The blues emerged from a black cultural melting pot in the American South of the 1890s, drawing on a rich mix of African-American spirituals, traditional songs, European hymns, folk ballads, work songs and hollers, and contemporary dance music. By the 1910s (when the first recorded blues were published as sheet music), the blues had taken the form widely recognized today: 12 bars, AAB lyrical structure, and a distinctive scale with the third and seventh notes flatted.
Blues came into its own as an important part of the country's relatively new national popular culture in the 1920s with the recording, first, of the great female classic blues singers and, then, of the country folk blues singers of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont of the Carolinas, and Texas. As huge numbers of African Americans left the South (driven by dismal socio-economic conditions and the hope of a better life above the Mason-Dixon line) between 1915 and the 1940s, the blues went with them and took root in the urban centers of the North, particularly Chicago. The more urban, electric blues that developed and eclipsed the rural blues of the '30s fed directly into both rock and roll and what would become known as rhythm and blues. With the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s, white audiences "rediscovered" and breathed new commercial life into the folk blues (and some of the remaining Delta bluesmen who had languished in obscurity since the 1930s) and made it the cornerstone of the tremendously popular British and American blues rock of the next decade.
But to say that the blues was or is just that skeletal outline is like describing a human being using only descriptions of DNA and genetic processes. The blues, one prominent writer has suggested, happened "as a result of one group of people being forced to enter another's history."11 The story of the blues, then, is the history of African Americans told through the story of their most popular music. The blues is the story of the frustrations of failed Radical Reconstruction, of violence and oppression in the Jim Crow South, of the desperation of the sharecropping system, and of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. The story of the blues is the story of black culture coming to a position of prominence and influence in American society. It is the story of the women of the classic blues whose early records—the first "race" recordings—pointed to a tremendous market for African-American cultural production, and of the young white liberals and intellectuals who sought out the rural blues as an artifact of America's vanishing agrarian past. It is the story of the cultural present finding inspiration in the cultural past. But perhaps most fundamentally, the story of the blues is one of American race relations, a document of struggle and conflict on the one hand. but also a suggestion of something universally human that just might point the way toward a future more premised on understanding and cooperation.