Nothin' But the Blues

At the beginning of the 20th century, the blues were strong in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and the Mississippi Delta. Rooted in slave songs, field hollers, work songs, church songs, spirituals and folk ballads, the blues was rural music that told the story of years of slavery and back breaking work farming someone else’s land. It was full of guitar, piano and harmonica played by traveling musicians at picnics and church meetings and in country bars and juke joints. Everyone came out to hear the blues and dance to the stories pulled straight from their own lives. There was no shortage of hard times in the South and everyone could relate to the blues.

During the Great Migration, tens of thousands of rural African-American workers moved into cities in the northern states. The community that had created the blues began to leave the South and the old style of blues reminded them too much of what they’d left behind. The musicians arriving in places like St Louis, Detroit and Chicago changed their sound to reflect their new urban surroundings.

Having lived in Mississippi and worked on a plantation before arriving in Chicago in 1943, Muddy Waters left behind the country blues and traded in his acoustic guitar for an electric one. Chicago blues started on street corners but became so popular it moved into packed clubs and dance halls. Muddy, like others on the scene, added drums and a bass to his now-electric guitar and the harmonica that used to cry began to wail. The beat was infectious and had all the soul of the blues with a beat that drove bodies onto the dance floor. This electrified version of the blues laid the groundwork for the R&B and rock and roll that would take over the radio in just over a decade.