In the first third of the 20th century, these itinerant singers played in Delta juke joints, on street corners in Texas’ big cities, and on railroad platforms in dusty Alabama towns. They had colorful names like “Blind Lemon” Jefferson, “Mississippi John” Hurt and “Leadbelly” --or simple ones like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. The lines of their guitars etched the foundation of rock and roll. They wrote songs about the devil, women and jail, and harnessed them to earthy music that could lift the spirit. Just what makes a song a blues? Is it a feeling, a musical form, or a way of looking at life? Interviews with Honeyboy Edwards, Son House and Taj Mahal; Music by Charley Patton, Son House and Bukka White.
Segment production: Barrett Golding, Larry Massett, and Tom Cole.
Sound Clips

Audio – 'Spoonful' - Charley Patton (1929)

Audio – For writer Francis Davis, Charley Patton was defined precisely by his mysteriousness -- not that there aren't some interesting stories.

Audio – Musican Honeyboy Edwards recalls that whiskey and dancing were two crucial ingredients that flavored the blues

Audio – Guitarist Corey Harris plays "Roki"

Audio – For Honeyboy Edwards, learning how to ride freight trains helped spread the blues

Listen to Part 5

Photo: Early Charley Patton (aka the Masked Marvel) promotional materials


Though musicologists can define “the blues” narrowly in terms of chord structures and lyric strategies originating in West Africa, audiences originally heard the music in a far more general way: it was simply the music of the rural south, notably the Mississippi Delta. Black and white musicians shared the same repertoire and thought of themselves as “songsters” rather than “blues musicians.” The notion of blues as a separate genre arose during the black migration from the countryside to urban areas in the l920’s and the simultaneous development of the recording industry. “Blues” became a code word for a record designed to sell to black listeners. Blues also came to be associated with migration and wandering. It’s no accident that WC Handy’s tale of “discovering” the blues takes place in a train station.

For transplanted blacks in cities, blues was the music of home -- in the same way polkas were the sound of the homeland for Polish immigrants. When blacks began to migrate north the music traveled with them. Performers like Muddy Waters began to use amplifiers and electric guitars, but the blues always referred back to the rural south. Traditional styles could be heard there until the late 1940’s when radio became the major source of music. At the same time the songsters like Leadbelly were putting their own stamp on the music.

But even as it sang of home, it was embracing change — consorting with other musical styles, and its Sunday sister Gospel. In Memphis, at the crossroads of the rural south and the Mississippi River, the urban children of the blues would take the music world under the names of rock and soul.

Today in isolated areas of the south, traditional blues is still contemporary music. Ardent acolytes have nurtured the flame with magazines and small record labels. And in periodic revivals and enthusiastic festivals, fans around the world can immerse themselves in that deep well of blues. In spite of the disappearance of the “folk,” blues has survived to become a sort of universal folk music

Humanities Themes

· African influence on American music
· Migrations, urban dislocation, symbols of home
· Migrations – effect on the music and black culture
· The symbolic role of the train in blues music.
· How the recording industry popularized- and influenced-the blues.
· The clear differences in first blues recording and all prior recorded repertoire.
· The Myth of Robert Johnson: the larger-than-life-nature of blues artists.
· WC Handy and the mythical origins of the blues
· Memphis and Chicago: how the mixing pot of cities transformed the blues.
· Development of urban blues as step away from painful memory even as it is embraced.
· Blues appeal to European and world audiences – elements of universal (or ‘classical’) folk music.


Musicologists trace the origin of the blues to West Africa. They define the music in terms of chord and lyric structure. In a more general sense, it’s just the music of the rural South. Its rise to popularity is, ironically, a by-product of black migration to urban centers like Memphis in the early part of the 20th century.

Like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and other popular black musicians, W C Handy performed in a variety of styles, not just blues. He claimed to have “discovered” the blues while waiting at a train station in Mississippi: the singer was poor and rural, and the lyrics (which Handy found unintelligible at first) referred to train routes. No doubt the story is apocryphal, but it sets out the myth of the blues singer as a wandering minstrel from the Mississippi delta.

The record industry, emboldened by the success of a few black songsters, began to search out “the real thing.” “Blind Lemon” Jefferson had no fixed address. Yet Paramount Records took him from playing country picnics and house parties and made him a star. Itinerant, disreputable and dangerous Charlie Patton had flying fingers and a soulful style that made him a prototype of the Delta bluesman. Huddie Ledbetter was almost as famous for his life, which included time in penitentiary as for his music. Robert Johnson, with his aura of mystery and demonic possession, added the finishing touch to the archetype.

The audiences that consumed this music via phonograph, radio, and jukebox were increasingly urban -- and increasingly northern, as blacks began to migrate to cities like Chicago. Could the blues continue to exist as “city” music?

Interview subjects:

Sam Charters, veteran field recordist and author of “The Country Blues”

Corey Harris, a young African American musician and folklorist who has studied music in Mali, Cameroon, and the Mississippi Delta.

James Horton, anthropologist, who can look at the sources of urban migration and patterns of life and culture of the newly urbanized communities.

Robert McElvaine, sociologist who can look at migration’s influence on music.

Kip Lornell, anthropologist and folklorist, author of “The Life and Legends of Leadbelly” and “The Musics of Multicultural America.”

Historic Recordings:

Examples of Traditional West African music

Folkways Records (Smithsonian Institution)

John & Alan Lomax recordings of Southern field hand hollers

WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” performed in a variety of styles

Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “That Black Snake Moan”

Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues” or “High Water Everywhere”

Robert Johnson’s “Cross Roads Blues.”

Archival sound – Robert Johnson session -- collection of Institute of Texan Cultures

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