AMCULT 337 - American Blues Music: Content and Context
Section: 001
Term: WN 2008
Subject: American Culture (AMCULT)
Department: LSA American Culture
Requirements & Distribution:
Waitlist Capacity:
With permission of instructor.
May not be repeated for credit.
Primary Instructor:

Genre studies are an intrinsic part of cultural programs such as American Culture, and as such assist students in developing a greater understanding of the role(s) these genres play within our cultural history. The blues is a vocal and instrumental form of music based on the full twelve note chromatic scale plus the microtonal intervals and a characteristic twelve-bar chord progression. The form evolved in the United States in the communities of former African slaves from spirituals, praise songs, field hollers, shouts, and chants. The use of blue notes and the prominence of call-and-response patterns in the music and lyrics are indicative of the blues' West African pedigree. The blues has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music, finding expression in ragtime, jazz, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, and country music, as well as conventional pop songs. Many jazz, folk or rock performers, such as Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Melissa Etheredge, Bob Dylan and Red Hot Chili Peppers, have performed significant blues recordings. Futher, the blues scale is frequently found in non-blues musical forms, such as popular songs like Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night", blues ballads like "Since I Fell for You" and "Please Send Me Someone to Love", and even orchestral works like George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Concerto in F". Indeed, the blues scale is ubiquitous in modern popular music and informs many modal frames, especially the ladder of thirds as in "A Hard Day's Night". Blues forms turn up in some surprising places. The theme to the televised Batman had a blues structure, as did teen idol Fabian's first hit, "Turn Me Loose", and the first great country music star Jimmie Rodgers was a blues performer. By providing students with the opportunity to investigate, in depth, a music of this import (about which, as experience has shown, they know very little), they gain an understanding not only of the music itself and its influence on other forms, but the socio-economic, cultural, and historical American periods and conditions that played a role in its creation and continuation.

This course focuses on how the blues are known primarily as a musical influence on many other forms and styles: jazz, rock and roll, etc. Few are aware, however, of the great socio- cultural impact that the blues have had on American society. We will examine the history of the music (from Mamie Smith and Robert Johnson through Victoria Spivey and Muddy Waters). Some of the artists covered are: Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Son House, Ida Cox, Mary Johnson, Blind Blake, Tommy Johnson, Bo Carter, Sarah Martin, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Blind Boy Fuller, Mississippi John Hurt, Ethel Waters, and Alberta Hunter. We also examine its associated literature (Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, et. al.), and the postmodern mythology that has helped us create our own precursors and past. Special attention is given to gender and racial issues through a thematic analysis of 1920s and 1930s blues advertisements. The same attention is given of an analysis of blues lyrics to discover their racial overtones. Readings: Lawrence Cohn. Nothing but the Blues. 1999 (432 pp) Michael Taft. Talkin’ To Myself: Blues Lyrics. 1921-1942. 2005 (744 pp) Jeff Todd Titon. Early Downhome Blues. 1995 (340 pp) Steven C. Tracy. Langston Hughes and the Blues. 2001 (302 pp) Viewing: The Blues: A Musical Journey. PBS Home Video, 2003 The Search for Robert Johnson. Sony Music, 1992 Can't you hear the wind howl? Sony Music, 1997 Course Objectives: Broadly speaking, this course is designed with the following objectives in mind: provide students with a good grasp of the history and stylistics of the blues; enable students to identify, compare, and contrast the various styles of the blues, their regional context, and understand their genesis; introduce students to the various myths and legends associated with the blues and their validity; and develop the students’ critical thinking and ability to create innovative ways of understanding history. Upon completion of this course, students should be able to: identify various Blues styles, where they were from and name and describe several exponents of each style; understand the socio-economic and cultural history of the development of the Blues in America; analyze musical compositions in a manner and form that will appropriately describe what is happening within a given piece of music; and display skills that will allow them to employ what they have learned in this course in other contexts with other musical styles

Intended audience: Sophomore or above, any concentration

Course Requirements: Grading will be based on the following requirements: research and write about a blues musician from the midwest (10%); research paper on Blues Musical Analysis (10%); creative writing and musical assignment (10%); 4 written response papers (minimum 2 pages each, 20%); 2 written responses to outside event (5% each for total of 10%); creativity, enthusiasm, and participation (10%); and Final Exam (30%).

Class Format: 3 hpw seminar format

in addition to the specific artistic emphasis on American Blues Music, the literary component (in both literature and mythology) provides the course (and subsequently the students) with a dimension of cultural studies usually found within the larger inquiries of Humanities courses. Paradigmatically, the course follows theories of oral formulaic tradition, ethnomusicological analysis, and socio-cultural contexts that are complementary to Art, English, and Music courses. American Blues Music allows students of all disciplines to enhance their understandings of these fields, while utilizing theories, methods, and ideas they have gathered from other Humanities courses.

AMCULT 337 - American Blues Music: Content and Context
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
TuTh 9:00AM - 10:00AM
002 (DIS)
Tu 10:00AM - 11:00AM
003 (DIS)
W 12:00PM - 1:00PM
004 (DIS)
W 9:00AM - 10:00AM
Note: Students will be auto-enrolled in section 001 when they elect a discussion section (002-004)
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