Evolution of Black Music in America

African American Studies


The Blues

Blues is a form of music that grew from the social realities of Blacks in the American South during the last two decades of the 19th century.

Early or Rural Blues is probably the oldest form of blues we know. Dominated by men, it used strong vocals accompanied by instruments like the acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica. It was usually performed by one person or a small group. This was a secular type of music focusing on the experiences of everyday life of African Americans during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It’s difficult to determine who the innovators of this type of music were, because it grew mainly from field hollers, or work songs, that set the pace for gang labor on slave plantations. Rural Blues evolved into Urban Blues and Rhythm & Blues, the forms of Blues that most of us are familiar with today.

W.C. Handy was one of the first musicians to take the tunes and styles of the Blues and present them in modern styles with bands and singers. One of his most popular songs was the “St. Louis Blues”.

Urban Blues began to come into fruition during the ‘Great Migration’. This period, (1910s-1920s), saw a great number of Blacks moving from the South to Northern big cities like Chicago and NewYork, and west to Los Angeles. In the move, African Americans carried the Blues with them. This was also the period when ‘race’ records became popular. One recording in particular, “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith sold thousands of copies in the black ghettos of Northern industrial cities.

In the 40’s and 50’s, increased urbanization and amplification led to electric blues music. Musicians like Muddy Waters used the electric guitar and his band’s driving backbeat to gain fame in this new style of Blues.

One very famous musician to emerge from this period is B. B. King who recorded his famous “The Thrill Is Gone” back in the 1960’s.

The Blues is arguably the backbone of African American music as we know it today. From Blues we have; Gospel, Jazz, Rock & Roll, just to name a few.