The Blues Goes Electric

The Great Migration is at the heart of this chapter. The lessons that will be introduced in the second phase of the RRAS project will explore the experiences of the southern African Americans who made their way north to settle in cities like Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Chicago, and others. A vast population relocated, these people took traditions associated with life in the American South and made them into something new. The urban context, new technologies, and the experiences of the migration all affected the music and its character. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson — the characters have names that are as evocative as the music they made. And the music did nothing short of change the course of popular music.

A significant part of the lessons that will come relates to the independent record labels that released the music of the artists mentioned above and others. In particular, Sun Records of Memphis and Chess Records of Chicago are an object of focus. Operating on the margins of the music business, these independent labels were the site of some of the most significant racial mixing of the pre-Civil Rights era. If Sun and Chess specialized in recording African-American artists, they would soon find themselves at the center of the Rock and Roll revolution. It was Muddy Waters who sent Chuck Berry to Chess, Sam Phillips of Sun who made the first recordings with Elvis Presley. There was, as the lessons will demonstrate, a fine line between the Blues recordings of Chess and Sun and the recordings that would soon dominate the Pop charts in the era of early Rock and Roll. The tides of the Great Migration will forever be felt in Rock and Roll.