Black History Month Series: Delta Blues to Rock and Roll and Beyond

by Becka Robbins on February 13, 2017

It’s not possible to overstate the influence that the Mississippi Delta Blues has had on contemporary music. Every popular artist you can think of, from Beyonce, to Garth Brooks, and even Skrillex owes their due to the music which has some its origins in the West African music brought over by people kidnapped by the Dutch to become slaves in the American south. Blues forms the basis of rock and roll’s rhythms and instrumentation, and the blue notes as well – the flat 3rd, 5th, or 7th note that gives a more melancholy sound to the melody- is derived from blues. It was Muddy Waters, an early blues musician, who first started bending guitar strings while playing, in a departure from the classical style of guitar. Even jazz has its origins in the twelve-bar blues structure that grew out, at least in part, from southern work songs, chants, call and response, and spirituals sung by slaves, former slaves, or sharecroppers. Some researchers have made the case that blues emerged as a genre after the Emancipation Act, influenced strongly by the teachings of Booker T. Washington, and coinciding with the emergence of a Southern free black secular community.

Early recordings of blues from the 1920’s still exist from the South, and show that even in the genre’s early stages, blues musicians demonstrated a range of styles Robert Johnson, master of blues guitar, has one of the the most enduring legacies of the classic Delta Blues artists. There was the country blues styles of artists like Lucille Bogan, considered one of the “big three” of the blues at the time, Blind Lemon Jefferson, father of Texas Blues. The Memphis Blues style, performed by the likes of Memphis Minnie and Robert Wilkins, was more lively, influenced by jug bands in Tennessee.

Later incarnations of the blues included Boogie Woogie, Chicago Blues, Jump Blues and West Coast blues. These incarnations grew up around the 30’s and 4’s, and they kept the musical structure and scales of earlier blues, but had a fuller, bigger sound, influenced by ragtime, and sounding closer to rock and roll, and a faster tempo. Piano became a commonly incorporated instrument during this time, played by luminaries such as Jimmy Yancey, Otis Spann, and Roosevelt Sykes. Big Band Blues also arose around this time, perhaps most famously exemplified by Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump.

Rhythm and Blues was the genre that grew up in the 50’s, during the second Great Migration, coinciding with a black community which saw a massive increase in earnings and socio-economic mobility. The record industry, never one to miss an opportunity to profit, created a new product called a “race record” specifically marketed to black audiences, later renamed as “rhythm and blues.” Chess and Atlanta were the labels that dominated the time, and their extensive roster of stars included Ruth Brown, Etta James, Johnny Otis, Fats Domino, Bo Diddly. Perhaps the most influential of all though, to come out of this particular niche, was Chuck Berry, considered by many to be the first rock and roll musician. Around the same Sun Records also came about in the fifties, launching the careers of Howling Wolf and Little Milton, as well as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. This led to the classic rock era, including Jimi Hendrix, as well as the most famous white artists of the era.
It wasn’t until white musicians co-opted the style that the rock and roll genre exploded in popularity in America and abroad. The Stones, the Beatles, Joplin – all of them took liberally from the Blues tradition; the Stones in particular emphasized their connection to Blues as a main driving point. White bands drawing from the blues dramatically out-profited the original blues musicians, and garnered more attention, bigger crowds, and more accolades from popular media. The reasons for this rest on the fundamental white supremacy that has a hold of America – our nation’s early prosperity was built on the backs of slaves picking cotton, and, as it turns out, much of our popular culture was, too.

How do we right this? If we care, we offset our consumption of white artists by consciously engaging with the work of black artists. Love Johnny Cash? Pick up Howling Wolf. Love the Rolling Stones? Get yourself some Chuck Berry and B.B. King. Lady Gaga more your jam? If you don’t have a horde of Prince and Janelle Monae as well, you’re missing out, and also buying into the erasure of African American culture. If you’re a white American music fan, it’s on you to correct the disacknowledgement of black influence on our musical heritage.

Oh, and as for my Skrillex claim? For the skeptical, he does have the Blues to thank for many of his influences. Evolution of music is more of a tree than a straight line, but you can follow the trajectory backwards. Skrillex cites Aphex Twin as his greatest influence. Where would Aphex Twin be without Krawftwerk? Going back further, we get to synthpop, of course, and Bowie, and Eno and Pink Floyd, all of whom were influenced by the Beatles and fifties rock … which traces its roots, ultimately, all the way back to the Mississippi Delta.

For additional reading on the white supremacy of rock and roll, I recommend “How Rock and Roll Became White” by Jack Hamilton, published on Slate.

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