The influences on rock and roll, like so much in American history, can be traced back to slavery.
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. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are 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.
Below are links to two of the blues songs mentioned above. Listen and see if you can pick out the pieces of the blues that would later become rock and roll.
Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning – The announcer is pretty hilarious too.
Muddy Waters – I Feel Like Going Home