The blues has deep roots in American history, particularly African-American history. The blues originated on Southern plantations in the 19th Century. Its inventors were slaves, ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves—African-American sharecroppers who sang as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields. It’s generally accepted that the music evolved from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music. The blues started in the Mississippi Delta upriver from New Orleans.
Evolution of Blues
Blues didn’t spread significantly from the South to the Midwest until the 1930s and 40s. The Delta blues began to move up the Mississippi to the urban areas later evolving to electrify Chicago blues as well as other blues styles. Blues music was an art form that allowed black people to express the pain of the black experience. The black experience is comprised of a lifetime of suffering, working endless physical labor in extreme conditions, and not being treated equally compared to the American population. Jazz later became appropriated to other forms of music from gospel to funk to soul and R&B to hip-hop and jazz.
Important Black Artists
W.C. Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama. He played with several bands and traveled throughout the Midwest and the South, learning about the African-American folk music that would become known as the blues. Handy later composed his own songs—including “St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis Blues” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”—which would help popularize the form and come to be major commercial hits. He died in New York City in 1958.
B.B. King was a singer and guitarist born into a sharecropping family on September 16, 1925, in Itta Bena, Mississippi, B.B. King—born Riley B. King—became one of the best-known blues performers, an important consolidator of blues styles, and a primary model for rock guitarists. Following his service in the U.S. Army, he began his career as a disc jockey in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was dubbed “the Beale Street Blues Boy.” That nickname was soon shortened to “B.B.”
Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15, 1894. She began to sing at a young age and in 1923 signed a contract with Columbia Records. Soon she was among the highest-paid black performers of her time with hits like “Downhearted Blues.” By the end of the 1920s, however, her popularity had lessened, though she continued to perform and made new recordings at the start of the Swing Era. Her comeback and life were cut short when she died on September 26, 1937 from injuries sustained in an automobile accident outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi.