Train Music in Blues-Style

Grade Level
9-12, C/U

Selection: Freight Train Blues
Recorded: Como, Mississippi, September 25, 1959
Performer: Fred McDowell (guitar, voice)

Activity 1: Freight Train (Grades 9-12, C-U)

1.Offer these points of focus prior to playing the recording for students' listening focus.

  • How do you think the guitar being played? (plucked, with the sliding of a glass or metal object across the length of the strings, down the fretboard)
  • What style of music is this? (blues) Why do you think so? (Performance style of the guitar, quality of the voice, the moderate resemblance of the song text to AAB poetic form,)
  • What is the singer singing about? (Riding a train, talking with the train conductor, getting a letter, leaving his girlfriend behind, and so on)

2. Listen again to the recording to verify responses to the questions to the question.

3. Try to catch the words of the song's verses, as in these first two verses:

(1)"I got on that freight train, tried __________ ([bein' on] my way)
"Lord, the rocks and gravel, Lord, __________ (flew right in my face)
"I [said] conductor, let me ride it __________ (blind)
"I [said] conductor, let me ride it __________ (blind)
"Lord, he shook his head, said ___________ (train ain't none of mine) 
(2)"I got a letter from Hot Springs, I tell you ___________ (I was read)
"I got a letter from Hot Springs, I tell you ___________ (I was read)
"Lord, it's comin' once boy, ___________ (you sure ‘nuf get there dead)

4. Listen for a second voice on the recording: What is he saying? Why? (He is prompting the singer-guitarist to carry on with the song, and is presenting some commentary on the song's lyrics.)

5. Copy the sound of a slide-guitar by taking a metal object (such as a pen) and sliding it with the right hand across the length of the strings and down the fretboard, while picking the strings on an e-minor chord. This is no easy task, and it may be useful to purchase a slide from a guitar store which can be slid onto the ring finger for greater facility up and down the strings.

6. Create some lyrics that speak to a shared worry. Although the lyrics of this song tend to be fairly free in structure, structure a short poem that fits into a style of blues poetry that runs AAB (as in verse 2, above), whereby the first line is repeated and the third line is new. Note also the rhyming final word for each line.

7. With a partner, share the blues. One partner can play an e-minor chord accompaniment and slide the metal object up and down the strings, while the other partner tries out the AAB poem in a minor melody. For example, the singer may perform his poem using only the la-do-re-mi (E G A B)


Activity 2: Blues Men from Mississippi (Grades 9-12, C-U)

1.Find the state of Mississippi on the map, and inform students Mississippi is home to many blues musicians, including the legendary Mississippi Fred McDowell, the featured musician on "Freight Train”. Locate the northern and northeastern area of the state, where McDowell made his home, and also the delta region of the Mississippi River where other blues musicians lived (See #3, below).

2.Offer a brief description of Mississippi Fred McDowell's life and works, to include these points:

  • Born in Tennessee (1902) but moved to Como, Mississippi in 1928; died 1972.
  • Located in the far north of the state, not at the hub of Delta Blues activity
  • Worked as a farmer but performed at dances and picnics
  • First discovered and recorded by Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins in 1959
  • First use a pocket knife as a slide, then a beef rib bone, and finally a glass slide that he fit on his ring finger
  • Coached country blues singer Bonnie Raitt on slide guitar technique
  • The Rolling Stones performed his song, "You Gotta Move”

3. Seek out other blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta region, including Son House, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Lead Belly, Skip James, and Elmore James, watching and listening to them perform. Note their characteristic use of the slide guitar and their preference for the acoustic guitar (before and even as the electric guitar rose up as an important component of the blues).

4. Listen carefully to Fred McDowell's use of the single chord for a droning effect that connects the music more closely to its African roots, where the power of the music is centered on the sliding guitar pitches, the continuing percussive plucking, and the wailing sound of the singer's voice.

5. Watch The Land Where the Blues Began, Alan Lomax's rich documentation of blues musicians in the Mississippi region.

Lesson plan by Patricia Shehan Campbell