Slow-dragging, porch-strumming, juke-joint-jumping, big-city-living, guitar-searing, piano-bouncing, voice-wailing, soul-howling blues is at the heart of American music. Originating from field hollers and the spirituals, the blues encompass over a century’s worth of music that has captured imaginations, hearts, and ears all around the world. It is a music of personal freedoms, folk expression, cosmopolitanism, and African American experience (at least for a long while).
The blues burst onto the scene as race records and eventually pollinated all iterations of popular music. They become so popular they cross over into literature and film. Starting as early as the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown used blues to unabashedly portray lived black experience in poetry. In the late 1960’s Larry Neal calls for a black aesthetic that puts the blues and its cultural implications at the heart of his proposed way of being. While the blues at these moments are focused on African American experience, something happens in the 1980s and the blues forever change: people from all over sing and write the blues and make blues movies.
This course surveys blues literature and film as a way of understanding iterations of black experience and its effect on American culture. We will engage essays, historical documents, short stories, a novel, film, documentaries, and, of course, the music. We will begin by looking at the history of the form itself. With a historical and cultural foundation we will attempt to define the blues and establish a vocabulary/“toolkit” for our foray into blues poetry, fiction and film. Armed with these tools, we will focus on three different elements: 1) Women and the blues—the most often forgotten group, but the most important to the foundation of the music; 2) the blues as an aesthetic to express black experience (with a focus on the south); and 3) how Robert Johnson simultaneously brings us “down home” and leads us far away. Throughout we will keep asking and answering these questions: What are the blues? What makes a “blues” movie or book? Who can have the blues? And, who can sing the blues? As we will see, the answers to these questions are not always black and white.
As a result of completing this course, students will have learned or be able to:
(1) recognize what constitutes blues literature and film
(2) read and analyze literary texts and films effectively
(3) understand and articulate how race, history, and culture are linked to the blues
(4) write and present on key themes and ideas of the course.
Prerequisites: Any student committed to reading and in possession of critical thinking skills will be successful in this course.
Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2020.Visit Program Page Information Sessions Learn How to Apply