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Music of Black Origin

How The Blues Ruled The World

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  • A fully scripted modifiable Powerpoint presentation.
  • Short video clips to elaborate on key points.
  • Class discussion points.
  • Followup reading and research collateral
  • 10 question quiz based on tutorial content.
  • Lesson plan and expected outcomes

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Celebrating Black History Month with the Blues

Black history month Began in 1926. Initially called Negro History Week, the national celebration was later expanded to a month. February was chosen because the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass took place then. The aim was to teach the history of American Blacks in the country’s public schools. Later Canada and United Kingdom joined the celebration.

Historian Carter G. Woodson, largely regarded as the architect of Black history month, had this to say about its necessity:

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

It’s hard to imagine any genre being a more suitable soundtrack for Black history month than the blues. Just as Black history month features a narrative full of struggle, heartache and, ultimately, triumph, the same can be said of the blues.

The history of popular music – spanning across all genres – is loaded with songs depicting the struggle for freedom among Black Americans. Released on the eve of the civil rights movement, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is an understated masterwork detailing the movement’s undying hope:

It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come

Later in the decade, James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” was just the anthem Black America needed after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King threatened to smother the movement’s hope.

But in the idiom of the blues, nothing beats B.B. King’s heartfelt anthem “Why I Sing the Blues” when it comes to pathos, warmth and humor. That’s right, humor.

Perhaps the most enduring stereotype of the blues is that its songs are nothing more than gloomy exercises in self-pity, early ancestors, perhaps, to the navelgazing genres of 90s grunge or emo. But B.B. King’s classic eagerly smashes this trope. King isn’t afraid to lace the bad news with good jokes:

I've laid in a ghetto flat
Cold and numb
I heard the rats tell the bedbugs
To give the roaches some

Near the end of the track, King spontaneously buckles into laughter, saying “That’s all right, fellas. That’s all right.” Whatever the joke is, he doesn’t share it with the listener. But somehow we don’t feel alienated. We’re having a good time with B.B. even as he describes the bad times. It’s a song full of hope, laughter and an unflinching awareness that the struggle goes on.

B.B’s guitar cries, wails, mocks and roars. It’s a lesson you can’t miss even if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics.

The story of the blues is not about sad, dejected victimization. It’s about rising above the pain, above the oppression. It’s about the healing power of catharsis.

And that’s why B.B. sang the blues.
And that’s why we celebrate Black history month.