By: Kenneth Jordan, Historic Westville Intern
Coming to terms with the Blues is impossible without addressing the anvil on which it was forged. After 200 plus years of enslavement, most of the enslaved in America were liberated thanks to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Two years later, the 13th amendment freed the remaining enslaved. However, white hegemony and black oppression still marked the South in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century. Jim Crow Laws perpetuated the oppression and disenfranchisement of Southern blacks, limiting their opportunities for social and economic mobility. Some of the most virulent racists attempted to maintain control through terror via lynchings and other brutal murders. Under this new form of persecution Southern Blacks created a new music which allowed them to express their plight.
This new music is simply called the Blues. It took its name from a word used for centuries to describe a feeling of sadness. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, once wrote in a letter, “We have something of the blue devils at times.” The Blues may have been a 20th century phenomenon but its roots date back to the 19th century. No one is sure exactly where the blues originated. Some scholars say Mississippi, others say Georgia and Missouri. Regardless, we know that it originated in the South. It is an amalgamation of field holler, Negro spirituals, folk music and ragtime, which are forms of music developed by the enslaved and formerly enslaved in the South. With the advent of the first African-American Great Migration in the early 1900s, the Blues began to spread across America and other parts of the South. It is during this time that many great blues musicians emerged from the Peach State.
These fine musicians formed the “Atlanta Blues” scene. The Atlanta Blues scene of the 1920s was among the most prosperous in the South, with a stable stream of country bluesmen converging on the city hoping to gain exposure playing the local club circuit and, with any fortune, rising to perform at Decatur Street’s famous 81 Theatre. Although Atlanta venues and businesses were segregated, both blacks and whites enjoyed listening to the Blues. Trailblazers such as Ma Rainey and Ida Cox traveled throughout the South and the North performing in several nightclubs and theaters. Northern record companies (Paramount, Okeh, Columbia, Victor, and Brunswick) saw the rapid growth in popularity of this new music and quickly capitalized.
Ma Rainey and Ida Cox were the first artists from Georgia to sign deals and record music in 1923. The success of these two women paved the way for more blues artists from Georgia such as Barbecue Bob, Peg Leg Howell, Piano Red, and “Blind Willie” McTell. Consequently, several northern record companies set up studios in Atlanta to capitalize on the blues craze. From 1923 to 1948, these artists recorded over 500 songs with several of them becoming national hits. Unfortunately, blues music popularity began to wane by the 1960s due to the emergence and popularity of Rock N Roll and Soul/R&B music.
The Blues is a staple of the New South, but its roots date back to the Old South. Initially, it was an outlet for African-Americans to express their plight and grievances, but the music was so powerful that it transcended all races in America and now is a part of our national cultural heritage. Great blues music still exists in Georgia thanks to a new wave of artists such as Robert Cray, Jontavious Willis, Stoni Taylor, and groups such as Five Long Years, Georgia Flood, and Thunder Gypsy.
 The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only applied to the states in rebellion. It freed all enslaved people on confederate soil, but did not apply to the 500,000 enslaved people in states under Union control.
 Nigel Williamson, The Rough Guide to the Blues (New York: Penguin, 2006),4-7.
 Williamson, 8.
 Gary Giddins and Scott Deveaux, Jazz (New York: Norton & Company, 2009), 58.
 Williamson, 12.
 Lawrence Cohn, Nothing but the Blues (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993), 210.
 Francis Davis, The History of the Blues, ( New York: Hyperion, 1995), 80.
 Cohn, 37.
 C. Van Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913: A History of the South (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1981), 20-22. Culturally, the term “Old South” is used to delineate the rural, agriculturally based economy and society of the Southern United States pre-Civil War. The term “New South” refers to the modernization of society and attitudes to reject the economy and traditions of the Old South such as the slave-based plantation system.