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.