How the Great Migration Effected the Development of Blues Music

The Great Migration, during 1910-1970, urbanized the southern African American population and expanded blues music from the southern states to the rest of America. The migration effected blues music greatly but blues music, in return, also had a major effect on the Great Migration. As blues musicians moved north and became successful in their craft, it attracted other southern African Americans to migrate as well.  The Great Migration; which was brought upon by crop devastation, formation of the Klu Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws,  and the US entering WWI and WWII (which demanded more labor in the Northern states), created a new market for the music industry. The main areas they migrated to included, Chicago, New York, and California. Through the migration, blues music evolved and created many different styles of music, including many of our modern genres today.

In class we touched on the migration of the blues from Mississippi to Chicago. Chicago was, and still is, a central location for blues music. Because many performers had migrated from the Mississippi region, Chicago blues is largely influenced by the Mississippi blues style. The style can be characterized by their use of electric guitar, harmonica, and a rhythm section of bass and drums (sometimes saxophones as well).  As the Great Migration continued the lyrics and tempos of their songs became up-beat and lively. We were shown two examples in class, one titled ““Rolled & Tumbled” by Rose Hemphill and another titled, “Rollin’ & Tumblin’” by Muddy Waters. The first song gives the impression of sadness and depression, the other gives the feel of happiness and change; these differences are common during the Great Migration as people discover freedom and inspiration in northern cities.

In New York City, during the Great Migration, a lot was happening. The Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and 30s played a major influence on blues and jazz music. The traditional southern brass instruments were being played with pianos, which were considered to be a wealthy instrument. Innovation and liveliness were inspiring performers all over the city, the new found freedom resounded in their lyrics and music style. In 1920 Mamie Smith changed the blues scene when she recorded “Crazy Blues”. The record sold over one million copies and allowed for many other artists to follow suit.  It was said that, “we can’t conceive of modern popular American music without these early blues performers and songs… and Mamie Smith was the first one to record this kind of music”(npr).  After her, some of the greatest blues women of the 1930s followed, including Bessie Smith and Ida Cox. The invention of portable electronic recording devices made it possible for recording companies to recruit new artists and allow more people to discover the blues.  Below is a recording of Mamie Smith’s influential “Crazy Blues”:

Click here to view the embedded video.

Source of video: youtube (

During the turn of the century, the syncopated beat of blues music made its way into popular American music. Many white people came to the blues and jazz clubs in Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles to listen to the new sounds played by the African Americans. By the 1950s, blues and jazz had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music, the creation of white jazz bands allowed for many white audiences to begin to appreciate new types of music and the black artists who originally created it. At the time, in New York, “bluesy-pop” music was created that redefined American music and appealed to white teenagers that started listening to rhythm and blues.

Los Angeles also became a huge central location for blues music. The style seemed to be a “smooth, cool blues style” (opus).  Lew Chudd, a record producer based in L.A. signed a man named Fats Domino from New Orleans. Domino had the same smooth style of L.A. artists but also had robust energy and a quirky rhythm that changed the face of rhythm and blues. Domino was on the first artists to successfully incorporate white country music with blues. The fusion of the two styles of music produced rock n’ roll, which is usually credited to Elvis Presley and artists like him, “but the real pioneers were Domino and, a few years later, Chuck Berry” (opus).

Through the Great Migration and introduction of blues music into mainstream American culture many different styles of blues were created, which essentially is the evolution of blues music to rock n’ roll (modern American music). The Great Migration not only allowed southern African Americans (many, former slaves) to socially change the country, but musically change American culture as well.


Works Cited

Gregory, James N. “Chapter 4 “The Black Metropolis”” He Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America. Web. 7 Mar. 2012. <>.

“Harlem Renaissance.” Wikipedia. Web. 7 Mar. 2012. <>.

“Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market.” NPR. 11 Nov. 2006. Web. 7 Mar. 2012. <>.

Rasmuson, Bear. “The Great Migrations and the Spread of the Blues.” Web log post. Web. 7 Mar. 2012. <>.

“RHYTHM AND BLUES.” Web. 7 Mar. 2012. <>.