Assignment 1: Listening to the Voices of the Past
The District Attorney sho' is hard on a man
He taken me from my woman, cause her to love some other man
District Attorney sho' is hard on a man
He will take a woman's man and leave her cold in hand
--Bukka White, “District Attorney Blues”
For this first assignment, I’d like you to listen closely to the sound recordings on this site. The music you hear on this site may sound strange to you; it is probably very different from what you listen to on a regular basis. I’ve devised questions to guide you through this material and to help you make sense of it.
(Note: I have very little formal music education; I’ve learned most of what I know through listening repeatedly—and I might add passionately—and studying the cultural context of this music. I don’t think you need any formal training to answer the questions and consider the issues listed below. If, however, you are able to pick out elements like rhythmic structures, odd keys, unique chords, feel free to describe them on the discussion board. I will be very eager to learn from your posts!)
Start by browsing through the entire "Now What a Time" collection in any way that your spirit moves you (remember: the MP3 Format is the default in the archive; if that won't play for you, click on Additional Audio Formats, and you will find a link for Real Audio [RealPlayer])
- You can see lists of songs by clicking on the “Blues” and “Gospel” links on the homepage.
As you’re browsing, keep these questions in mind:
- If you click on ”About the Collection,” there are also links titled “Guitar,” “Banjo,” "Harmonica," and “Choral.”
- Which hits you first: lyrics, vocals, or instruments? How do these songs compare to songs you hear today on the radio?
- Can you connect to this music? Do you feel alienated? Is this music provincial? Is it dated? Do you have to be a member of this African-American community to appreciate it?
- What kinds of emotions are conveyed here? Do they evoke similar emotions in you?
- How many performers can be heard on each recording? How do the songs performed by large groups differ from songs performed by a soloist or a duo?
- Is this music similar to music you’ve heard before? Is it profoundly different? How so?
- Does it make a difference that many of the performers are amateurs rather than professional musicians? Are there advantages to this? What are they? Are there disadvantages? Are amateurs able to convey certain feelings and emotions beyond the reach of professionals?
- Why were these performances recorded? Why does the Library of Congress consider them to be significant additions to our “American Memory"?
Once you have established an initial impression of this music, listen more closely for the distinctive features of each type of music.
In your weblog, consider:
- Are all the blues songs sad? Do the songs sound similar? Is there repetition within each song? What is the point of this repetition?
- What is the difference between the blues and gospel songs? Is it merely a matter of lyrical content? Do they have different rhythms? Are the vocal arrangements different? Do the singers sing differently?
Choose a group (2 or 3) of either blues or gospel songs to analyze in your weblog.
For blues songs:
Listen closely to the lyrics (I realize that a lot of the lyrics are difficult to discern. Do the best you can. Don’t worry if you miss words, lines, or verses. Just try to get a general sense of what each song is about and make connections between songs).
Think about these issues as you analyze the songs you’ve selected:
- Scholars working in African-American studies argue that blues songs that seem to be merely about troubled relationships between men and women are also about economic oppression, political disenfranchisement, racial violence, etc.
- One of their contentions is that African-American men who were left powerless (emasculated) by whites in American society sought solace in sexual relationships; thus, a broken relationship meant more than the loss of love.
Consider these questions as well:
- Another contention is that blues songs are coded protests that only African Americans, and perhaps sympathetic whites, could understand.
- What do the lyrics tell you about African Americans living in the South at the start of World War II?
- What were their economic, political, and social concerns?
- How were they affected by racism?
For gospel songs:
Many of the gospel songs are based on the call and response model, in which one singer makes a musical statement and a group of singers offer a response. This model is one of the distinctive features of African-American music (and African-American culture in a larger sense). Think about what the call and response model says about the role of religion in African-American culture.
Also, consider the following questions:
- How do the singers use images and themes from Christianity to convey both their troubles and their dreams for the future?
- What are the limitations of this form?
- Are there emotions that the music cannot convey?
- Do gospel songs work as protests against political and economic oppression?
Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spending my money, I didn't care
I carried my friends out for a good time
Bying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
Then I began to fall so low
I didn't have a friend, and no place to go
So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again
I'm gonna hold on to it till them eagle's green
--Ida Cox, “Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out”