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!