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Ever wanted to sing the blues? Where did the blues come from, and what kinds of instruments are used in this style of music? In this lesson, explore the music, artists, and songs of the country blues.

Music of the Rural South

Country blues songs reflect everyday dreams and struggles. The music emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in the deep south of the Mississippi Delta. It has deep roots in early African American culture and songs sung by slaves on the vast southern plantations.

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Country blues music is sound at its most elemental, just a human voice and an instrument like guitar or harmonica. It’s acoustic, meaning no electric bass or other electronic equipment, and with good reason. Most country blues musicians were African American, and many of them were itinerant, meaning they traveled throughout the regions of the American South, singing in places like churches, social halls, juke joints (informal rural southern bars), or even street corners. Some eked out a small living with their music while others became known and celebrated.

Each performer had their own distinct style of singing and playing, and most wrote their own songs.Why the name country blues? It came about to distinguish traditional rural blues from the variations that developed in urban areas like Chicago, Saint Louis, and Kansas City. Country blues songs reflect working men and women, the common people. They dwell on subjects like love (lost, unrequited, and betrayed), loneliness, sadness, longing for better days, and working life. Songs sometimes covered subjects like the railroad, prison time and agricultural subjects.

Country Blue Artists and Songs

We don’t know the names of many early country blues artists. Making their music on the road, moving from place to place — some of them are lost to history.

But thanks to recordings and research, we do know of some. They include Robert Johnson (1911-1938), an itinerant musician and songwriter born in Mississippi. His guitar seems to speak as he plays it, and his voice holds a raw intensity. Listen to him in songs like ‘Crossroad Blues’ and ‘Hellhound on My Trail’. Although he died when he was only 27, we can hear his skill today on recordings he made in the late 1930s for the American Record Corporation.

One of only three known photographs of Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

Blind Blake (circa 1893 – 1934) was another country blues musician.

Much of his life is a mystery, but we think he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and spent time in the Sea Islands of Georgia. Born blind, he learned to play guitar by ear and became quite well known in the Atlanta, Georgia, area. Blind Blake’s skill — guitarists today still marvel at his complex playing — is preserved via recordings done in the late 1920s and early 1930s for Paramount Records. His notable songs include ‘Early Morning Blues’ and ‘Police Dog Blues’.Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) was a well-known country blues musician from Texas. An accomplished singer, guitar player, and songwriter, he began performing in his teens, singing prison songs, spirituals, and blues tunes.

He influenced many later singers and was celebrated for his melodic lead lines, skill on guitar, and unique treatment of notes (including bending them, which means shifting tones up and down). Among his songs are ‘Black Snake Moan’ and ‘See That My Grave is Kept Clean’.

Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson

Sleepy John Estes (1904-1977) supposedly gained his name due to a struggle with narcolepsy. A native of Tennessee, he learned guitar from his father. Also a vocalist and songwriter, his music is straightforward, and his voice conveys an almost crying sound. He recorded some songs for the Victor Recording Company before World War II and lived long enough to perform in a few concerts in the folk and blues revival festivals of the 1960s.

His songs include ‘Rats in My Kitchen’ and ‘Milk Cow Blues’, which was later recorded by Elvis Presley and Aerosmith.

Rediscovery and Legacy

By the 1940s, country blues music declined in popularity, especially among African-American audiences. But the music was rediscovered after World War II by people like Alan Lomax, who traveled the south recording traditional music and country blues before its practitioners were gone. The music experienced a revival in the 1950s and 1960s, and became a mainstay at folk and blues festivals. Today, superstars like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan cite early country blues artists as influences, and contemporary blues musicians like Ruthie Foster, Shemika Copeland and Keb Mo continue the tradition.

Lesson Summary

Country blues music comes from African American culture and developed in the southern United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Performed by itinerant musicians who played in churches, dance halls, and juke joints, it was acoustic music usually featuring voice and guitar. Noted country blues artists include Robert Johnson, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Sleepy John Estes.

The music experienced a revival in the 1960s, and influenced later stars like Eric Clapton. Today, blues musicians like Ruthie Foster and Keb Mo continue the tradition.

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