In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Blues

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Blues History and General Overviews
  • Africa and the Blues
  • Structure and Form
  • Regional Blues
  • Biographies of Male Singers
  • Biographies of Female Singers
  • Record Labels
  • Magazines
  • Blues and Other Musical Genres
  • Blues and Literature
  • Blues and Culture

African American Studies Blues
Fangfang Zhu, Steven Carl Tracy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0009


The blues is one of America’s great folk, commercial, and roots source music. Combining African modalities, European structures, slave song aesthetics, and general African American racial discriminatory experiences, it speaks to the crack in America’s Liberty Bell regarding the presence of slavery in a putative democracy. It was a slavery that visited a horrible violence upon the subjects, both during slavery and after, when Jim Crow laws helped produce the recoiling from southern life known as the Great Migration, a massive shift of the African American population from South to North. It brought southern folkways into a northern setting, generating different kinds of blues that reflected the life of the urban scene while still rooted in the African and African American aesthetics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Furthermore, the blues establishes a democratic aesthetic in its counting of each individual participant, performer and audience, as a valuable voice and contributor to the communal whole. It embodies E Pluribus Unum in the creation, performance, and result of the widely known jam session element of blues as well as of many different African American genres. For the study of the blues, broad reference works give an overall outline and briefer discussions of issues that relate to the history of the blues, and they contain important discographical information that provides a concrete accounting of recording sessions that helps to track the movements of performers and the development of the tradition. No better starting place can be found than consulting the music as it was recorded commercially or by folklorists. Historical or contemporary films on DVD provide valuable glimpses of aural and visual performance practices that reflect an important component of the tradition. Scholars have attempted the sometimes difficult task of transcribing old and poorly recorded recordings with thick accents and obscure place names and idioms in order to make sense out of often poetic blues “texts.” Blues histories inevitably begin with some discussion of social and aesthetic backgrounds in Africa, moving on to the distinctive structures and form of blues music and lyrics and the varied regional and chronological manifestations of the tradition. These manifestations are frequently influenced by the dominant styles and personalities of particularly high-profile performers, either located in the community or promoted through the recording industry, making record labels an important conduit for spreading the music. Individual biographies also provide important indicators of popular trends in the blues. The research conducted by aficionados and reported in specialist magazines frequently contains valuable information on both well-known and obscure figures not obtainable elsewhere. Material found here also reflects the worldwide popularity and appreciation of the blues. Of course, one does not want to look at the blues in a vacuum, either musically or socially; thus, the relationship of blues to other music and its status as a reflection of African American culture are also important.

Reference Works

Materials cited in this section include an encyclopedia, a bibliography, a discography, archival sites, and a book-form guide to a collection of selective important research works in the blues field. The first multivolume interdisciplinary encyclopedia of the blues, Komara 2006 provides approximately 2,100 entries, covering information ranging from the blues music, musicians, the historical and cultural study of the blues to marketing and distribution of the blues. Compared with the wide spectrum of information Komara 2006 offers, Ford 2007 tends to focus more on the “music” itself, such as songs, musicians, lyrics, instruments, styles, and variations. It aims to provide accurate and accessible “locations” of materials relevant to the blues. This revised and updated second edition not only includes citations of journal articles, books, and a discography, but also concentrates on covering publications on newspapers and magazines, as well as unpublished but accessible information. The focus of Dixon, et al. 1997 is recordings, as it claims to “list every recording” of secular and sacred (blues and gospel) African American artists up to 1943, exclusive of jazz. Though the editors justify ending the timeline of their great work at 1943, readers may seek information of blues recordings after 1943. Fortunately, Fancourt and McGrath 2006 makes an indispensable supplement to Dixon, et al. 1997 in listing blues recordings made from 1943 to 1970. With regard to book-form study of the blues, Komara and Johnson 2014 gives an excellent list of one hundred remarkable research works dating to the late 1950s to the present. Its scope is broad, covering musical, historical, cultural, sociological, folkloric, and other approaches to the blues and its surrounding cultures, despite the exclusion of most reference works and literature. The Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi constitutes a crucial archive site to the study of the blues. A unique source, this resource houses one of the biggest collection of blues recordings and numerous materials relevant to the blues in various formats, and it features more than twenty special collections.

  • Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi. Oxford: University of Mississippi.

    Houses almost 70,000 blues recordings and numerous materials relevant to the blues in audio, video, or print format. Features more than twenty special collections on blues musicians, instruments, clothing, posters, and blues-related projects. Open to worldwide visitors.

  • Dixon, Robert M. W., John Godrich, and Howard Rye. Blues & Gospel Records, 1890–1943. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

    Identifies almost every blues and gospel recordings from 1890 to 1943 made by African American artists as well as offering a brief introduction or explanation if necessary and applicable. Also includes field recordings, radio transcriptions, and film soundtracks.

  • Fancourt, Leslie, and Bob McGrath. Blues Discography, 1943–1970: A Selective Discography of Post-war Blues Records. West Vancouver, BC: Eyeball Productions, 2006.

    Important supplement to Dixon, et al. 1997 in terms of timeline but specializing in listing blues records rather than blues and gospel.

  • Ford, Robert. A Blues Bibliography. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    Extremely helpful in terms of instantly locating English-language publications relevant to the blues. Mainly focuses on listing references on African American blues and blues artists, thus omitting white performers, but it also covers relevant materials such as recording labels and includes musical analysis.

  • Komara, Edward M. Encyclopedia of the Blues. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    An informational and multidimensional encyclopedia that includes a wide range of musical, historical, and cultural entries related to the blues. Features short, concise descriptive entries as well as longer comprehensive analytical essays. Provides multiple indexical lists of entries to direct readers to different uses.

  • Komara, Edward M., and Greg Johnson. 100 Books Every Blues Fan Should Own. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

    A strong, authoritative selection of one hundred crucial research books on African American blues plus an appendix of further readings. Each entry contains information of the book and the author(s), a brief summary of the content, and a comparison of the main ideas to that of other writers as well as suggestion of an associative blues recording.

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