Giving America Back the Blues

Essential Question

How did the early Rolling Stones help popularize the Blues?


The Rolling Stones ultimately made their mark as the nonconformist outlaws of Rock and Roll. But before they were bad boys, the Stones were missionaries of the Blues. The young Rolling Stones — Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman — were white kids who hailed from working- and middle-class Britain and set out to play American music, primarily that of African Americans with roots in the South. In so doing, they helped bring this music to a new, largely white audience, both in Britain and the United States.

The young men who formed the Rolling Stones emerged from the club scene fostered by British Blues pioneers Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner. These two men and their band, Blues Incorporated, helped popularize the American Blues, whose raw intensity resonated with a generation of Britons who had grown up in the shadow of war, death, the Blitz, postwar rationing, and the hardening of the Cold War standoff. Much of the Stones’ early work consisted of faithful covers of American Blues artists that Davies, Korner, and the Stones venerated: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed.

The early Stones in particular helped make the Blues wildly popular among young Britons. As the Stones’ fame grew and they became part of the mid-1960s British “invasion” of America, they also reintroduced the Blues to American listeners, most notably young, white audiences with limited exposure to the music.

But almost from day one, the Stones were more than a Blues cover band. If at first their Blues covers were somewhat imitative, in time they put an increasingly original spin on their Blues recordings. Additionally, they soon enough ventured beyond the Blues to other American genres, covering songs by R&B and Country artists. In this lesson, students will investigate the Stones’ early musical development and their burgeoning relationship with American Blues.

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Upon completion of the lesson, students will

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The influence of the Blues on the British club scene in the early 1960s
    • How the Blues influenced the early recordings and performances of the Rolling Stones
    • How the Rolling Stones re-interpreted the Blues for British and American audiences
    • The early musical development of the Rolling Stones, including forays into other styles of music beyond the Blues
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Trace artistic developments to the historical context in which that art was created
    • Analyze and hypothesize on the attraction of Blues music for white, middle-class artists and audiences
    • Common Core: Students will answer questions about a text taking into account the writer’s point of view to gather evidence to be used in the summative assessment (CCSS Reading 6; CCSS Reading 8; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will draft a thesis and incorporate evidence from multiple sources to support a thesis (CCSS Writing 2)
    • Common Core: Students will design a postcard using images and text, writing from the point of view of a tourist (CCSS Writing 3; CCSS Speaking and Listening 5)