Faculty Advisor

Benveniste, Mike

Area of Study

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Publication Date

Summer 2013


The blues gave rise to the many forms of Afro-American popular music, among them bebop, ragtime, jazz, funk, soul and rap. The origins of the blues itself, however, is less clear; many origin stories cite a simple fusion of West African musical traditions with Western ones while others are founded in the mythos of the lone guitarist at the crossroads in league with the devil. In reality, the origin of blues music, like any other cultural production, probably arose from a series of interacting factors under unique social and economic circumstances. This project investigates the probable origins of the blues, as well as the reasons for the intrigue surrounding its probable non-origins, from a cultural studies standpoint; interactions of race, class and musical form in the United States are the primary modes of consideration for the evolution of the blues genre. My background in the uniquely American social dance form of blues dance gives me insight into the lasting and widespread effect that delta blues had on the country and the world.

The project begins with the West African musical traditions that were brutally imported to this continent—traditions including formal musical elements such as polyrhythms, equiheptatonic and equidecatonic scalar modes, instrumentation and lyrical style—and the possible path of evolution when these traditions met with Western music, instruments and, importantly, racial oppression. The effects of commercialization and “race” record companies on the formation of the genre is also explored, along with the romanticization and fetishization that came with the mostly white-, mostly self-titled-folklorist-led “blues revival” of the 1950s and 60s. During the course of the research, I read primary sources, blues histories, cultural studies critiques, and listened to a lot of early delta blues recordings.


University of Puget Sound