The Blues and the Great Migration

Essential Question

How did the Great Migration spread Southern culture, helping to give the Blues a central place in American popular music?


In 1941, Alan Lomax and John Work, both musicologists, visited the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Working for Fisk University and the Library of Congress, the scholars were traveling throughout the Mississippi Delta to interview locals and survey musical cultures in rural communities. One of the musicians they recorded at the Stovall Plantation was McKinley Morganfield, an African-American sharecropper who also went by the name “Muddy Waters.” Though Muddy worked full-time on the plantation, he also sang and performed the Blues as a solo acoustic guitar player. The songs he recorded for Lomax, with titles such as “I Be’s Troubled” and “Burr Clover Farm Blues,” came out of a folk tradition through which songs were passed along orally and changed from generation-to-generation.  Several of Muddy’s songs addressed the worries and struggles of black life and a determination to escape to someplace better. Two years after that first field recording, in 1943, Muddy left his home on the Stovall plantation to live in Chicago. Within a decade of his arrival, he had launched one of the most significant careers of any American Blues artist. Between 1950 and 1958, Muddy Waters had 14 top ten songs on the Billboard R&B chart and was packing nightclubs with what was by that time an electrified band. In 1963, pianist Otis Spann would introduce him onstage as “the man who brought the Blues from the country to the city,” pointing to Muddy’s substantial contributions to the evolution of the Blues tradition.

Muddy Waters and a multitude of African Americans in the twentieth century left their homes in the South for urban centers across the Northeast, Midwest, and West. This internal dispersion, known as the Great Migration, is the largest internal movement of a population in U.S. history. Between the 1910s and 1970, over six million African Americans from the South headed towards cities including New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago, in search of a better life. There were plenty of reasons for leaving, one of which was the prevalence of the sharecropping economy in the rural South. Since Reconstruction, the sharecropping system of agriculture had saddled poor farmers with debt burdens from which they had little hope to recover, keeping many African-American families entrenched in poverty. Meanwhile, as northern cities grew, a range of jobs emerged in factories, service industries, and domestic work. The work was usually hard and unglamorous, and old racial prejudices reappeared in different forms including de facto segregation, through which segregation occurred even without legal mandate. Still, these cities seemed far-removed from a region long-connected with generations of virulent racism.

Because of American slavery, African Americans had lived as a displaced people. In some ways, the experience of the Great Migration continued this displacement story. The Blues articulated the troubles people faced when uprooting their lives, and allowed migrants a means to connect as they struggled to survive in northern cities. When Muddy Waters sang “I Feel Like Going Home,” one of the first songs he recorded in Chicago, or when Howlin’ Wolf bellowed “Smokestack Lightnin’,” a song built around the image of a moving train, their audiences were familiar with the longing and imagery expressed in the songs. Oftentimes, listeners felt a shared sense of community when they heard the music; they had watched the same trains pass through the country towards new opportunities in the North. African Americans who migrated often reflected back on the places from which they had come, and the Blues served as a link between their old homes and their new urban lives.

When Phil and Leonard Chess, two Polish immigrants living in Chicago, began to search for artists to record on their Chess record label in the late 1940s, they decided to focus on Blues artists whose music appealed to the emerging urban African-American community. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Chess recorded artists including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon, in addition to Blues-influenced artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, who crossed over into Pop. Like Muddy Waters, most of these musicians had migrated from the South.

The repercussions of the Great Migration are far-reaching. Today, much of the restlessness and struggle that the Blues helped to articulate in the Migration era remains central in other forms of American music, including Hip Hop. In this lesson, students look to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as case studies that illustrate why African Americans left the South in record numbers and how communities came together in new urban environments, often around the sound of the Blues.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

Know (knowledge):

  • Factors that prompted African Americans to migrate from the South to northern cities during the Great Migration, including the burdens of the sharecropping economy and racial discrimination
  • How the editors of the Chicago Defender newspaper encouraged African Americans in the South to seek relocation
  • Songs by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf that reflected and symbolically managed an African-American experience of displacement
  • The role of Chicago’s Chess record label in popularizing an Urban Blues sound predicated on electrified instruments and ensemble playing

Be able to (skills):

  • Discuss figurative and connotative meanings of Blues lyrics portraying the imagery and emotions associated with the experience of the Great Migration
  • Analyze various accounts of the Great Migration era in different mediums, including photographs, paintings, letters, and census data, determining which details are emphasized in each account