When talking about the blues, most people think about a relatively simple 12-bar, three-chord composition commonly in 4/4 time. The blues evokes images of juke joints and dusty country roads, and triggers profound emotional responses ranging from longing to lust, to lamentation. NMAAM’s Crossroads gallery, whose name is inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s tune “Cross Road Blues,” will take guests on a journey through the blues from its infancy up to the modern age, and chronicle its influence as the cornerstone of American popular music.

From the African Continent to the American Deep South

The blues traces its beginnings to the 19th century American south, where it emerged from the work songs and field hollers that revealed the harsh realities enslaved African Americans endured. But its roots are planted firmly in the African continent. As far back as the 14th century, griots (troubadour-style entertainers) performed before West African kings and warriors, playing  indigenous stringed instruments considered to be precursors to the banjo. The griots’ performances included personal narratives, satire, and even social commentary, a style that would be reflected among traveling musicians in the Deep South in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Musical customs from the African continent, including non-verbal moans, high-pitched intonations, groans, and improvised interjections, remained intact and, as enslaved African Americans were dispersed across the South, intermingled with local and regional musical traditions, as well as those from Europe and Appalachia. The result was an array of distinct blues styles–from the Mississippi Delta Blues to the music emanating from lumber camps in Texas and Louisiana (so-called Barrelhouse Blues), to the unique sounds found among communities along the coasts in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. New instruments, such as the piano, further distinguished the blues from earlier musical forms.

The Blues on the Move

A key turning point in the evolution of the blues was the Great Migration. The early 1900s saw thousands of African Americans abandon the Deep South’s segregation, racism, and Jim Crow laws for cities such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit. Throughout this critical period in history, the music began to shift from the group-oriented work songs and hollers of the plantation to songs about individual aspirations and hopes for a new generation. Musicians carried their instruments, songs, and traditions with them as they set out from the south in search of opportunity. As these artists continued to move north, east, and west, many became part of traveling tent and vaudeville shows that entertained largely African American audiences across the country. 

Call it the Blues

In 1912, cornetist W.C. Handy published “Memphis Blues,” known to be one of the first songs to use the word “blues” in a title. Thus began the tidal wave of songs labeled as blues, and to many, marks the official categorization of the genre. Handy and his publishing partner, Harry Pace, founded Black Swan in 1921, making it the first African American-owned record label.

The blues permeated communities hundreds of miles from where it began, coming evermore to life in vaudeville shows. The introduction of “race” records, along with relatively inexpensive record players, made the blues even more accessible and gave rise to a whole new group of artists who represented a wide range of blues performance styles from across the country. This era was particularly fruitful for female blues artists such as Mamie Smith, whose smash hit “Crazy Blues” pushed fledgling labels to hire more African American singers to record. The 1920s would see even more female artists such as Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox become mainstays of the blues.

Songs of Resilience

Despite its mainstream success, however, the blues suffered a significant blow as the Great Depression ravaged African American households in the 1930s. The Depression demolished the race records business, and earlier country blues gave way to urban blues coming out of cities such as Chicago, Memphis, and St. Louis. The blues proved to be as resilient as its originators, however, recovering from the economic devastation of the Depression and rebounding with new themes and sounds. 

A Genre at the Crossroads

The introduction of electrified instruments sparked a significant moment in the genre. First showing up in juke joints and clubs in the late ‘30s, artists like Big Bill Bronzy, Tampa Red, and Aaron “T-Bone” Walker revolutionized the sound of the blues with amplified guitars that added an undeniable power to their performances. Walker took this new style even further with athletic, high-energy dancing, splits, and slides, and tricks such as playing his guitar behind his back. Walker’s dynamic performance style set the stage for legends such as B.B. King, Chuck Berry, and Jimi Hendrix, and remains evident in modern day artists like Brittany Howard, Malina Moyé, and Nik West.

The Blues is the Sound of America

As the preeminent American musical form, the blues rests at the heart and soul of every other popular American genre, from R&B to rock n roll, to jazz, county, soul, and even hip-hop. To learn more about NMAAM’s galleries and become a member, visit nmaam.org/membership.