What blues/jazz songs to teach my EFL class?
February 4, 2007 8:03 PM   Subscribe

[SchoolOfRockFilter] I'm teaching an EFL class of four high school students in rural Taiwan. There's a reading on music history about early African-American musical idioms (blues, gospel, ragtime, early jazz). It's TERRIBLY dull reading, especially considering names like Duke Ellington and Ma Rainey mean absolutely nothing to them. To liven it up a bit, I'd like to make a mix CD with 5-6 songs, print up the lyrics, and teach them that. What songs would you suggest?

Criteria: 1.) Safe for high-school students (no talk of "squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg" or anything) 2.) the more intelligible the lyrics, the better 3.) at least one early jazz song (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington), one blues song, one gospel song, and one ragtime song 4.) it'd be nice if it shows a clear evolution from the earliest forms to something they'd recognize in modern-day rock.

Super bonus points if you can, um, help me find these songs and their lyrics.
posted by alidarbac to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The earliest rags, including many of those by well known composers such as Scott Joplin and Fats Waller, were published in editions which today are considered racially offensive. That said, the above link to Library of Congress collection for Music, Theatre, and Dance online browser might get you started. There are numerous copyrighted versions of early Scott Joplin rags, as well as transistional forms by early jazz performers like Ma Rainey and King Oliver which would be of help to you in making your material selections. But I think you, as a teacher, knowing your students, need to pick the material, as what I might suggest as important works, might be easily misunderstood by students without any background in U.S. history of the late 19th and 20th century.

Later material, such as songs by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, were written to appeal to the mass audience, and would, I think, be far less likely to be considered objectionable. Standards like "The A Train" should be innocuous for any audience. The Smithsonian Collection has a series of materials [link to .pdf file] for grade school teachers that might be of use to you. Some libraries will probably have copies of recordings on CD of many of these things, which you could, uh, investigate for your use, or obtain through inter-library loan programs.
posted by paulsc at 9:27 PM on February 4, 2007

Best answer: The Wikipedia entries for blues, jazz, etc have links to recordings of some of the more important songs, and links to lyrics and explanations.

For ragtime, obviously the Maple Leaf Rag.

For blues, Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson is classic, has a great story (about Johnson supposedly selling his soul to the devil in return for becoming a great musician). Here's a list of blues standards. Cab Calloway's Minnie the Moocher might be fun, it has fun (slightly racy?) lyrics and some call-and-response. Mannish Boy; Baby Please Don't Go; I Can't Quit You Baby are all fun, not overtly dirty (as I recall), and have famous rock versions that show how the music comes forward in the culture.

A useful thing with jazz would be to play them a melody plain, and then play them increasingly modified jazz versions of the same tune, so they get a sense of the way the musicians are playing with it. For example, "When the Saints Go Marching In" comes to mind as a tune this would work with; teach them the plain song a capella, then play them a gospel version, then a Dixieland jazz version, then a later wild bebop version if you can find one. You'll want them to hear something from Louis Armstrong (get video of him if you can!), one of Duke's compositions, something from Ella. Ray Charles (Georgia on my Mind?)

A great Ellington song to teach them would be It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got that Swing -- memorable and fun as hell -- but anything on this list of jazz standards will do. Summertime, for a slower one? Ain't Misbehavin'? Mack the Knife? (There's a great version of Ella singing Mack where she forgets the words and makes up new ones as she goes along - your students might enjoy being in on the joke once they learn the song and hear a couple of other versions?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:55 PM on February 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Red Hot Jazz seems to have audio of a lot of early jazz, with extensive annotations.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:03 PM on February 4, 2007

I highly recommend Mood Indigo (YouTube) by Ellington. I'd be surprised if it wasn't part of the jazz canon in studies. I've only heard it as an instrumental and a brilliant one it is. But I understand there are some versions with lyrics and singing.
posted by juiceCake at 10:32 PM on February 4, 2007

here's the mack the knife performance where ella loses the words; it's not my favorite version of this song but it's a remarkable, amazing recovery.

i'd recommend billie holiday's strange fruit, which was a very controversial piece. also louis & ella's recording of summertime is probably the best-known version.

for early blues robert johnson always gets cited these days because he was so influential to classic rock acts like the stones and led zeppelin, but i'd go for some leadbelly instead, try "easy rider". also lightnin' hopkins is another excellent representative example of the early southern blues sound. and you can hear where early rock like johnny b. goode or hound dog came from.

part of the difficulty in answering your question is the range of "early" black american music you're interested in. maple leaf rag was written in 1899; ellington, nat king cole and jazzmen of that generation were at the height of their career in the late 1950's and 60's. in the intermediate 65 years there were a LOT of changes and an enormous variety, so you're going to get some very disparate sounds and idioms.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 11:46 PM on February 4, 2007

sorry, i wanted to link to this version of strange fruit. both is good though.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 11:57 PM on February 4, 2007

I'd say one of the following:

Fly me to the moon
What a wonderful world

That song from Billie Holiday where her man treats her so bad but she stays with him.
posted by markesh at 1:37 AM on February 5, 2007

Response by poster: Brilliant idea about finding different versions of the "When the Saints Come Marching In." Thanks.
posted by alidarbac at 6:01 AM on February 5, 2007

Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens - Louis Jordan. A great song play and learn.

Kind of Blue - Miles Davis. A staple in the Chicago blues clubs, believe it or not and a nice way to show how jazz and blues comingles.

Crossroads - Both the RJ and EC editions for some perpective on how early blues influenced modern electric blues.

FWIW, here in Chicago you would not believe the number of awesome blues player that have come over from various Asian countries and made a name for themselves.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:35 AM on February 5, 2007

A lot - in fact, most of - the early recordings of blues, gospel, and various vernacular folk musics have passed into the realm of public domain, meaning there are a lot of sites that allow you to legally have at them.

Archive.org has some great old music for download. Check out this old mefi post for details.

Many public domain recordings of blues and old gospel available at the Juneberry Listening Post.

It's a music blog - meaning posts are only up at temporary intervals - but there is always something good at Honey, Where You Been So Long.

Another site that has lots of older blues and early jazz for legitimate free download.
posted by zaelic at 9:32 AM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

« Older Where to find old episodes of In Our Time?   |   Canine Liver Issues Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.