Singing, (playing, and writing) the blues

Hello! This is Tanya from sunny Colorado. Yes, while the East coast just dodged a huge snowstorm, we've had a week of temperatures in the 60s and 70s. The weather predictors have told us we'll have snow every day next week. As they say around here: f you don't like the weather in Colorado just wait fifteen minutes!

Let's talk about the blues. In my district's music curriculum the blues are introduced in 5th grade and continued in 6th grade. In 6th grade I expand our unit to include jazz and a little rock and roll. The blues genre and form are so influential in american music and it's hard to know where to start. It's even more challenging to decide what to leave out. Here are the blues essentials I've used when introducing the blues as a genre and a form. For today's post I'm focusing on the AAB lyric form of basic blues. (I plan to discuss teaching the 12 bar blues harmonic form on a later blog post!)

Listening (and watching)
I would love to spend many entire class periods just introducing kids to various recordings of blues masters. Now that YouTube is around there are several documentaries and videos worth showing. 
The Martin Scorsese produced 2003 seven part documentary, The Blues, is an excellent starting point. The first film in the series, Feel Like Going Home was directed by Scorsese. It is an hour and twenty minutes long, (I don't show the entire film.) Don't miss the importance of John and Alan Lomax's collection (in the first five minutes,) the music of Lead Belly, and Muddy Waters' Rolling Stone (24:49-26:45)
To get the feel of the AAB vocal form, we listen to and sing along with the following recordings:

Good Morning Blues - Lead Belly
Stormy Monday Blues - T-Bone Walker
Love Me Like a Man - Bonnie Raitt
Sweet Home Chicago - Eric Clapton
Hound Dog - Elvis Presley

Lyric Form: AAB
I've found it best to first focus on the form of the lyrics.

Students right away understand the AAB lyrical form after hearing and singing a few blues songs. 

Good morning blues, how are you.
Good morning blues, how are you.
I'm doing all right, good morning, how do you do?
-       Good Morning Blues by Leadbelly

Process for discovering and singing AAB blues lyrics 

1.    Listen to Leadbelly recording while reading lyrics.
2.    Sing along with Leadbelly, making sure to wait/rest 8 beats between lines.
3.    Class observations regarding lyric pattern.
Lead students to recognize:
·      Lines 1 and 2 are the same
·      Line 3 is different and the last word rhymes with the last word of the first 2 lines
4.    Label as AAB form
5.    Listen to and sing other AAB lyrics (Stormy Monday, Joe Turner’s Blues, Crossroads, etc.)

Write verses in AAB form

Students enjoy writing their own blues lyrics but often have trouble coming up with that 
first line. For their first verse I provide sentence strips with a first line I wrote if they want to borrow an initial idea.

Here are some 1st lines my students have started with.
(Notice the easy-to-rhyme with ending words!)
·      Look out that window at the rain pouring down.
·      Each night I lay down but I can’t sleep.
·      If you see me walking down the street.
·      Some folks have everything they need.
·      I ain’t got no diamonds, I ain’t got no gold.
·      I think about the good times I’ve had.
·      What a dream I had last night.
·      I have to say what I’ve got on my mind.
·      Oh everyday I have the blues.
·      I try to do right and do what’s best.
·      My friends tell me I’ve been a fool.
·      Every day I feel so low.

 Students work in partners or alone to complete four to six verses.
That first verse is a jump-start that inspires them to write more verses but they are 
welcome to write their own first lines.
After completing their lyrics each class has a blues showcase during music
where they sing their blues for the rest of the class. It's very interesting to hear the 
students' lyrics and get a glimpse into their daily worries. 
Some students write goofy verses, ("Oh, I'm so mad, the aliens took me away!"), 
others really vent about real life frustrations, ("I hate my math homework, why do 
we have so much?") 

This is a simple blues introduction as we start soaking up a rich musical style 
and tradition in music class. 

What are your Blues basics?


  1. Love your ideas, Tanya! Thanks so much! :)

  2. Love this post! When I taught in Chicago, my students participated in the Blues in the Schools program. This brought back wonderful memories! I enjoyed your perspective, too, as a fellow Kodaly teacher.


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