The Blues in Black History

The blues were born from African-American experiences. The earliest recordings were made in the 1910s, but it’s generally accepted that a style recognizable as blues was being played and sung by the 1890s. These songs drew from earlier African-American styles such as work songs, field hollers,  shouts, chants, and spirituals. Some define it as the expression of a newly-freed people, celebrating those new freedoms and coping with their new lives – with everything from heartache to the oppression that continue(d) to plague their lives. It is believed that performing or listening to the blues fosters the ability to overcome sadness and lose the blues.

Major events in history, such as Reconstruction, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, segregation, and the civil rights movements shaped the blues, just as it shaped the lives of the people who created it. Early blues centered working-class Black Southerners, the legacies of slavery and the cotton economy, and the rise of Jim Crow. In the 1920s to 1950s, millions of southern Blacks moved to northern cities. Blues songs of the time often reflected the experiences of the Great Migration, or a nostalgia for the people and culture back home. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, blues music played an important role of empowerment. It also helped to heal the hostility in the years that followed. Today it continues to be a source of empowerment, protest, healing, and connection to heritage.

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*Note: While this book is a great summary of the history of blues music and its cultural contexts, there is some anti-Semitism in the book as well. Blues Union does *not* endorse those views or the anti-LGBTQ+ views that the author expresses in other works.