Of the American musical traditions that provided Rock and Roll with its source materials, none is more commonly celebrated than the Blues. Over the course of time, the figures of Bluesmen such as Robert Johnson and Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly, have taken on an almost mystical aura. Theirs are voices that carry within them a wealth of African-American experience, much of it born of hardship.

The lessons here explore the American South of the early 20th century and the rural environs of the musicians associated with the Blues of that time and place. It’s a world of Jim Crow and its harsh mandates, of extreme poverty and sometimes extreme violence. But it’s also a world that gave rise to some of the most powerful music this country has ever produced. From the piano-driven recordings of the “Blues Queens,” including Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Ma Rainey, to the slide guitar of Robert Johnson and Leadbelly’s 12-string style, the music presented here runs a range, some of it more commercial in its time, some of it quite raw even by the standards of its age. What binds it all as a genre are the “blue notes” that give the music its emotional flavor, the narrative impulse behind the songs, and the portrayals of African-American life that haunt the performances. The lessons here will bring students into a story without which the history of America cannot be fully understood.

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The Blues: The Sound of Rural Poverty

How do the Country Blues reflect the challenges of sharecropping, racial injustice, and rural poverty in early 20th-century African-American life?
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The Blues and the Great Migration

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