan Lomax and the 1938 Library of Congress Folk-Song Expedition (Dust to Digital in association with the Library of Congress, 2013).

Jeff Todd Titon, "North America/Black America" chapter in Worlds of Music, Jeff Todd Titon, ed. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1996), p. 174.

1. Approach to chord progressions adapted from Christopher Roberts’ lesson plan on Mississippi bluesman Joe Turner, http://www.culturalequity.org/rc/ce_rc_lessons_joe_turner.php 
2. Graphics and background information from Jeff Todd Titon’s "North America/Black America" chapter in Worlds of Music, Jeff Todd Titon, ed. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1996), p. 174.

Lesson Plan by Laurie Sommers
With generous support from the NEA