• Geography
  • History
  • Jazz & Blues

Blues Journey
Out of the hardships of Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century came the blues

The story of the blues travels from the coasts of Africa, through the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, across the hills of Appalachia, to the streets of Chicago and beyond. The roots of blues can be found in slave songs, spirituals, and field hollers of the American South; its sound can be heard in early rock-and-roll, and in today's alternative and hip hop landscapes. Journey with us to learn about the influences and impact the blues has had on musical culture, and how it has been brought to life on stage at the Kennedy Center.

Lesson Content


Got Them Blues: A History

As black slaves toiled in the fields, they often sang to communicate with each other and pass the time. These work songs, spirituals, and field hollers formed the basis of blues music as it became an important sound of the American South in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, faced with extreme poverty and laws that discriminated against and segregated them, thousands of African Americans migrated to northern cities, taking the blues with them— where both the songs and the singers adapted to their new urban environment.


A Blue Melody, a Shufflin' Beat

Blues is a vocal and instrumental form of music based on the use of blue notes—a note that is sung or played at a lower pitch than the rest of the song that gives the blues its characteristic, often sad sound. The lyrics usually have a predictable rhyme, and the music also has a repetitive pattern that typically follows a twelve-bar structure. While the blues may tackle serious subjects, it also brings joy to the singer and audience.


Spreading the Joy of the Blues

The blues sound was captured by Alan Lomax, who was among the first to record folk songs in the 1930s. Because of Lomax's recordings, people across the country could hear the unique music of blues artists like Huddie Ledbetter ("Leadbelly") and Muddy Waters for the first time. In addition to Lomax's work, the rise of the commercial recording industry (particularly Chess Records) and advances in recording technologies allowed blues to have a wider distribution and as a result, gain a larger audience.


A Lasting Legacy

Blues musicians who moved north tailored their music to reflect their new urban surroundings. Acoustic guitars gave way to electric; drums and standup bass rounded out the sound. This "new" blues had a huge impact on modern music - influencing early rock and roll artists like Elvis Presley and 60s British artists like the Rolling Stones. Today, the innovative adaptations of the blues can be heard in the music of artists as diverse as Cat Power and Gnarls Barkley.

  • Narrator

    Kip Lornell

  • Audio Producer

    Richard Paul

  • Producer

    Kenny Neal

  • Published

    September 9, 2019

Related Resources

Media Music of the Gulf Coast Highway

Learn how the diverse styles of blues, choral music, cajun, zydeco, brass band, border music, and gospel meet and mingle in the Gulf Coast region.

  • Music
  • Geography

Collection African-American History

Learn about the African American experience through the arts — and discover the contributions of African Americans to the history and culture of the United States.

  • African-American History

Collection Jazz & Blues

Foot thumping rhythms, crooning voices, soulful melodies – jazz is a music with a history as rich as its sound. Follow the great migration that lead African Americans to Harlem, meet jazz icons such as Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker, and stop by the Cotton Club and Apollo Theater on a journey through the past of this American art form.

  • Jazz & Blues

Media Jason Moran: In the Studio

Learn the basics of jazz music and how the art form works. Along with his band, Jason Moran shows you how jazz is more like skateboarding and football than you would think, as well as plays original and classic jazz standards.

  • Music
  • Jazz & Blues
  • Backstage

Media American Voices

Renée Fleming and colleagues from the vocal fields of classical, musical theater, jazz, gospel, country, and pop lend their talents and expertise to an unprecedented journey of vocal discovery aimed at educating young singers and seasoned vocalists alike.

  • Music
  • Opera
  • Jazz & Blues
  • Popular Music
  • Musical Theater
  • Vocal Music

Media American Voices: Gospel Singing

Featuring Kim Burrell with Dr. Cedric Dent, Richard Smallwood, Dr. Deborah Smith Pollard, and Rev. Nolan Williams Jr.

  • Music
  • Vocal Music
  • African-American History
Kennedy Center Education Digital Learning

Eric Friedman 
Director, Digital Learning

Kenny Neal 
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Tiffany Bryant 
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment

Joanna McKee 
Program Coordinator, Digital Learning

JoDee Scissors 
Content Specialist, Digital Learning

Connect with us!

spacer-24px.pngyoutube.png    facebook.png    twitter.png    instagram.png    email.png

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.

Unless otherwise stated, ARTSEDGE materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes provided that ARTSEDGE and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

© 1996-2020 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts