Where Did The Blues Originate And Which Famous City?

Early blues music was a combination of African American music and European settlers’ folk music. Since most Blues musicians were themselves transported to America in the slave trade, or had ancestors who were, the African American experience had a huge influence on the music.

So where did the Blues originate from? The Mississippi Delta – a flat plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. Many argue either Memphis or New Orleans was the famous city where the Blues was born. Early Blues styles came from the plantations in the south of North America. 

As more musicians moved to major cities like Chicago after World War II the sound of the music changed. They added drums, bass, piano, saxophones, harmonicas, and often a full band.

This article covers the origins and development of the Blues and looks at the musicians who helped the Blues grow and develop. 

man playing saxophone

The Birth of the Blues

Where the blues originated can be traced back to pre-emancipation America when African American people adapted African rhythms and musical styles to their needs. They were used as work songs and sung rhythmically in time with the task being done. Call and response patterns were used where the lead singer was followed by other singers.

Blues music is poorly documented from before 1900 despite it originating around in the 1800s. 

This is mostly because of racial discrimination and lack of representation in academic circles, especially during this time.

Despite differences in records, the first Blues recordings and the appearance of Blues music is always dated after the emancipation act of 1863. It makes sense because it was during the 1960s and 1990s that juke joints – places where Black people went to sing, dance, and blow off steam – started showing up.

This allowed for a somewhat formal and structured exploration of Blues music as a form of entertainment for a live audience. The early 1900s characterised the transition of blues music from group performance to individualised performance.

The Mississippi Delta – Birthplace of the Blues

So where did the blues originate? Blues music originated in the 1800s in the Mississippi Delta – a flat plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers. Blues were performed in a variety of styles and settings there. They didn’t stay in the Delta, though. The music spread like wildfire through the Black community.

There were tent shows, Ballads, Ragtime, Folk tunes, and Gospel songs. Soon, people from the Atlantic coast and those from the Gulf of Mexico had heard the Blues.

From its Birthplace, Blues Spread Across America

Rural blues developed in Carolinas, Texas, Piedmont, and Mississippi. The first two regions were known for their enunciation and regularity of rhythm.

After emancipation, the typical Blues scale was taken up by musicians in New Orleans who often put on shows for segregated audiences across the city.

Black churches incorporated Blues notes into Gospel music and used them to celebrate joy, solidarity, and resistance, especially in reference to emancipation.

Once the Delta Blues turned into Urban Blues and generally found its way to urban areas,it grew into electrified Chicago Blues. As the name suggests, Electrified Chicago Blues focused on the inclusion of the electric guitar. From Chicago it spread to other cities and saw the birth of regional Blues styles like Country Blues, Texas Blues, and Memphis blues.

Around a decade later, Blues performers gave birth to Blues Rock and Rock ‘n Roll music which was hugely impacted by the Blues style of music.

Blues Legends From The Early 20th Century

Some well-known Blues musicians from the 1920s and 1930s include:

  • WC Handy
  • Ma Rainey
  • Blind Lemon Jefferson
  • Leadbelly
  • Robert Johnson

Let’s take a deeper look into each of these Blues musicians’ lives and contributions to the music. They were a big part of why the Blues made it to the mainstream and became as important in music history as it is today.

WC Handy

man playing trumpet
WC Handy

Handy copied a 12 bar song structure as he heard it using flattened Blue notes.

He will be remembered as the father of the Blues because he was the first to write its 12 bar Blues form on sheet music. He wasn’t the inventor of the music or the notes. But he put them down onto paper which has preserved them in written form.

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey with her band
Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey is the mother of the Blues. She had the brain for music and memorised it in the same way WC Handy did.

She was born in 1886 and worked hard at music before gaining popularity. After twenty years years of playing in backwater theatres, she found herself playing to jam-packed theatres and huge crowds.

Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon playing guitar
Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson was an American Blues and Gospel singer from the 1920s. Commonly referred to as the father of Texas Blues, he set a high standard for vocals and performances which made it difficult for younger generations to follow in his footsteps.

Even so, Rock ‘n Roll and Blues musicians have tried to imitate his musical style since then. He had success with Paramount Studios given his confident musicianship and old-fashioned sound.

He travelled a lot in the South which showed in his versatile music style. So it is difficult to place his music in a single regional category.

Leadbelly

Leadbelly playing accordian
Leadbelly

Leadbelly was an influential Blues musician because he played more than just the guitar. He also played the violin, harmonica, windjammer, mandolin, and piano. Introducing them to his music allowed for new and interesting sounds that hadn’t been heard a lot before.

He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 after his death, and to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2008.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson with guitar
Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson didn’t record much music during his life. The little he did record went on to influence countless Blues musicians. While his work is largely based on the Delta Blues style, he was a versatile musician so there are other influences in his music.

Final Thoughts

Where did the blues originate? The Blues originated from a combination of African rhythms and tunes and European folk music. It was the result of slaves coming together and using music as a way to unite in the face of adversity. The music style is said to have started in the Mississippi Delta and then spread through America.

Several artists helped the spreading like Robert Johnson and WC Handy. We have mentioned just five of them.

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