The rise and downfall of Urban Blues

Term Paper, 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents


2. Which were the conditions that made this development take place in Chicago?
2.1 Migration
2.2 A new cultural context
2.3 The advanced technology

3. Chess

4. McKinley Morganfield aka Muddy Waters
4.1 The electric guitar
4.2 Lyrics
4.3 Godfathers and sons

5. “It`s like beeing black twice”

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


The Urban Blues is a form of blues music that developed in the big cities in the U.S.. The one city that dominated this development is Chicago. That is why, often the Chicago Blues is meant when talking about Urban Blues.

There is probably no other blues style with such a high quality of recognition considering form, feeling and sound like the Chicago Blues. It is based on the rough and direct Delta Blues which came in contact with urban life. Besides, Urban Blues is the first blues style that reached a mass audience. Not just in the bigger cities of the U.S. but also worldwide.

One of the most popular musicians of those days is a man called Muddy Waters. He helped to transform a style and technique which guided bluesmusic into a new dimension. He adopted the rural delta blues sound and combined with the feeling of the new living conditions of the Afro Americans.

But the urban blues became more popular, left the black quarters and ghettos and was absorbed by the mainstream very soon. Urban blues, released from the subcultural status, a white mass audience and economy started to control the buisness. In the mid fifties the blues hybrid Rock`n Roll took over public attention and Blues and Rock `n Roll were delivered from the Afro American identity. At the end of this development there was a huge lack of authenticity for ‘black’ audience although it once was the Afro-American culture through which they expressed themselves. Consequently most parts of the afro american audience disappeared and started searching for a new musical home.

I will try to work out the development from the Urban Blues as an Afro-American identification and its rise until the downfall and alienation for the ‘black’ audience. I will proof this development by the example of the live and career of Muddy Waters and his record company Chess. His roots in the Mississippi Delta Blues, his reputation as one of the heads in Urban Chicago Blues and how he lost his native base and audience. Why did the Afro-Americans turn away from the blues? Why did they leave their cultural roots and where did they arrive, where did the Afro-American culture find their new home?

First of all I will concentrate on the demographic, social and cultural changes the Afro American population caused to move in the big cities and how their life and living conditions changed. There were three social changes taking place in the first half of the twentieth century that led to urban blues.

2. Which were the conditions that made this development take place in Chicago?

2.1 Migration

Chicago experienced great growth in the first half of the twentieth century. There was the so-called “Great Migration” of World War I continuing through the post World War II period.[1] The population of Afro-Americans in Chicago between the years 1900 and 1960 grew from a total of 30,150 ‘black’ inhabitants to 812,637. Remarkable is the increase between 1910 – 1920 (World War I) and between 1940 – 1950 (World War II).[2]

Most of the artists mainly came from the state of Mississippi, right where the so-called Delta Blues has its roots.

Afro-Americans just followed the main transportation routes when they left their Southern homes. This led the people from Mississippi to Chicago and the people from Texas to California for instance. Chicago became a symbol of escapism for ‘blacks’ from the rural South.[3]

During the two world wars the American economy switched to the production of war utilities. In the early forties the second world war boosted armaments industries which of course created a lot of new jobs and started a second wave of migration. Between 1940 and 1950 about 1.6 million Afro-Americans left the south.[4]

This was a chance for the Afro-Americans to escape from the inhuman living conditions on the plantations and on the farms they worked at. So they followed the main transportation routes and tried to find work in the rising economy.

2.2 A new cultural context and advanced technology

Life in the big cities was totally different from the life African-Americans lived in the rural South. The new cultural context was quite the opposite of what they knew from the plantations. It seemed to be much faster, noisier, more hectic and unnatural. Of course this had an influence on the blues style that was created at that time.

When African-Americans from Mississippi arrived in Chicago they often first gathered on Maxwell Street in the North of the city. Maxwell Street was an open-air bazaar filled with peddlers and stalls, where you could buy spices and vegetables to clothing and appliances”.[5]

The blues singers performed on Maxwell Street, because they hoped to attract some pedetrians and get some money. Blues musicians like Big Walter Horton, Hound Dog Taylor and Honey Boy Edwards started their career on Maxwell Street. From there the music was carried into the clubs of Chicago: Urban Blues was born.

2.3 The advanced technology enters daily life and music scene

In the late 1930s electricity found its way into the music scene. Singers started to use microphones and the electric guitar was introduced. The amplification of musical instruments made the appearance in clubs possible, because now blues bands could play in front of a noisy audience and still were heard.

Many of the clubs featured only a counter along one wall, some table seats along the other wall, and a little room for dancing and even less for the band.[6]

Also important at that time was the continuing commercialism and professionalism of the artists and the record companies. Songs were being played on the radio and people could go out and buy their favourite artists records.

During the post-World War II era, most of the urban blues recordings in Chicago were made by the ‘indies’ (small independent companies) that recorded newly arrived musicians who were succesful in the local bar scene or discovered on Maxwell Street.[7]


[1] Carney, George O.: (table 15-1) pp. 242

[2] Carney, George O.: p. 245

[3] Carney, George O.: p. 244

[4] Wicke, Peter; Ziegenrücker, Kai-Erik; Ziegenrücker, Wieland: Handbuch der populären Musik, Atlantis Musikbuch, p. 76

[5] Carney, George O.: p. 245

[6] Carney, George O.: p. 241

[7] Carney, George O.: p. 243

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The rise and downfall of Urban Blues
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg  (Anglistik)
The Afro - American Blues
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
480 KB
Urban, Blues, Afro, American, Blues
Quote paper
Lars Nemeth (Author), 2005, The rise and downfall of Urban Blues, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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