The United States of the Blues

The blues is the original American genre of music. The blues is rooted deep in the history of this country, from the cotton fields of Georgia, to the delta of the Mississippi, to the birth of jazz and country, to the bright lights of Chicago, to the influencing of rock n’ roll musicians from yesteryear and today. I am going to focus on the growth of the blues in the Mississippi delta, and showcase one of the most recognizable delta blues musicians, Eddie “Son” House. Second, the reasons behind the great blues migration from the south to Chicago, the differences in musical style and life style after the migration, while showcasing one of the greatest blues musicians from the Chicago era, Muddy Waters. These two eras in the history of blues music are the reason for the expansive reach it has attained over countless musical genres.

The blues was born out of a dark time in American history, slavery. Passed down over generations and generations of black southerners, the blues finally rose to prominence in the Mississippi in a style known as, Delta Blues. In his book, “The Land Where the Blues Began”, author Alan Lomax explains perfectly why the Mississippi delta was the perfect birthing grounds for the blues stating, “Feelings of anomie and alienation, of orphaning and rootlessness-the sense of being a commodity rather than a person; the loss of love and of family and of place-this modern syndrome was the norm for the cotton farmers and the transient laborers of the Deep South a hundred years ago.” (Page ix). The musician often referred to as the “Father of Delta Blues” is Eddie James “Son” House Jr., more commonly known to fans of the genre as the legendary Son House. Among others, Son House helped pioneer and shape the style of Delta blues. The Delta blues style characterized as a singer typically playing a guitar with an emphasis on rhythm or bottleneck slide guitar playing. One of the most famous songs of the Delta blues style is Son House’s own “Death Letter Blues”, featured below:

A less frequently used style of the Delta blues was an acapella approach. Son House helped pioneer this style as well which consisted of a solo singer clapping along to the song as showcased in a classic Son House song, “John the Revelator”, featured below:

Despite the success, like all other African Americans in the south at the time, Son House was victim to the discriminating laws of Jim Crow. Jim Crow laws and general racism was one many reasons for the migration of millions of African Americans, among which were some of the greatest artists in the history of the blues. Some Jim Crow laws including crimes against, “‘vagrancy’, ‘loitering’, and ‘having no visible means of support’ as crimes, African-American men and women just standing around talking to each other could be rounded up, thrown in jail, convicted and given fines they were unable to pay.” (Nall, From Down South to Up South). One of the most bustling Northern cities for the blues was Chicago, Illinois. One of the most notable blues musicians to make the trip up north is legendary blues guitarist and singer, Muddy Waters. Muddy Waters helped bring about a change to the blues style, and in so started an explosion in the popularity of the blues.

Muddy Waters helped pioneer the style of blues known as Chicago blues. Though the AAB form, and one four five chord progression of the music stayed similar to the delta style, Chicago blues added a backing band, more professional recordings, and the electric guitar. Muddy Waters is arguably the most talented, most recognized, and most influential guitarist in the history of the blues; influencing famous guitar players such as Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jack White and countless more. Muddy’s most famous song is widely considered to be “Mannish Boy”, known as one of the greatest guitar riffs ever written, as shown below:

The migration from the south to the north brought about many changes for blues musicians, as well as all African-Americans who made the journey. Dr. John D. Bakersville of the University of Northern Iowa writes, “The mass migration of African-Americans to the North and West during the early decades of the twentieth century not only changed the racial composition of these regions, but also helped to produce great tension within the African-American population. This tension, caused by the racial barriers impeding African-American progress and the realization of the “American Dream,” forced African-Americans to look inward and engage in a cultural revitalization movement. This movement aided in the revival and strengthening of central cultural beliefs and values and helped to build strong productive communities.” (Bakersville, African-American Migration, webpage). This is saying that the struggle of making the migration brought African-Americans together, and in so they would settle in the same neighborhoods. This is evident in the daily lives of blues musicians as for the most part, to use a common expression, they all knew each other. This can be seen in the video below featuring Son House and blues singer, Howlin’ Wolf, in an argument, featured below:

The blues is music about life, and everything in between. There is blues music about the good times, the happy times, the sad times, and the desperate times. All human emotions have been conveyed in some form through the blues. Blues is rooted deep in our country’s history, from the beginning until now. To understand ourselves, we have to understand the blues.


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2 Responses to The United States of the Blues

  1. Charles Ellis says:

    The Author here does a great job explaining the influences of the areas on blues as it moved across the country. The example given from Alan Lomax does fit the blues in the Mississippi perfect. I especially found his explanation of blues in chicago to be well put with the use of his examples. His detail on Muddy Waters’ involvement worked well when supported by the examples given. It was also an interesting mention by the author to not only add how the country effected blues, but how blues effected the country. The finishing line said it all “To understand ourselves, we have to understand the blues.”

  2. Chris Kjorness says:

    There is really no reason to believe Son House pioneered accapella blues singing. There are written records of this type of singing that predate him.

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