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Langston Hughes and the Blues

Grade 8-9
Objectives:
Over the course of this lesson plan, students will be able to:
Develop an understanding of what constitutes ‘the blues’
What is the subject matter of blues music and poems
What is the origin and history of the blues
Why blues music is considered universal
What elements of poetry are present in blues music
What elements of blues music are present in poetry
Examine the relationship between the blues and the poetry of Langston Hughes
What is the ‘classic’ make up of blues

Materials:
CD’s/tapes/recordings of selected blues songs: “Cross Road Blues” by Robert Johnson and “Good
Mornin’ Blues” by Lead Belly; Langston Hughes’ essay “Songs Called the Blues” and poems “The Weary
Blues,” “Po’ Boy Blues,” and “Homesick Blues.”

Timeframe:
Two to possibly three days, 2 lessons and the rest work time.

Procedures:
Day One
Reading Journal Entry #11: What, to you, is “the blues?” What usually is the subject of Blues songs?

5-10 minutes: Welcome students to class; point them to their journal entry. Have students write in
journals (3-5 minutes), and then discuss answers as a group. Introduce a new aspect of
the poetry unit: poems in Blues music. Just as we covered poetry in songs on Thursday
with “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin and “Sound of Silence” by Simon and
Garfunkel, we will now look at Blues poetry and how the rhythm and other poetic
elements in Blues poetry lends itself easily to a musical form.

5 minutes: Play the clip from “The Office” Season 5 where Michael is driving home with Daryl in the
van after moving Holly to Nashua. Daryl starts making the blues beat: “ba da da da DUM
da DUM da DUM… ba da da da DUM da DUM da DUM…” waiting for Michael to insert
his sad feelings, but Michael doesn’t get it and just repeats the noise. End the clip and
discuss students’ notions about the blues. Refer back to what students wrote in their
journals—what is usually the subject of the blues? Why would Daryl want Michael to
sing the blues? Hopefully students will mention something about how singing the blues
sometimes can make people feel better; voicing the pain can alleviate it a little.

10-15 minutes: Pass out copies of Langston Hughes’ essay, “Songs Called the Blues.” A lot of this essay
focuses on those who are talented with Blues, but it also has some good examples of
what might be considered the Blues and why singing the Blues is so important (it’s
universal—people can identify). Go over the essay with the class and discuss the
following with students:

 Ask students to discuss Hughes’ main points about the blues: songs of black (southern) life,
songs with tension between heartache and laughter.
 Discuss the origins and history of the blues.
 What is the difference between spirituals and blues?
 What different kinds of blues are there?
 What are the subjects of the blues (everyday life, love, work, family, etc.)?
 As sad as the Blues may be, what one thing is almost always present?
 What does the Blues have that goes beyond race or sectional limits?

15 minutes: After discussing what is the blues, play examples of Blues music for the students. “Cross
Road Blues” by Robert Johnson and “Good Mornin’ Blues” by Lead Belly are good
examples of the rhythm and subject matter popular of Blues style. Discuss the basic
musical and lyrical elements of the songs. Find examples of tension between heartache
and laughter in the songs. After listening to and discussing these songs, read the three
Langston Hughes blues poems: “The Weary Blues,” “Po’ Boy Blues,” and “Homesick
Blues.” Discuss the basic musical and lyrical elements of the poems, and find examples
of tension between heartache and laughter in the poems. Then, compare and contrast
the poems and the Blues songs that you heard (it might help to have handouts which
have the lyrics of the songs and the Hughes poems on them so that students can see
these to compare/contrast them).

5 minutes: Wrap up lesson and discussion. Have students complete the following short answer
questions as homework (these questions should really just be review of the
compare/contrast for students so that they are ready tomorrow to jump back into
discussing blues and poetry):

1. How are the poems similar to or different from blues songs listened to in class?
2. What blues elements does Hughes incorporate into his poetry?
3. Which of the poems seems closest to the blues music?
4. What is the makeup of blues in the classical form?
5. How did blues influence Hughes' poems?

Day Two
5-10 minutes: Welcome students to class. Check over homework. Students who did not complete the
short answer questions will only receive half credit for doing it while we discuss the
questions. Go over the handout questions and discuss student’s answers. What do they
think of Blues so far? Can they see the correlation between Blues music and Hughes’
poetry?

5-7 minutes: Hughes had a definition of Blues music and poetry: “The Blues...have a strict rhyme
pattern: one long line repeated and a third line to rhyme with the first two. Sometimes
the second line...is slightly changed and sometimes...it is omitted.” Write this on the
board and have students pull out their handouts with the poems and song lyrics. Do
they see examples of this style in the songs and poems? Why might this be the ‘classic’
way to write Blues poetry?

5-10 minutes: Have students write the word BAD DAY in a word web with at least 8 circles connecting
to the BAD DAY circle. Have students write examples of things that really happened to
them once and perhaps contributed to a BAD DAY (see attached example).

Until end: Write an example of the word web on the board. Add student examples as you ask
students what they wrote in their web. Then pass out and discuss the assignment:
students must write their own Blues song/poem using the blues songs and Langston
Hughes poems as models. Poems should show an understanding of Blues rhythm and
structure (repetition, rhyme, stanzas, and appropriate subject matter) as well as
creativity, originality, and effort. Poems should be at least 20 lines and include an
imaginative title (i.e., Rippin’ my Pants in Class Blues). Students should use the examples
from their word web to help them think of what Blues to write or focus on in their
poem. Students have the rest of the class period and part of class tomorrow to finish
these poems. Students will need to print off a rough copy of their poem/song and have
this approved by the teacher so that they can be sure they are on the right track with
their work. They should then revise and strengthen their poem with the help of the
teacher and submit a final copy.

Students should be allowed to share their finished poems in class at another time.
Possible Extension:

Have students write an essay in which they compare and contrast a blues song and a poem. Students
must analyze the elements of blues in the poetry and the elements of poetry in the blues.

Utah 8th/ 9th Grade Language Arts Core:


Standard 1: Students will use vocabulary development and an understanding of text elements and
structures to comprehend literary and informational grade level text.

Objective 2: Comprehend and evaluate informational text (i.e., web pages, newspapers, magazines,
encyclopedias, maps, schedules).

a. Analyze the purpose of external text features and structures in a variety of informational texts
(e.g., textbooks, advertisements, posters, graphs, charts, maps, schedules, product instructions).
b. Comprehend text using internal text structures and their appropriate cue words and phrases
(i.e., cause/effect problem/solution).
c. Infer meaning from implicit information in text.
d. Distinguish relevant from merely interesting information.

Objective 3: Comprehend literature by evaluating the contribution to meaning of several literary


elements within a work of literature.

c. Relate themes in literary works to real-life events.


e. Interpret figurative language in literature (i.e., simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, and
symbolism).
f. Identify the speaker in a poetic text.

Standard 2: Students will write informational and literary text to reflect on and recreate experiences,
report observations, and persuade others.

Objective 3: Revise and edit to strengthen ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence
fluency and conventions.

a. Evaluate and revise for:


o Ideas: Anticipation of and answers to readers' questions.
o Organization: Inviting leads and satisfying conclusions.
o Voice: A variety of voices for different audiences and purposes.
o Word Choice: Carefully chosen vocabulary to achieve voice and purpose.
o Sentence Fluency: Varied sentence structure (i.e., include complex and compound
sentences).
b. Edit for:
o Correct grade level spelling.
o Correct use of commas in introductory phrases and clauses.
o Correct use of adverbs.
o Correct use of colons.
o Correct use of parentheses.
o Correct capitalization of languages, races, nationalities, religions or sections of the
country.