Immigration, Transformation, and the Electric Blues in Chicago – Part 1

Essential Question

How did the early and mid 20th century immigrant and migrant population of Chicago’s Maxwell Street neighborhood help foster the development of Electric Blues?


Basic math demonstrates that America is a continent of immigrants. Historians estimate the population of North America was somewhere between 2 and 18 million people before 1492. The 2010 Census reports that 308.7 million people live in the United States, 5.2 million of whom–just over 1.5%–identify as at least part American Indian or Alaskan Native. Thus, whether recent or from some distant generation, at least 98.5% of Americans have an immigrant past.

Many, perhaps even most, Americans could follow their ethnic heritage back to multiple sources. The author, for instance, has Italian, Irish, and German relatives. A 2014 study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science concludes that the U.S. is “kind of messy” when it comes to genomes. The AAAS research suggests that Americans, “have a very particular genetic imprint,” which reflects the diversity, and mixing, of the country’s population. Many American music scholars would argue that such intersections have long been audible and visible within the nation’s popular music industry. For instance, in Chicago, where many believe Electric Blues, a direct predecessor to Rock and Roll, was created.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of Europeans established communities in and around Chicago. Many were Polish, or were Jews from countries throughout Europe. Both groups fled regional political upheavals and wars, sought religious freedom, and dreamed of upward mobility. By 1930, the Chicago region was home to more than 160,000 Polish-born people and an estimated 350,000 Jews. However, not all non-native Chicagoans came from beyond U.S. borders.

The dream of a safer environment and financial mobility was also attractive to blacks from the American South. Between 1910-1970, 6 million African Americans took part in the “Great Migration,” fleeing the harsh Jim Crow laws and economic stagnation of the South in pursuit of opportunities in Northern U.S. cities. 500,000 African Americans settled in Chicago, many in the same neighborhoods occupied by Jewish and Polish immigrants.

One such area was situated around Chicago’s Maxwell Street, where large crowds gathered at bustling markets operated by Jewish and Polish immigrants. On the streets outside of the businesses, musicians–mostly African-American Blues and Gospel performers from the South–entertained the crowds. By the 1930s, many musicians were plugging electric instruments and amplifiers into extension cords run from nearby shops, and the “country” Blues of the American South began, quickly, to become the “Urban,” “Electric,” or, to many, just the “Chicago” Blues. It was here on Maxwell Street, in the midst of a host of migrants and immigrants, that many suggest American Electric Blues became fully formed.

In Part One and Part Two of this lesson, students will consider how a cornerstone of American popular music, which we will call “Electric Blues,” was shaped by several disparate groups of people finding their way toward a version of the American Dream in Chicago, Illinois during the mid 20th century.

In Part One of this lesson, students use clips from the Sonic Highways “Chicago” episode, maps, immigration data and archival documents such as excerpts from a 1948 Jewish Sentinel magazine, a Jim Crow source narrative, period music journalism and photographs to explore the process through which a tiny neighborhood that housed seemingly disparate communities helped Blues transform from the front porch music of the American South to one of the United States’ biggest cultural exports.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • History and data regarding Polish and Jewish immigration to Chicago in the 19th and 20th centuries
    • History and data about “The Great Migration” of African Americans in the 20th century United States
    • Why Jews chose to leave Europe in the early 20th century
    • About Jim Crow laws and their impact on southern blacks during the early 20th century
    • About the Maxwell Street area of Chicago and the multiethnic community that settled there
    • How the urban environment of Chicago helped transform “Plantation Blues” into  “Electric Blues”
    • About Chess Records and blues recording artists Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to explain the factors that led to the Great Migration and European immigration to Chicago through analyzing source documents


Pre-Lesson Activity:

  1. Before class, have students read “Chess Set Still Sings the Blues: Marshall Chess and Chess Records,” and respond to the following questions in writing, either before, or at the beginning of class:
    • What do you think the author means when he suggests that African Americans were “desperate to escape the ‘southern hospitality’ of the Deep South”?
    • In what ways can you see similarities between Polish immigrants such as the Chess family and the African Americans who came north during The Great Migration? What do you think they hoped to find in Chicago?

Motivational Activity:

  1. Do you know when the various members of your family came to the United States? How did they get here? Where did they settle? How do you relate to your family’s ethnic heritage?
  2. What do you know about immigration where you live now? Are there ethnic communities associated with your area in the past or present? Can you think of any ways these communities have had a cultural impact on your area? (Encourage your students to think of music, food, arts, fashion, etc.)
  3. Do you see any connections between your family’s past, or current immigration, and the stories told by Marshall Chess in the pre-class reading?


  1. Tell your students that you will begin by discussing The Great Migration of African Americans from the American South to northern U.S. cities, specifically Chicago, and how music traveled, and changed, with their relocation. Play Clip 1, “Buddy Guy and the Blues from the Plantation to the City”, and direct your students to focus on the different musical situations described by Buddy Guy and others. Ask students:
    • What types of instruments do you see in the American South in this clip?
    • What instrument does Buddy Guy end up playing in Chicago? What other instruments are in his band?
    • In what ways do the Chicago instruments differ from the Southern instruments shown here? (Students may notice several differences, including that the Southern instruments are homemade and require no electricity, or are sometimes just household items, while the Chicago scenes feature electric instruments such as guitar and bass as well as the drumset.)
    • Why do you think a musician such as Buddy Guy would choose to play “electric” music rather than acoustic music? (Encourage students to consider their own musical preferences. How do they relate to the possibilities of volume? Also, what might have the use of electricity represented to a man that grew up with no electricity?)
  2. Play Clip 2, “The Great Migration and Immigration to Chicago”. Ask students:
    • Where did people who immigrated to Chicago come from? (The clip suggests “everywhere,” but also specifically: Ireland, Poland, and the American South.)
    • Why does this clip suggest people moved to Chicago? Can you think of any other reasons people might leave their home to start anew in Chicago? (The clip suggests everyone moved to Chicago to make money. Encourage your students to consider other reasons such as religious freedoms and escape from certain types of ethnic and racial prejudice.)
    • How might you relate what you saw in this clip to the Marshall Chess reading you completed before class?
  3. Distribute Handout 1 – Great Migrations and read it as a class. Ask the class:
    • In what ways do you think the African American, Polish, and Jewish migrants to Chicago might have come from similar circumstances?
    • Why do you think each of these groups settled in close knit communities? Why do you think they chose the inner city of Chicago rather than the suburban areas? (Encourage students to think about the struggle of adapting to a new culture, whether it be language, food, climate, types of commerce, etc, and how gathering in a community surrounded by others from your previous location could make that transition easier. Also consider how the inner city was less expensive, offered rentals, and naturally grouped people together in apartments rather than in sprawling homes.)
  4. Divide the class into groups of two for a think-pair-share activity about migration to Chicago. Within each pair, give one student Handout 2A – Joseph Holloway Jim Crow Account and the other Handout 2B – A Story of Terror: Life in the Warsaw Ghetto. Have each student read his or her handout, then have the pair work together to respond to the questions on the Handout 2 Question Sheet. Then discuss the questions as a class.

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask Students:
    • In what ways do you think Chicago might have offered opportunities and hope to people who could not find it elsewhere?
    • In what ways do you think various locations in the United States continue to seem promising to people from other countries?
    • Is there a place outside of your home, either in the U.S. or abroad, where you think you’d have a better chance at succeeding? How and why?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.