This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Thirteen Ed Online
Lesson Plans
Lady Sings the Blues
Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students

Procedures for teachers is divided into two sections:
Prep -- Preparing for the lesson
Steps -- Conducting the lesson


Media Components:


"Respect: A Century of Women in Music" (Rhino): This boxed set presents a chronological array of music sung by women throughout the twentieth century in popular and jazz genres: early blues, jazz standards, Country & Western, Motown, rock. Of particular interest to this lesson series are: Ethel Waters, MA Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Janis Joplin. A booklet with pictures and narrative is included.

Films: (optional)
Web Sites:

Bookmark the following sites:

The Department of History, College of Staten Island/CUNY
This Web site on Alice Walker's THE COLOR PURPLE is geared toward high school students and has links to slave narratives, Alice Walker biographies, African-American women writers.

This site is an excellent source for jazz greats bios, audio and video clips, and it has a seperate section on women in jazz. It also has an excellent resource list for other jazz websites.

This blues music site includes a great introduction to Bessie Smith including an interesting bio of the singer's life, times, and lyrics.

Encyclopedia Britannica
This is a good starting point for further research on the blues. It gives a general overview of the genre and more specific bios of individual artists.

Spotlight: Biography
This Web site gives good background information about blues, with links to other blues sites.

Reflections of Bessie Smith
A paper from a course on the History of Women in Music out of California State University. Presents nformation on the life and music of Bessie Smith.

The Blue Flame Cafe
"An interactive biographical encyclopedia of the great blues singers." Has links to pages on Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and more.

  • Copies of THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
  • Computer with Internet access
  • Tapes or CD's of the music listed above
  • Tape or CD player for whole class, group, or individual listening (headphones)
  • Films, as above; VCR and monitor (films optional)
Computer Resources:
While many configurations will work, we recommend:

  • Modem: 28.8 Kbps or faster
  • Browser: Browser: Netscape Navigator 3.0 or above or Internet Explorer 3.0 or above
  • Macintosh computer: System 7.0 or above and at least 16 MBs of RAM.
  • IBM-compatible computer: 386 or higher processor with at least 16 MBs of RAM, running Windows 3.1. Or, a 486/66 or Pentium with at least 16 MBs of RAM, running Windows 95 or 98

For more information, visit What You Need to Get Connected in wNetSchool's Internet Primer.

Prep for Teachers:

  1. Read THE COLOR PURPLE and bookmark the segments referring to Shug and the jazz singer's life.
  2. Listen to "Respect: A Century of Women's Music" and browse through its accompanying booklet for background information.
  3. View the two films above, focusing on the soundtrack and scenes about the jazz life. Identify clips you might want to show in class.
  4. Review bookmarked Web sites.
  5. Print out copies of handouts located in the Organizers for Students section.
Background Information for Teachers:

Alice Walker's THE COLOR PURPLE has many themes. This lesson series will focus on the character of Shug, a blues singer. Shug's character represents the culture of women's blues music: her life and her music tell of struggle and triumph. The struggles include those with abusive men, poverty, racism, and addiction. Triumph is found in the strong bond shared by women friends, such as the friendship between Shug and Celie in the novel. THE COLOR PURPLE takes the reader into the cafes and night spots of jazz, portraying the authentic voices of the women, glamorous and tragic, who sang the blues.

THE COLOR PURPLE presents the English teacher with opportunities to teach the rhythm and pathos of blues lyrics. Additionally, it gives the social studies teacher opportunities to teach the relationship between music and culture, and the music teacher opportunities for integrating the history of American music with both literature and history.

NOTE: The success of this lesson series depends on the extent to which students become familiar with blues music. Don't be surprised if your students are not well acquainted with this genre. Play music as they enter class, during class, at the close of class. Invite students to bring in their parents' music, if their parents are blues fans. Play more recent blues artists, such as Eric Clapton. Make connections between blues music and rap. Optional Mini-Project: Compare a rap song with a blues song on a common topic. Consider rhythm, word choice, topic, setting, emotional content, images, use of repetition.

  • Learning Activities:

    Reading the Novel
    Have students read THE COLOR PURPLE. This can be done in approximately one to two weeks of assigned, at-home reading. Hand out the Chapter Keeper sheets located in Organizers for Students for students to use while reading. The following are some suggestions for in-class discussion and examination. These are recommended for whole class instruction, except where otherwise indicated:

    Structure: What is the effect of the violence that is presented on the opening page? Why would Alice Walker choose to begin her novel this way? What expectations are established? Consider the epistolary form in terms of the point of view. What kinds of information can letters to God reveal to the reader? What can it not reveal?
          Jazz Connection: How is a "letter to God" similar to a song lyric? What song lyrics that you know are "letters to God"? Note: This question may be answered in groups, rather than as a whole class.

    Language: Consider the dialect. What words surprise us? (This would be the time to address the sexual content and sexual language of the book. Why would Celie speak with such words, rather than with more formal words?) Consider the grammar and how it differs from Standard English in terms of word order, verb tense, agreement.
          Jazz Connection: Consider the grammatical style of jazz lyrics. Compare it to Celie's language. How would the music change if "Ain't Misbehavin'" became "I'm Not Misbehaving." "Translate" a blues lyric into standard English. What happens to the rhythm? the imagery? the meaning? the feeling?

    Teachable moment: Literature with authentic language gives us the chance to present the difference between non-standard and "incorrect" English. How is Celie's language expressive of her character? How would our understanding of her change if her grammar were standardized? Why isn't it? What does this tell us about the author's knowledge of standard and dialectical English?

    Characterization: THE COLOR PURPLE is the story of Celie's development of her sense of self, with the help of Shug as her mentor. Consider what she learns and how she changes from episode to episode. How is she strengthened, especially under Shug's guidance?
          Jazz Connection: Many blues lyrics have as their theme the assertion of independence: "Ain't Nobody's Bizness," "God Bless the Child."

  • The Character of Shug
    Hand out the Characterization sheets located in Organizers for Students. Have students brainstorm the character of Shug, telling everything they know about her: what she looks like, walks like, speaks like, what she says, her relationships to other characters, her voice, physical gestures, etc. This activity is best done in small groups, with each group having a secretary and a reporter. Responses are then collected as a whole class and listed on the board. This is a good opportunity to explain the literary technique of characterization: How does the author convey what she wants us to understand about Shug? (Authors reveal characterization by what the characters themselves say, by what they do, and by what other characters say about them.) Students should record the entire list of responses in their literature notebook, for reference later on when they do their writing task.

  • The Blues
    Have the class listen to the blues cuts on the "Respect" CD. These include Ethel Waters, MA Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Janis Joplin. Hand out the Internet Research sheets found in the Organizers for Students [link to Organizers for Students]. Instruct the students to conduct research for a report on the Internet. Assign teams of students to the following topics: Split students into groups and assign topics:
    • Blues Basics
    • Blues History
    • Blues Lyrics
    • Blues Structure (rhythm and patterns)
    • Blues Language
    • Blues Instrumentation
    Before students conduct their research, give them the following questions and guidelines to follow while exploring their topic further:
    • What do we mean by blues music?
    • What kinds of blues music are there?
    • Enjoy the language of the blues: jot down titles of songs, song lyrics, names of famous
    • blues venues, names of famous blues singers. Note what makes them interesting to
    • you.
    • How is blues music connected to racism and poverty?
    • How is blues music connected to sexuality and relationships between men and
    • women?
    Students then share information with the class (informal oral reports by the groups).

    Reports should be approximately one page long, and can be in any of the following formats:
    • Informal: One page of written notes summarizing the student's research
    • Formal: One well-developed paragraph that answers a particular question formulated by the student(s)
    • Oral presentation
    Note: The purpose of this research is simply for students to get their feet wet in the blues genre. It is likely that they know nothing about this type of music, and may never even have heard authentic blues before. What they are doing on the Internet is finding out that there is a world of blues out there, and that it is a part of American cultural history that connects to the novel that they are reading in class. Students who are more musically sophisticated may be interested in the chord structure and instrumentation of the genre.

  • Bessie and Billie

    Play their music ("Respect" CD) for the class. Do the Internet research using bookmarked sites to answer the following questions:
    1. How were the lives of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday similar to the lives of the women in THE COLOR PURPLE?
    2. How are the lyrics sung by Smith and Holiday similar to the lives of the women in THE COLOR PURPLE?
    Culminating Activity:

    Hand out the Planning the Writing Task sheets located in Organizers for Students. Instruct the students to write an essay which compares the life and music of either Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday with the character of Shug in THE COLOR PURPLE. Your essay should refer to the following:

    • Early life
    • Career in music
    • Relationships: love and friendship
    • The Blues: Referring to one or more songs, show how the real blues singer reflects the life of Shug, the fictitious one. Include the full lyric and the source (where you found it)
    • For the title of your essay, use a phrase from the song lyrics
    • Include a bibliography
    Give students the opportunity to re-visit the Internet to continue their research for their essays.


    Cross-Curricular Extensions:

    Social Studies
    The focus of this lesson can be shifted to emphasize music and cultural history in a social studies class. How do blues lyrics portray everyday life for women of the 20's, 30's, and 40's in terms of urban life, rural life, Jim Crow laws, economic privation, and relations between men and women.

    In a music class, students can consider the poetic value of the blues rhythm: what is the effect of the call and response structure of a blues lyric? What is the effect of the repetition of the first line? How does the language fit into the music?

    Community Connections:
    1. For Black history or women's history month, students can make a display for the public library which celebrates Ladies of the Blues.
    2. Many schools have special P.A. announcements along with routine announcements that inform the student body about various special themes. Members of the school's intercultural awareness club can do 30-second spots celebrating Ladies of the Blues. These spots should include both music and bio. Local radio stations may be interested in airing these spots.

    Overview | Procedures for Teachers | Organizers for Students