Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at the blues.
Despite the extraordinary influence the blues has had on Western popular music, it can be exceedingly difficult to draw definitive conclusions about it. The genre, perhaps more than any other, has been consumed by mythology. (To cite one popular example, Robert Johnson, the famed Mississippi Delta guitarist who died at 27, is said to have "sold his soul to the devil" in exchange for his "otherworldly" guitar prowess.) Much of this is attributable to the fact that the history of the blues, for all of its years of scholarship and study, still lies unsettled. Even its origins are subject to debate. Paul Oliver, one of the world's most assiduous blues scholars, asserts that no detail of the blues "is more intractable than its genesis." Not only does the provenance of blues music remain unsolved, but so does its very significance: Bluesmen and blueswomen have always provided their own definitions of what "the blues" means, as have scholars, but rarely has anyone been able to agree. Nevertheless, what follows is a very brief history of the genre—uncertainties and all.
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The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to learn more about the blues. (Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)
Primary Source Documents