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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

MPAL Exhibits 2023-2024: The Blues

Documents exhibits at the Music and Performing Arts Library during the 2023-2024 academic year.

About the exhibit

February's exhibit explores the birth and evolution of the Blues across the regioinal and stylistic variants of the genre. Celebrated artists of the classic, Delta, Memphis, Chicago, and Texas blues cultures are featured on this exhibit through their recordings and compositions that are held by the Music & Performing Arts Library. 

Exhibit Materials


Delta Blues

The roots of the blues can be traced to the Mississippi River Delta. The Delta was underdeveloped post-civil war attracting black individuals seeking land, opportunity, and employment. Styles of African-American spirituals, work songs, and field hollers merged into early Delta blues styles. The Delta blues are characterized by solitary acoustic guitar with or without a slide, 12 bar blues structure, harmonica, and vocals. Subject matter of the blues draws inspiration from the personal lives and feelings of the musicians which ranges from great sorrow, to unrequited love, to scandalous romantic entanglements, to tales of rambling, and stories of salvation or damnation, usually encapsulating a somber tone. Delta blues performances were usually informal, taking place in juke joints (establishments providing music entertainment, dancing, and socialization for rural folk), stores, and eateries. 

Memphis Blues

Established as a blues city by W. C. Handy’s tune “The Memphis Blues”, Memphis became a music and cultural hub in the early 20th century. Influence from the Delta blues mixed with the culture of Memphis medicine shows and African-American vaudeville shows, usually featuring jug bands of miscellaneous instrumentation like washboards, banjo, jugs, spoons, and other stringed instruments. Radio station WDIA, first airing in 1947, was programmed for Black listeners and broadcasted to the Delta and beyond, attracting people to visit or settle in Memphis. A rich recording industry came to be as talents overtook Memphis. Sun Records of Memphis recorded blues artists and beyond, including B. B. King, James Cotton, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and many more. 


Beale Street

One of the most iconic streets in the United States, Memphis’ Beale Street boasts the rich culture of Black Americans. Established in 1841, Beale Street became a prominent area of black businesses during and after the Civil War. Banks, churches, theaters, restaurants, and stores owned by Black Americans catered to the predominantly Black community during a time of segregation. Beale Street Baptist Church, founded by newly freed people, was the first church in Memphis for Black individuals and became the headquarters for Ida B. Wells black newspaper The Memphis Free Speech. W. C. Handy’s compositions “The Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” influenced the culture of the area, attracted other musicians to perform on Beale Street, and established Memphis as a blues town. Through the ups and downs of the economy through the 20th century, Beale Street’s commerce and culture prevails to this day.

Chicago Blues

Development of the Chicago blues is correlated with the Great Migration of Black Americans who were either driven out due to Jim Crow oppression or left voluntarily seeking the opportunities of the bigger cities. The blues had made it to Chicago echoing the Delta style, but with a new element. The roaring clubs of the big city required amplification just for performers to be heard, thus the blues were electrified. Amplifiers and electric guitars created a new timbre of distortion. Blues clubs across the South and West sides bustled with fans and aspiring musicians gave open-air blues performances on Maxwell Street. The recording industry boomed in Chicago with the amount of talent. Chess Records and Cobra Records became the blues labels with stars like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Willie Dixon, and so many more recording and producing through the labels. Chicago blues was one of the biggest influences on the evolving genre of rock and roll across the world, with Chicago blues tunes being covered by bands in the USA and UK and shooting to the top of the charts.  

Classic Blues

Texas Blues

Featured Artists

Charley Patton (1891-1934)

Charley Patton is regarded as the Founder of the Delta Blues. A pioneer in the style of the delta blues, Patton was well known for his showmanship, gritty voice, and gifted guitar playing. Patton lived predominantly in Sunflower County, Mississippi but traveled for performances at plantations, churches, and other venues across the eastern United States. Patton’s flamboyant stage presence, usually spinning his guitar and playing it behind his back, got him kicked out of many plantation juke houses for distracting field hands from their work. Patton’s tunes and technique inspired later blues artists like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and many other blues descendants. Musicologist Robert Palmer considered Patton to be one of the most important figures in American music.

Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

Robert Johnson is considered to be the King of the Delta Blues Singers. Born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Johnson is rumored to have miraculously gained exceptional guitar playing abilities by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Johnson had a small cult following during his career. Tunes like “Crossroad Blues”, “Hellhounds on my Trail”, and “Me and the Devil Blues” perpetuated the myth surrounding Johnson’s success. Robert Johnson worked alongside other influential blues artists during his lifetime. His life suddenly ended at the age of 27 by unknown causes, making him the first member of the 27 Club. Posthumous publication and popularization of “King of the Delta Blues Singers” influenced a generation of musicians almost 40 years later.

Skip James (1902-1969)

Nehemiah “Skip” James was born on the Woodbine Plantation in Bentonia, Mississippi. Multi Talented at an early age, James learned to play the piano and guitar from friend Henry Stuckey. James’ song style had a gloomy aura characterized through minor modes, woeful lyrics, and a haunting falsetto voice. As a young man, James made his living by gambling, sharecropping, and performing locally. James' 1931 session at Paramount Records did not sell prominently, and James moved across the south serving as a minister. Though his record was not popular at the time, tunes like “22-20 Blues” and “Devil Got My Woman' ' directly influence Robert Johnson’s tunes “32-20 Blues” and “Hell Hound on my Trail”. James’ income was no longer sourced through music, but he did perform for cafes, clubs, and festivals across the country.

John Lee Hooker (1917-2001)

Born between Clarksdale and Vance, Mississippi, John Lee Hooker grew up in the delta cotton fields of Mississippi. Son of a minister who frowned upon the blues, Hooker chose to live with his stepfather Will Moore. Moore was a blues guitarist who taught Hooker to play guitar. Alice Hooker’s boyfriend, Tony Hollins, gifted Hooker his first guitar. Hooker’s playing style, distinguishable by his slide guitar technique, evolved when Hooker moved to Detroit. New urban sounds blended with the delta style Hooker grew up with creating a distinct boogying style. Hooker found great success throughout his career gaining international notability. Genre hopping into the likes of R & B and rock and roll charts, Hooker went on to win four Grammy Awards, inductions into the Rock and Blues Hall of Fame, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

W.C. Handy (1873-1958)

Regarded as the “Father of the Blues”, W. C. Handy began his trail blaze in Florence, Alabama. Growing up in the church, Handy served as the organist all the while learning classical music, hymnals, and the work and field hollers local to Florence. Handy took to the road and began playing cornet for Mahara’s Minstrels and settled in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1903. Handy’s exposure to the budding Delta blues style perplexed him, describing the guitar playing of a local performer “the weirdest music I had ever heard”. The sounds of Florence combined with the Delta created a budding composer. In 1905, Handy moved to Memphis and found himself in the bustling music scene of Beale Street. Wanting to publish music, Handy founded a music company; his music was among the first blues to be published. Handy’s tune “St. Louis Blues” is one of the most-recorded songs of all time. A spokesman for the blues and respected icon, Handy’s music publishing helped create the blues music industry. 

Memphis Minnie (1897-1973)

Lizzie Douglas, better known as Memphis Minnie, grew up just 15 minutes south of Memphis in Tunica and Desoto county, Mississippi. Minnie aspired to make her mark and a living with her guitar and singing. She traveled and performed with bluesman Willie Brown, Willie Moore, and even a circus. Beale Street’s opportunities coaxed Minnie to settle in Memphis. Minnie married bluesman Joe McCoy in 1929, performing together all the while. After being discovered by a talent scout, Minnie and McCoy released their first recordings as “Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie”. Their tune “Bumble Bee” (known now as When the Levee Breaks) became popular and was recorded a number of times by other artists. Minnie conquered Memphis and Chicago with her talent and showmanship, defeating bluesmen such as Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy in blues contests. As a black woman gaining success in a male dominated genre in a racist world, Minnie overcame and prevailed as a star in the face of adversity. 

B.B. King (1925-2015)

Riley B. King lived his youth across Mississippi, claiming Indianola as his hometown but living with his mother and grandmother in Kilmichael. King moved to Lexington with his father after his mother and grandmother's untimely deaths, and then to Indianola in 1943. He later got married, worked as a tractor operator, and performed as a gospel and blues musician. Moving to Memphis and becoming active on Beale Street, King found himself a job on WDIA radio station. King’s nickname “Beale Street Blues Boy” later became shortened to “Blues Boy” and then to “B. B.”. King’s first hit “Three O’Clock Blues” shot him to fame in 1952. King made his mark across the globe after decades of touring, amassing a following of both black and white fans. King has earned 18 Grammy awards and collaborated across many different genres. King’s expressive guitar playing, unique style, and decorated career carved his name into music history as “King of the Blues”. 

Muddy Waters (1913-1983)

Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, gained his nickname “Muddy” from his grandmother, Della Grant, for his fondness of playing in the mud, and later childhood friends added “Waters”. Della Grant raised Muddy on the Cottonwood and Stovall Plantations in the Delta. Waters’ influences as he came of age were Robert Johnson, Son House, and Robert Nighthawk. Waters’ began playing harmonica for Stovall guitarist Scott Bonhanner and later learned the guitar and played with bluesman Big Joe Williams. Waters’ made his living as a tractor operator for Stovall, juke joint proprietor, and musician. In 1941, Alan Lomax visited Stovall on behalf of the Library of Congress to document and record blues musicians and recorded Waters in his home. Moving to Chicago to pursue his music career in 1943, Waters worked as a truck driver by day and opening packed shows in the South and West side by night. Due to the noisiness of the clubs, Waters purchased his first electric guitar and amplifier. Recording with Chess Records, Waters’ tunes “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, “ I Feel Like Going Home”, and “Rollin’ Stone” became hits. Waters’ found commercial success and made his mark on the blues scene in Chicago and the world, with his blues bringing a peppy element to the gloomy tunes. Waters’ has earned inductions into the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame and a lasting impact on music history. 

Buddy Guy (1936- )

Born in Lettsworth, Louisiana, George “Buddy” Guy was connected to Delta and Memphis blues through the recordings of B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker. A sharecropper’s son, Guy grew up on Three Rivers Landing Plantation. His father gifted him a guitar and learned to play John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen” from plantation field hand Henry “Coot” Smith.. Working and playing with his band around Baton Rouge for a time, Guy decided to uproot and move to Chicago to pursue his music in 1957. Guy quickly realized the scene was filled with Southern transplants and soon met Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon who acted as his friends and mentors. Guy shot to success with his early recordings at Chess Records and provided adaptive accompaniment for blues icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, and John Lee Hooker. Embraced by rock and blues artists, Guy made appearances with fans turned musicians like Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and more. Establishing blues club The Checkerboard Lounge on the South Side and Buddy Guy’s Legends in South Loop, Guy’s contributions to Chicago culture are ongoing as he still performs.

Howlin’ Wolf (1911-1976)

Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, was born in White Station, Mississippi. Wolf’s primary years were unstable as he was shunned by his mother, living with his great uncle until he ran away to the Delta in 1925. His musical talent shined as a child as he learned the harmonica and one stringed instrument called the “diddley bow”. Wolf reunited with his father on Young and Marrow plantation after running away, who purchased him a guitar when he was 16 years old. Adopted as a prodigy of Charley Patton, Wolf learned the fiery showmanship of Patton and blues standards like “Pony Blues”. Moving to Memphis after his service in WWII and hosting a radio show on KWEM, Wolf was discovered with his electric blues band and recorded by Chess Records. Continuing his tenure with Chess, Wolf moved to Chicago. Wolf made regular visits to his father to help him plow farmland, perform, and visit his friends. Howlin’ Wolf inspired many blues musicians and rock and rollers; his tracks were frequently covered and recorded by bands and musicians like the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, and many more.

Otis Rush (1934-2018)

Born in Philadelphia, Mississippi to sharecroppers, Otis grew up on a farm with his mother and six siblings. Rush encountered the blues on his home record player and jukeboxes around Philadelphia. Rush began singing and playing harmonica, and when his oldest brother was away, he would secretly play his guitar. A left handed guitar played, Rush flipped the guitar upside down and developed a unique self taught technique. After a trip to Chicago with his sister, Rush was directly impacted and moved by Muddy Water’s performance. Rush moved to Chicago to be a musician and contributed a new intense style to the scene. Recording with Cobra Records, his album “I Can’t Quit You Baby” rose to be a hit and Rush toured across the world. Celebrated and covered by many artists, Rush went on to win a Grammy, induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, and many other accolades.

Willie Dixon (1915-1992)

Born to a poet in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Dixon is often called “the poet laureate of the blues”. Listening to spirituals at his church and the blues of Little Brother, Dixon took to singing alongside the Union Jubilee Singers and sang on WQBC radio program. Dixon began putting poems to songs and broadcasting them on WQBC. Traveling to find work during the Depression, he finally moved to Chicago in 1936, but to pursue a boxing career. Learning the bass and making music during his stint as a boxer, Dixon performed with combo bands and found a production job at Chess Records. Dixon played bass for sessions and produced debut records of Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam. Hits like “Little Red Rooster”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “ and “Wang Dang Doodle” live on as covers of other blues and rock musicians. Highly regarded, Dixon has been inducted into the Blues, Rock and Roll, and Songwriters Halls of Fame. 

Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith was raised by her siblings after the sudden passing of her mother and father. Smith’s childhood was less than ideal as her and her siblings would dance and sing on the street corners of Chattanooga for money. Her oldest brother, Clarence, left to travel with Moses Strokes medicine show and returned with an audition opportunity for Smith. Hired as a dancer, Smith met Ma Rainey, the already popular vocalist, and formed a close friendship with her. Breaking off and establishing her solo career, Smith began recording in 1923. Signed to Colombia, Smith recorded tunes “Downhearted Blues”, “Gulf Coast Blues”, and “Cemetery Blues”. Given the title “Empress of the Blues”, Smith’s popularity increased and she began touring full time. Her contralto voice communicated the fearless nature and freedom of her songs. Although married, Smith was frequently involved with women in her performance troupe. Ending her marriage and venturing into swing music during the Depression, Smith’s career was cut short when she was killed in a car accident. Her grave was left unmarked until Janis Joplin installed a headstone in 1970.

Mamie Smith (1891-1946)

Born as Mamie Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio, Robinson got her start in the performance industry as a dancer for the Four Dancing Mitchells at age 10. She toured with dancing companies until she was 22, when she moved to Harlem to sing in clubs and soon after married singer William “Smitty” Smith. Though there were threats to Okeh Records for recording a Black artist, Smith recorded her first blues tunes and they quickly became a success. Mamie became the first Black artist to make a blues recording. Her tune “Crazy Blues'' sold over a million copies in 1920, later to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. Named “Queen of the Blues”, Smith’s pioneering work in the recording industry inspired record labels to seek out Black female artists, creating the style of “classic blues” that includes other artists like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. Smith ventured into jazz scenes and performed with her group “Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Band” and had a brief film career. Smith passed and was buried with no headstone until blues journalists fundraised for one in 2012.

Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

Born in Columbus, Georgia, Gertrude Pridgett began performing in talent shows at 12 years old. Performing in minstrel shows, Pridgett met her husband William “Pa” Rainey, and soon adopted “Ma” as a stage name. Traveling and performing, Rainey was introduced to and struck by the blues, adding the songs she’d hear to her act. In her travels, Rainey came to meet Bessie Smith and became her mentor and friend. Demand for Black artists grew in the recording industry, and Rainey landed a contract with Paramount in 1923. Her fame extended beyond the south as her tunes “Moonshine Blues”, “Bo-Weevil Blues”, and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” became increasingly popular and established as standards of the classic blues. Honored with the title “Mother of the Blues”, Rainey’s career flourished. Her voice inspired a generation of singers, being known for her powerful contralto moaning voice, flashy outfits, dynamic stage presence, and original tunes like “Prove It On Me” which suggest Rainey’s romantic involvement with women and portray the experiences of Black women. Rainey was posthumously inducted into the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame with many other awards, honors, and festivals and museums named after her.

T-Bone Walker (1910-1975)

Aaron Thibeaux Walker was born in Linden, Texas to musician parents. Walker learned guitar, violin, piano, and other instruments as a boy. Walker’s parents connections to Blind Lemon Jefferson exposed him to the blues. Leaving school to perform in 1920, Walker established a blues career in Dallas. Walker first recorded with Columbia Records under the name Oak Cliff T-Bone. Walker served tenure at different clubs, performing and traveling across the country and dabbling in jazz. Walker continued recording, now on electric guitar, and released many hits like “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)”, “Bobby Sox Blues”, and “West Side Baby”. He also appeared as a guest instrumentalist on many other musicians records. Walker won a Grammy and gained inductions posthumously into the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Walker’s influence on blues and rock musicians alike is well documented; figures such as B. B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, and Allman Brothers Band have drawn inspiration and covered Walker’s tunes.

Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929)

Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson was born in Coutchman, Texas. Blind from birth, Jefferson learned to the guitar as a teenager and began giving performances. Finding his way to Dallas, Jefferson met Leadbelly and T-Bone Walker, acting as Walker’s mentor. Jefferson would perform all night in Texas clubs, and between 1925 to 1929 he traveled back and forth to Chicago to record with Paramount Records. In Jefferson’s success, he was able to purchase a car and hire a chauffeur for his travel needs, living lavishly. Jefferson became known as “Father of the Texas Blues” for his original tunes “Dry Southern Blues”, “Long Lonesome Blues”, and “Booster Blues”. Jefferson’s played his guitar fast and sang with a high voice giving him and his recordings a unique quality. Inspiring many artists in Texas and beyond, Jefferson’s tunes were frequently covered by blues and rock musicians. Jefferson was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame 50 years after his death in 1929.

Lead Belly (1888-1949)

Born in Mooringsport, Louisiana, Huddie William Ledbetter grew up in Bowie County, Texas. A performing musician by the age of 15, Ledbetter would tour Shreveport, Louisiana’s red-light district (now called Ledbetter Heights) giving performances in brothels and saloons. Ledbetter ran into trouble with the law and served time in Louisiana and also was convicted of murder in Texas, only getting out after writing a song and being pardoned by Governor Pat Morris Neff. During Ledbetter’s stay in Angola Penitentiary, he met Alan and John Lomax of the Library of Congress. They recorded his tunes in prison, and Ledbetter was released early after his recordings were sent to the Governor of Louisiana. Ledbetter accompanied John Lomax on his journey throughout the South as his chauffeur, abiding by his terms of parole. Lead Belly gained fame in his lifetime, but not fortune. He was the subject of news articles referring to him as the “singing convict” and was featured in a three page article in Time due to his reputation. Lead Belly’s twelve string guitar, high voice, and heavy playing as well as his many tunes like “Good Night Irene”, “Boll Weevil”, and “In the Pines” inspired folk, blues, and rock musicians alike. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on his 100th birthday.