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Sometime around 1890, the blues emerged as a distinct African-American art form, rooted in the southern U.S. and drawing on work songs and hollers, folk tradition, black spirituals, and the popular music of the time. Looking back from 1890, one can speculate about the African influence in the musical structure of the blues as it grew from slave culture and the memory of slavery. Looking forward from 1890, a time of transition in America and of dashed hopes for blacks in the resurgent Jim Crow South, one can see the blues as a powerful force both shaping and shaped by the evolution of American popular culture (from the "race records" craze of the 1920s through the blues-fueled rock revolution of the postwar years) and the history of black and white race relations in the century ahead.
Why Should I Care?
"The blues ain't nothing but a good man feelin' bad." That's what Leon Redbone said, anyway, and who can't relate to that?
Another clever bluesman once said that the blues is what the blues doctor prescribes for people who have the blues, which actually is less crazy than it sounds. If you've ever had the blues and heard the blues on the radio and felt just a little bit better…That's when the blues is the best medicine. Not convinced?
What about when your parents went crazy for Elvis? That was the blues. When your older brother bangs his head to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath? Those guys are blues. Dance to James Brown? You know he had the blues. Enjoy the White Stripes? Yep, Jack White plays the blues too.
If you're starting to wonder if the blues just about defined popular music in the twentieth century, you're on the right track. Pretty spectacular success for a style from the rural ghetto (that's right), where the most famous practitioner was an obscure Mississippian who may have made a deal with the Devil in the middle of the road one night in the 1930s.
Whoa is right: The history of the blues is a strange story with deep roots and a lot to say about the shape of American culture.