Is a strange story with deep roots

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Sometime around 1890, the blues emerged as a distinct African-American art form, rooted in the southern U.S. and drawing on work songs and hollers, folk tradition, black spirituals, and the popular music of the time.

Looking back from 1890, one can speculate about the African influence in the musical structure of the blues as it grew from slave culture and the memory of slavery. Looking forward from 1890, a time of transition in America and of dashed hopes for blacks in the resurgent Jim Crow South, one can see the blues as a powerful force both shaping and shaped by the evolution of American popular culture (from the “race records” craze of the 1920s through the blues-fueled rock revolution of the postwar years) and the history of black and white race relations in the century ahead.

WHY SHOULD I CARE? 

“The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feelin’ bad.” That’s what Leon Redbone said, anyway, and who can’t relate to that?

Another clever bluesman once said that the blues is what the blues doctor prescribes for people who have the blues, which actually is less crazy than it sounds. If you’ve ever had the blues and heard the blues on the radio and felt just a little bit better…That’s when the blues is the best medicine. Not convinced?

What about when your parents went crazy for Elvis? That was the blues. When your older brother bangs his head to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath? Those guys are blues. Dance to James Brown? You know he had the blues. Enjoy the White Stripes? Yep, Jack White plays the blues too.

If you’re starting to wonder if the blues just about defined popular music in the twentieth century, you’re on the right track. Pretty spectacular success for a style from the rural ghetto (that’s right), where the most famous practitioner was an obscure Mississippian who may have made a deal with the Devil in the middle of the road one night in the 1930s.

Whoa is right: The history of the blues is a strange story with deep roots and a lot to say about the shape of American culture.

The blues emerged from a black cultural melting pot in the American South of the 1890s, drawing on a rich mix of African-American spirituals, traditional songs, European hymns, folk ballads, work songs and hollers, and contemporary dance music. By the 1910s (when the first recorded blues were published as sheet music), the blues had taken the form widely recognized today: 12 bars, AAB lyrical structure, and a distinctive scale with the third and seventh notes flatted.

Blues came into its own as an important part of the country’s relatively new national popular culture in the 1920s with the recording, first, of the great female classic blues singers and, then, of the country folk blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and Texas. As huge numbers of African Americans left the South (driven by dismal socio-economic conditions and the hope of a better life above the Mason-Dixon line) between 1915 and the 1940s, the blues went with them and took root in the urban centers of the North, particularly Chicago. The more urban, electric blues that developed and eclipsed the rural blues of the ’30s fed directly into both rock and roll and what would become known as rhythm and blues. With the folk revival of the 1950s and ’60s, white audiences “rediscovered” and breathed new commercial life into the folk blues (and some of the remaining Delta bluesmen who had languished in obscurity since the 1930s) and made it the cornerstone of the tremendously popular British and American blues rock of the next decade.

But to say that the blues was or is just that skeletal outline is like describing a human being using only descriptions of DNA and genetic processes. The blues, one prominent writer has suggested, happened “as a result of one group of people being forced to enter another’s history.” The story of the blues, then, is the history of African Americans told through the story of their most popular music. The blues is the story of the frustrations of failed Radical Reconstruction, of violence and oppression in the Jim Crow South, of the desperation of the sharecropping system, and of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The story of the blues is the story of black culture coming to a position of prominence and influence in American society. It is the story of the women of the classic blues whose early records—the first “race” recordings—pointed to a tremendous market for African-American cultural production, and of the young white liberals and intellectuals who sought out the rural blues as an artifact of America’s vanishing agrarian past. It is the story of the cultural present finding inspiration in the cultural past. But perhaps most fundamentally, the story of the blues is one of American race relations, a document of struggle and conflict on the one hand. but also a suggestion of something universally human that just might point the way toward a future more premised on understanding and cooperation.

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