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Picture of Howlin' Wolf

Blues on the Move

Y'all, I love the blues.

One reason I do is because it’s got so much history attached to it right from its very beginnings. It mixes the restlessness of social upheaval with a longing for home. It spreads and evolves with the new opportunities its devotees find to call their own. It gives rock n’ roll a wide, solid backbone to rest on but doesn’t really need anything except a guitar and a rough voice.

The blues has a long history of traveling with African-Americans to find better opportunities throughout the country. It started as a variation of traditional call-and-response African music that slaves would sing on plantations in the rural South. They would bring this music into their church services as well, leaning more on rhythm than harmony to create what became known as gospel.

When musicians started applying secular themes to these spiritual song structures, the blues was born. It was brought from the rural South to the urban North at the beginning of the 20th century when hundreds of thousands of African-Americans moved north to escape racism and the boll weevil’s devastation on crops and farming jobs.

Chicago was a popular stop for African-Americans who were looking for new opportunities because of the Illinois Central Railroad Line, which stopped in the Windy City. The grit and noise of their new home morphed their traditional country blues into something louder and faster, influenced by vaudeville and boogie-woogie and electrified to be heard over the rush of urban life. When Muddy Waters came to Chicago, the first thing he bought was an amplifier. This new Chicago blues reflected African-Americans’ post-World War I optimism about finding better jobs and lives than they had found on plantations.

Between Memphis and Vicksburg, local artists like Robert Johnson (who famously sold his soul to the Devil for his short but hot recording career) and Charley Patton played propulsive, personal songs with a heavy bass beat and bottle-slide guitar. They and about 100,000 other African-Americans took this style with them when they migrated North looking for better work after World War II.

The two waves of African-American migrants combined Delta and Chicago blues into a jumpier sound that spread to the West Coast by way of segregation: Since African-Americans were not allowed into many performances spaces and white music still dominated on the radio, listening to records became their predominate way of getting music. A third wave of African-American migration to California after World War II supported independent record companies in Los Angeles that recorded artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino, who brought R&B to mainstream audiences and eventually turned it into rock n’ roll.

This is a seriously abbreviated history – the blues travels with more baggage than a full 747. For lots more details and a bunch of great examples, check out the library’s music resources!


AmazonMelanie G. Says: Rare performance footage and interviews of Howlin' Wolf
Amazon Says: Few if any figures in blues loom as large as Howlin' Wolf, yet there's been a sad lack of footage of this staggering specimen. This director's cut from the When the Sun Goes D more...
Amazon Says: Few if any figures in blues loom as large as Howlin' Wolf, yet there's been a sad lack of footage of this staggering specimen. This director's cut from the When the Sun Goes Down-The Secret History of Rock & Roll series is packed with never-before-seen live footage, rare Shindig footage presented by Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, interviews with bandmates and family and more. An absolute must for blues fans! less...
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AmazonMelanie G. Says: A history of the Delta Blues
Amazon Says: The definitive account of how the rough sounds of the Mississippi Delta changed the course of American popular music.The blues grew out of the plantations an more...
Amazon Says: The definitive account of how the rough sounds of the Mississippi Delta changed the course of American popular music.The blues grew out of the plantations and prisons, the swampy marshes and fertile cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. With original research and keen insights, Ted Gioia—the author of a landmark study of West Coast jazz and the critically acclaimed The History of Jazz—brings to life the stirring music of the Delta, evoking the legendary figures who shaped its sound and ethos: Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King, and others. Tracing the history of the Delta blues from the field hollers and plantation music of the nineteenth century to the exploits of modern-day musicians in the Delta tradition, Delta Blues tells the full story of this timeless and unforgettable music. No cultural force boasts such humble origins or such world-conquering reverberations. In this evocative rags-to-riches tale, Gioia shows how the sounds of the Delta altered the course of popular music in America and in the world beyond. 38 illustrations less...
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AmazonMelanie G. Says: Icons of R&B and Soul: An Encyclopedia of the Artists Who Revolutionized Rhythm
Amazon Says: Drawn from a mosaic of influences, including folk, gospel, and blues, R&B represents both everything that came before and nothing that was heard before. This is the music that more...
Amazon Says: Drawn from a mosaic of influences, including folk, gospel, and blues, R&B represents both everything that came before and nothing that was heard before. This is the music that bridged the gap between audiences and helped, at the very height of racism in America, to dismantle racial barriers. So much of today's music is derived directly from the highly influential and critically important sounds of R&B that without it we would have never known the classic soul of the late '50s and '60s, the glory days of the genre. Similarly, rock n' roll as seen through the eyes of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley would have never evolved without the foundation laid by their R&B predecessors. Through substantial entries on the chief architects and innovators, Icons of R&B and Soul offers a vibrant overview of the music's impact in American culture and how it reflected contemporary society's politics, trends, and social issues.Numerous sidebars highlight Motown, prominent record labels, hit songs, related singers and songwriters, key events, and significant aspects of the music industry. Also included is a list of important print and Web resources, as well as a list of selected recordings. An essential reference for high school and public libraries, this encyclopedia will help students explore the historical and cultural framework of R&B and soul music through the musicians who have come to define the genre. Among the featured: -Ray Charles -Little Richard -Fats Domino & New Orleans R&B -Ruth Brown -Sam Cooke -Etta James -James Brown -Aretha Franklin -The Supremes -Otis Redding -Ike & Tina Turner -Curtis Mayfield -Berry Gordy -Stevie Wonder -Marvin Gaye -Smokey Robinson -The Temptations -Prince less...
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