The History of the Blues

To say that the blues are rooted in the United States’ history of African-American enslavement is only to tap the surface. While enslaved, unwritten music – which certainly overlapped with and foreshadowed at times the yet-to-be genres of jazz and other improvisational styles – brought resilience and hope to those living under the cruel treatment of white slavedrivers. Used widely after emancipation to reaffirm a sense of unity and resolution among slaves and their descendants, it is thought of as an evolved entity, tracing as far back as the traditional chants, work songs, hymns, and other aural traditions passed down in slaves’ ancestral African homelands. (1) Even after reaching the United States, the music seldom left the circles within which it was performed, often on crude or handmade instruments like jugs, banjos, harmonicas or washboards. Therefore, it remained for some time quite popular in southern states like Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee in areas populated by former slaves and their families who had dispersed from plantations. Its legacy remains strong as even today, a tourist can visit a gravesite and museum dedicated to the life’s work of B.B. King in Indianola, Mississippi or visit the childhood home of W.C. Handy in Florence, Alabama. Understandably, the nature of the music is quite subjective and, especially in its early days of publication, it was hard to completely determine what truly counted as blues music. One of its first believed compositions is the “Memphis Blues.”(2) Its composer, the aforementioned Alabama native W.C. Handy, is today known as the “Father of the Blues,”(3) and his piece follows the structure of the twelve-bar-blues we know today. For decades after its release, the blues remain performed almost exclusively “by black musicians for black audiences,”(4) and the black community was resolute in holding onto it as a staple of their culture and the struggles they had overcome. Not too long after, however, the demographics of both the artists and the audiences shifted dramatically.


Next page: “The Reception of Exploitation”



(1) Kopp, Ed. “A Brief History of the Blues.” All About Jazz. August 16, 2005. Accessed December 13, 2018.

(2) Banerji, Robin. “WC Handy’s Memphis Blues: The Song of 1912.” BBC News. December 30, 2012. Accessed December 13, 2018.

(3) Yeager, Alice. W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues. Birmingham, Alabama: Seacoast Publishing, 2003.

(4) Adelt, Ulrich. Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2011, 3.