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March 23, 2010 — Students to experience Chicago blues first-hand during seminar trip

by Christine Elias — Monday, Mar 22, 2010

March 23, 2010
Kim Luke

If you’re learning the blues what better place to do it than the city where Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley lived the blues? This spring, four fourth-year students and their instructor, Nathan Cardon, will do just that when they visit Chicago for a first-hand experience of the city where the electric blues were born.

The trip is part of the seminar: Hellhound on My Trail: Living the Blues in the Mississippi Delta, 1890-1945. Offered by the Department of History and American studies, the course examines black life and culture in the context of segregation and the Great Migration north. Students explore social, political and cultural conditions of a rural population undergoing industrialization and urbanization through the medium of blues music.

“By focusing on African American life through the blues, this course seeks to restore a voice and a sense of agency to black southerners in the age of Jim Crow,” says Cardon. “The blues tradition that originated in the Mississippi Delta was closely tied to the social conditions, concerns, and conflict among the rural black population. This makes it an ideal source for a historian seeking to tap the thought and spirit of a community.”

There’s the usual course fare of required readings, but the main lens is the music itself, with students assigned required listening such as Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Skip James. Each student keeps a music journal in which they record their impressions of the music and the ways in which it relates to the themes of the course. “I’ve really appreciated studying through the medium of music. Other classes I’ve taken have addressed music, but it was never the main text,” says Ko Clementson, one of the students heading to Chicago where she hopes to do get access to primary archival documents to finish up a paper she is working on about African-American women and the sex trade during the early 20th century.

The trip is funded by the Internationalized Course Modules (ICM) program in the Faculty of Arts & Science which seeks to provide brief but intense international experiences directly related to material studied in a course. While in Chicago, students will visit the Chicago Blues Archives at the Harold Washington Library, which contain audio and visual recordings, promotional materials and artifacts not available anywhere else. They will have the opportunity to conduct research for the papers they have written for the seminar and get access to essential archival data that is necessary to publish in journals such as the Undergraduate Journal of American Studies. The trip will also include walking tours of historical African American neighbourhoods, a seminar at Northwestern University and, of course, live music on the south side.

“I have never been to Chicago before. This trip will definitely help me to get a better understanding of the geography and districts I’ll be discussing in my paper,” says Clementson. The Chicago blues trip will take place during the spring study period April 5 – 9.