• 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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