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Of all the arts, theatre has perhaps the greatest potential as a humanizing force, for at its best it asks us to enter imaginatively into the lives of others. To know (emotionally, imaginatively, and intellectually) what it means to be human in the broadest sense ought to be one of the primary goals of both education and life; and for reaching this goal, no approach has greater potential than theatre, since humanity is its subject and human beings its primary medium. (1) I chose a theatrical format to guide my students on this journey into the exploration of the “blues impulse”—its roots and its fruits—as it was manifested in the lives of some ordinary yet extraordinary African American musicians, because as teacher and director, I have seen time and time again the power of theatre to cultivate empathy, collaboration, self realization, self-esteem and love. The experiential nature of theatre sharpens cognitive skills as well.
My curriculum unit is performance ready and hopefully user friendly. It covers a chronological history of the blues up to and including a brief mention of jazz. The musicians discussed are Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. The format is roughly comprised of narration and monologues, with musical and visual enhancement. Slides and tapes will be made available at the institute office for use during rehearsals and performances. Although I have laid out a specific form and direction for this presentation, you should feel free to sweeten it with the creative juices of your own unique collaborative efforts.
In the interest of artistic and pragmatic considerations, the material is not presented in great depth or at great length; however, I will augment the individual and collective learning experience with pre-show and post-show activities/assignments, the bibliography and discography which accompany the performance piece.
I hope that they will come away from the life stories of the Blues women with a sense of the glorious and indomitable nature of the human spirit. I hope that they will recognize some aspect of themselves in these stories, and see themselves as courageous and resilient. Although this unit deals with an African American experience, I hope that it is the human experience that emerges above all . These stories can be owned by all of the students, a source of pride, inspiration, and hope. It would be wonderful if, when taken as a whole, the presentation and the activities serve to broaden the picture of slavery to include some of the positive aspects of this moment in history, because it is healthy to understand that life experiences are rarely entirely bleak or entirely happy.
I hope that the students will come away from this presentation with the following, as well:
Again, I come full circle in stating that my desire is not to force feed, but to simply serve a nutritious meal. Bon Apetit!
- - a sense and broader understanding of what “blues impulse” means;
- - an understanding of the form and style of the musical expression of the blues, and the roots from which it emerged;
- - an awareness of the connection between the blues and other forms of music,
- - an understanding of the blues from the African American blues woman’s perspective;
- - a recognition of some of the names of artists who are representative of the blues era;
- - the experience of a collaborative and interdisciplinary endeavor;
- - a wider referential range: new stuff to think about, fell and maybe do.
____All i live in music
Actor # 2 i live in music is this where you live (Actor # 3 enters) Actor # 3 i live here in music (Actor # 4 enters) Actor # 4 : i live on C# Street my friend lives on Bb avenue do you live here in music sound falls round me like rain on other folks saxophones wet my face cold as winters in St. Louis hot like peppers i rub on my lips thinkin they was lilies (Actor # 5 enters) Actor # 5: i got 15 trumpets where other women got hips & a upright bass for both sides of my heart (Actor # 6 enters) Actor # 6 i walk round in a piano like somebody else/be walking on the earth
|Actor #2||live in it|
|Actor # 4||wash in it|
|Actor # 3||icd even smell it|
|Actor # 5||wear sound on my fingers|
|Actor # 6||sound falls All: so fulla music|
|ya cd. make a river where yr arm is &|
|Actor # 2||hold yrself in a music (Slides and music out.)|
|Actor # 6||You are gathered here to listen to some WONDER-full stories about some African American women who lived in music . . .|
|Actor # 4||They all lived in music called the Blues. Has anyone here ever heard of the blues?|
|(encourage audience response here)|
|Actor # 5||Well, all of us, those who have heard of the Blues as well as those who haven’t, are in for a DEE-licious experience. Everyone loves a good story. And these are good ones.|
|Actor# 6||We are going to tell our stories with your help, because the listeners are an important part of the telling. So, gather round, eyes, ears, and hearts open . . .|
|All||And let the telling begin. (As actors say this line, they take their seats on the stools. Live or taped drumming begins here, as well as slides depicting scenes of African life and Art.)|
|Actor # 2||The Blues has its deep roots in Africa where music played a vital and integral role in every aspect of life—birth songs, naming songs, planting songs.|
|(There is a pause here as the music plays and the slides are viewed.)|
|History, traditions and daily life were all expressed in song—even the language was musical. The blues were an expression of the rich, often painful African American experience which began with slavery|
|(the African slides and the drumming end here, abruptly. A slide depicting middle passage is shown here.)|
|Actor # 6||The Blues emerged from the shouts, hollers and the Spirituals of the peoples of Africa who had been brought here against their wills to be sold into slavery.|
|(Tapes of shouts and hollers begin here, as well as slides of plantation life.)|
|Actor # 3||The shouts and hollers which had their origins in West Africa became the slaves work songs. The rhythms helped the workers to endure hard days in the hot sun. Have any of you ever found that music helps you to get through some thing difficult ? Homework? Housework? Exercise?|
|Actor # 2||Because music had always played such an important role in the lives of these African peoples, you can understand how it is that they brought their music along in them. The music always expressed who they were.|
|Actor #4||It was soul music.|
|Actor # 5||The Spirituals, or sorrow songs were religious in nature, songs in which the African Americans sang the pain of captivity and the sustaining belief in a God who would relieve their suffering by taking them “ home” to heaven.|
|(Hollers tape ends here , slides pause here on one poignant image . . . perhaps a face )|
|Listen to the words of a famous spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”|
|Actor # 7||(sung)|
|Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,|
|Coming for to carry me home|
|Swing low, Sweet Chariot,|
|Coming for to carry me home.|
____I looked over Jordan and what did I see,
____Coming for to carry me home,
____A band of angels, coming after me,
____Coming for to carry me home.
____If you get there before I do,
____Coming for to carry me home,
____Tell all my friends that I’m coming too,
____Coming for to carry me home.
____Swing low sweet chariot,
____Coming for to carry me home.
____Swing low sweet chariot,
____Coming for to carry me home.
|Actor #4:||Many of you may remember the line from the Negro spiritual made famous by Martin Luther King: “Free at las’, free at las’; Thank God Almighty I’m free at las’!”|
|Actor #5:||These songs took the form of African call—and—response style singing and story telling where the singer or story teller would interact with the audience. It made the experience more alive and exciting.|
|Actor #3:||Have any of you experienced the call-and-response relationship in your churches, in the dialogue between the preacher and the congregation? (preaching) Brothers and Sisters, it is a soul- stirring, foot-stomping, joy-filled experience. Can I hear a Amen?! (to audience) Can I hear a Amen?|
|(encourage audience response) All right now!|
|(Actor # 3 should feel free to improvise with the audience).|
|Actor #2||Let’s begin our stories with Mahalia Jackson, one of the most beloved interpreters of the spiritual who ever lived.|
|(Slides of Mahalia. Tape of Mahalia singing begins under intro. Actor #1 moves to platform L. Puts on costume piece, eg choir robe.)|
|Actor #4||Mahalia was born in 1911 in New Orleans. Even as a child she lived in music. At home it was only religious music, per order of her daddy, a minister. Monologues are excerpted from Mahalia’s autobiography, Movin’ on Up). (2)|
Monologue, part 1
|Actor #1||“In our house we shut everything down from Friday night until Monday. Either you were a Christian and acted like it or you were put out of the church.”|
|Actor #3||But through the open windows of her neighbors it was the blues which charged the air and set her ears to tingling.|
Monologue, part 2
|Actor #1||“You couldn’t help but hear the blues—all through the thin partitions of the houses—through the open windows—up and down the street in the colored neighbor hoods—everybody played it real loud.”|
|Actor #4||She loved it all but she fell in love with the church and its music, especially the music of the sanctified church congregation.|
Monologue, part 3
|Actor #1||“Those people had no choir and no organ. They used the drum, the cymbal, the tambourine, and the steel triangle. Everybody in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a powerful beat, a rhythm we held on to from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive it used to bring the tears to my eyes.”|
|Actor# 5||Mahalia moved to Chicago in 1928, founded a singing group, the Johnson Gospel Singers, then went solo, supporting herself as a laundress. Her first record, “God Gonna Separate the Wheat from the Tares”, was not a hit, but Mahalia had a dream to anoint the world with her soul lifting music. She saved her money and opened Mahalia’s Beauty Salon and House of Flowers so she could chase that dream. In 1946 her determination paid off. Her recording of “I Will Move On Up a Little Higher” sold 2 million copies. The rest is herstory: concerts, film, the Ed Sullivan Show, Carnegie Hall, a European tour, both a local radio and TV show on CBS.|
|Actor #6||All of her success could not get Mahalia over, around, or through the walls of segregation in the South or in the North. She was threatened when she sought to buy a house in a white neighborhood in Chicago. She bought it anyway. But perhaps her music could help chip away at the walls. She became a civil rights activist in the late 1950’s. In 1963 she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the march on Washington for jobs and freedom.|
|Actor #4||Mahalia went back to God in 1972. Not only hadn’t she disgraced her parent’s memory, but she had graced the world with the music which was her life.|
Monologue, part 4
|Actor #1||“I make two kinds of gospel records—one for Negroes who like to tap their feet, and ones who like religious songs sung for them. But I would never sing a song to be laughed at or to help sell a bottle of whiskey!|
|I tried to give it the way I felt, and most of the time I felt real good.”|
|Actor #6||Through Mahalia, the spiritual revealed the resilient soul of her people, their deeply rooted spirituality: a spirituality which wasn’t a one day-Sunday thing, but a twenty-four seven thing.|
|Actor #3||So the blues emerged from this rich, rich heritage—distinctly African and African American—taking on a life and form of its own.|
|Actor #5||The blues are about taking what life dishes out and then dealing with it.|
|Actor #3||The blues are not about giving in and giving up, but about gettin’ on with it; about getting a lemon and making lemonade.|
|Actor #2||Just singing the blues made the singers and the audience feel better, less alone.|
|Actor #4||The pattern of the blues often goes something like this.|
|(Singing in his/her best blues voice, and playing guitar if possible. Words flash on screen.)|
|A. I got the homework blues cause I ain’t close to through.|
|A. I got the homework blues cause I ain’t close to through.|
|B. “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is on and I don’t know what to do.”|
|Actor #6||The first two lines are the call, and the third line is the response. Those three lines are called a stanza, and that pattern is often, but not always, repeated throughout the song. You would think this structure would limit the singer, but when he/she finished improvising, the song never sounded the same way twice.|
|Actor #2||In the 1920’s, when the blues began its rise in popularity, the black woman had her own reasons for singing them.|
|Actor #4||Being black And female in a racist, sexist society was a double whammy! Stop for a moment and imagine the frustration of this situation . . . do you think much has changed since then? (Actor #2 takes her place at platform L. Puts on costume piece.)|
|Actor #3||Sojourner Truth’s famous speech made at a convention center in Ohio in 1852, expressed some of the frustrations still felt by women some 70 years later.|
|Actor #2||“That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as any man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children., and seen most sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?|
|“Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [Intellect, someone whispers.] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?|
|“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ‘cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.|
|If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.|
|Obliged to you for hearing me and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”|
|Actor #3||(Slides of Bessie Smith shown throughout.)|
|The blues woman who became a spokesperson for her sisters and earned the title Empress of the Blues, was Bessie Smith. She put their feelings of lost love, hard times, invisibility, and loneliness into words and music which they could relate to.|
|Actor #4||Bessie had a full, rich voice but what packed them in wasn’t a voice that could shatter glass, (Langston Hughes once said you could hear Bessie up AND down the street!), but a voice that could break a heart. She sang it how she felt it!|
|Actor #6||She wanted the world to know that a woman’s pain was real, that it counted.|
|Actor #2||But that a woman’s STRENGTH was real too! Her ‘story singing’ seemed to reach down and call forth the stamina and grace which mother Africa had planted there.|
|Actor #3||This big, beautiful, brown woman holding forth, in her silks, satins and tiaras, transformed the often painful life of the African American woman into something glamorous and graceful without losing any of its grit and gumption.|
|Actor #4||Bessie’s blues celebrated survival, survival with dignity and flair.|
|Actor #5||For a magic moment, when those lights went down, the cares of the day fell away and the captivated audience became empresses too. And rightly so.|
|Actor #3||The spiritual music form, the blues music form, plus a few other key ingredients produced jazz. This is where Lady Day makes her entrance, but first . . .|
|(puts on chef’s hat, gets props from prop table and returns to his stool.)|
____1 cup European musical forms
____Stir until s-m-o-o-t-h.
____Add 3/4 cup of Civil War. Allow to settle. Combine 1 cup African American musicians and 1 cup Creole musicians. (Creoles are a blend of French, African American and Native American blood.) Sprinkle with a plentiful supply of leftover marching band instruments (Ron David, author of Jazz for Beginners writes: “On paper the Civil War freed the slaves; in real life it gave them trumpets.”) Pour mixture into New Orleans blender. Season to taste. Serve hot or real cool.
|Actor #4||Billie Holiday was a jazz singer but her personal blues created such powerful ‘story songs’ that she is often categorized as a blues singer.|
|Actor #5||She, like Bessie and Mahalia was a genius of improvisation. No song, no line of a song, no WORD of a song, ever sounded the same way twice.|
|Actor #6||We’re going to let Billie’s music, her face, and her own words from her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, speak for themselves.|
|(Actor #3 hits play on VCR and monitor. Male Actor # 3 offers Actor # 1 his stool C. He then retrieves gardenia from props table and puts it behind her ear. He returns to VCR.|
|The following monologues are excerpted from Billie’s own autobiography with William Duffy: Lady Sings the Blues.) (3)|
|Actor #1||(on platform L)|
|“Unless it was the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong I heard as a kid, I don’t know of anybody who actually influenced my singing, then or now. I always wanted Bessie’s big sound and Pop’s feeling. Young kids always ask me what my style is derived from and how it evolved and all that. What can I tell them? If you find a tune and it’s got something to do with you, you don’t have to evolve anything. You just feel it, and when you sing it other people can feel something too. With me, it’s got nothing to do with working or arranging or rehearsing. Give me a song I can feel, and it’s never work. There are a few songs I feel so much I can’t stand to sing them, but that’s something else again”.|
|(During musical interlude, volume is lowered.)|
|Actor #1||“Everyone’s got to be different. You can’t copy anybody and end up with anything. If you copy, it means you’re working without any real feeling. And without feeling, whatever you do amounts to nothing. I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain’t music, it’s close—order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.”|
|(Volume up as Billie resumes singing.)|
|Actor #1||“I’ve been told that nobody sings the word “hunger” like I do. Or the word “love.” Maybe I remember what those words are all about. Maybe I’m proud enough to want to remember Baltimore and Welfare Island, the Catholic institution and the Jefferson Market Court, the sheriff in front of our place in Harlem and the towns from coast to coast where I got my lumps and scars, Philly and Alderson, Hollywood and San Francisco—every damn bit of it. All the Cadillacs and minks in the world—and I’ve had a few—can’t make it up or make me forget it. All I’ve learned in all those places from all those people is wrapped up in those two words. You’ve got to have something to eat and a little love in your life before you can hold still for any damn body’s sermon on how to behave. Everything I am and everything I want out of life goes smack back to that.|
|Look at my big dream! It’s always been to have a big place of my own out in the country someplace where I could take care of stray dogs and orphan kids, kids that didn’t ask to be born; kids that didn’t ask to be black, blue or green or something in between.”|
|(Image of Billie on screen.)|
|Actor #6||Billie died on July 17, 1959. Her friend Lena Horne commented following her death that “Billie was just too sensitive to survive.” (4) But when we listen to Billie’s music we hear the struggle, and the sorrow, but also the triumph and transcendence . . . her own personal blues and the blues of her people.|
|Actor #2||Jazz became more complex and sophisticated but improvisation remained the cornerstone.|
|Actor #3||Let’s celebrate and appreciate vocal improvisation raised to an art form in the scatting of Ella Fitzgerald—the first Lady of Jazz.|
|(Images of Ella—tapes of scatting “How High the Moon” or “Savoy”.)|
|Actor #4||The Africans brought the music in them when they were brought to America. Life and music were inseparable. They lived in music and the music expressed who they were.|
|Actor #5||(Images of each on screen as name is mentioned.)|
|Mahalia, Bessie, Billie and Ella, through their ‘life songs’, told us who the African American was, and is—and will be . . . survivors, improvisors, lovers of life.|
|(As actors leave, slides flash backward to beginning African slides. Drum playing is heard under this. When the drumming ends, Actor # 2 reappears C. A slide is left up on the screen—the first image.)|
|Actor # 2||hold yrself|
|hold yrself in music.|
|(Actor # 2exits.||The piece has ended.)|
Pre-show question: (students must respond in writing. ) Have you ever heard of the blues? (Any of its possible definitions) If yes, how would you define “the blues?” (Responses should be collected for future comparisons)
- Cookin’ the Blues- A Blues Cookbook
- White paper, collage materials, crayons, calligraphy pens, paint , markers, etc., glue sticks, book binding materials
- 1. Students research family recipes which combine simple common ingredients create extraordinary dishes.
- 2. Written recipes are brought into class.
- 3. Students are encouraged to tell any stories connected to their concoctions.
- 4. Names for recipes are chosen, if necessary.
- 5. A corresponding blues snippet, eg. an anecdote or lyric (see Little Blues Book in bibliography) is chosen to be placed on recipe page.
- 6. Students discuss choices made in # 5.
- 7. Students designate a printer (by hand or word processor) to copy recipes.
- 8. When recipe is ready to be placed in the cookbook, each student gets one whole page to design and illustrate as s/he wishes.
- 9. Students design and create a cover for the cookbook.
- 10. Cookbooks are copied, assembled and distributed. Could be a fun fund raiser for “They Lived in Music” presentation, or to offset cost of color copying, bookbinding etc.
CD and/or tape player, slide projector, blues selection (teacher’s choice: see discography), slides of the art work of Romare Bearden and William Johnson, readings from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, a monologue from “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry and samples of the poetry of Langston Hughes (see the bibliography for all literature), clay, paint, crayons, markers, pencils, glue sticks, white lined and colored paper of various sizes, scraps of material and magazines.
- 1. Teacher leads discussion about less frequently considered expressions of the Blues using the slides and literature mentioned above.
- 2. Teacher places “express yourself materials” on work space.
- 3. Using a blues musical selection for inspiration students are encouraged to express the feeling or the mood using some other medium, eg. a monologue, a painting, some movement, a collage, etc.
- 4. If music evokes memory of a personal experience, students may express that.
- 5. Play musical selection several times through if necessary.
- 6. If time permits, students are encouraged to begin sharing and discussing results. If not, begin during next class.
- 7. Share with another class!
Lined paper and pencils, excerpt from Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Post-show and activities question: (Students must respond in writing). How would you define the blues now? An opportunity should be provided for a comparison and a discussion of the first and second definitions.
- 1. Teacher leads discussion about making lemonade when life serves up lemons.
- 2. Students read aloud excerpt from Maud Martha.
- 3. Discuss what Maud’s lemons were and how she made lemonade.
- 4. Students recall and record a brief recollection of a situation in which s/he was handed lemons and made lemonade. Students should be encouraged to make writing as colorful and descriptive as possible. If helpful, they may model writing after Gwendolyn Brooks.
At least some of the cast members should be particularly animated, and be able to improvise with each other and the audience.
It would be helpful if at least half of the actors are able to sing, and one is able to play the guitar (singers can be sought from the school chorus as well).
The actors should be able to read relatively well, as much of the script is read rather than memorized.
The piece lends itself to wonderful collaboration possibilities; e.g., visual arts department (slides and cardboard props); music department (tune and interpretation of “Homework Blues;” and live drumming); dance department; history department (filling in the gaps), etc. The sky is the limit!
The actors can be male and female, but dancer in the beginning should be female, and actor #3 should be male, if possible.
Mahalia: choir robe
Billie: fresh gardenia
“Chef” (recipe for jazz segment): over-sized chef’s hat
- bent on: determined to
- captivate: to hold the attention of
- captivity: imprisonment
- cornerstone: something of fundamental importance
- costume pieces: selected articles of clothing or accessories which express the essence of the character
- domestic (as a profession): maid
- emerge: come from
- empress: feminine form of emperor
- etiquette: code of good manners which governs behavior
- exotic: rare, unusual
- grit: courage, strength of character
- gumption: nerve, spirit
- improvisation: making it up as you go along, making the best of what you have
- integral: an essential part of a whole
- main stream: dominant ideas
- organism: organized body or system
- origin: source
- props: smallish items which the actors handle during a performance
- resilient: ability to recover quickly
- scatting: improvising on the melody of a song using nonsense syllables
- sexist: prejudice or discrimination based on gender, especially prejudice against females
- stanza: group of lines having a definite pattern
- sustain: nourish
- transcend: to go beyond
- transform: change the nature of
- vaudeville: a traveling variety show
- vital: very necessary, life sustaining
- actor: a person who plays a role in a presentation
- articulation: pronounce words clearly
- audience etiquette: proper behavior during a performance
- blocking: movement of actors in performance space
- director: in a theatrical presentation, the person responsible for bringing all the elements of the production together
- monologue: a lengthy speech by a solo performer
- narrator: character in a theatrical presentation who help the audience know what is happening in the story
- projection: speaking so as to be heard from a distance
- sound technician: person responsible for all audio aspects of a production
- stage directions: instructions for the actor found in the script, often in italics
- stage geography: the playing areas of the performance space. See diagram.
- theater: the place where a performance is held for an audience to see. It can be an outdoor setting as well as an enclosed building.
- theatre: all the collaborative activities needed to present a dramatic work to an audience:
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Carmen McRae: For Lady Day, Volume 1: RCA. 63163-2.
_____: For Lady Day, Volume 2: RCA. 63190-2.
Etta James: The Right Time. Electra. D100255.
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Contents of 1997 Volume V | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute