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The History of Memphis Blues Music

Jul 19, 2008
Memphis blues music has a very rich and interesting history that is packed with many of the biggest names in American music. Created in the 1920s and 1930s, Memphis blues music was created by musicians that lived in the area, like Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, John Estes and Memphis Minnie. At first, it was only popular in vaudeville and medicine shows, but soon it quickly grew to capture the interest of the entire nation.

Memphis blues music really got its start on Beale Street, the place where the nightlife and culture of Memphis was (and still is). There have been several books written, dedicated only to Memphis blues music and Beale Street, including Goin Back to Memphis by James L. Dickerson, which came out in the year 2000.

Memphis blues music gained a lot of popularity very fast, largely in part to its unique sound. Because many of the musicians were poor and could not afford to buy traditional instruments, they were forced to improvise using household items that were previously not known for their sound producing capabilities. For example, washboards, kazoos and Jews harps were all prevalent in early Memphis blues music.

Quite possibly the most unique and frequently used odd instruments found in Memphis blues music is the jug. To replace the sound that an expensive bass guitar would make, people would blow into various sized jugs to create a deep and hollow sound. Of course, some of the people in Memphis blues music were able to get their hands on traditional instruments such as violins, banjos and mandolins.

Memphis blues music never really featured any electric instruments until after World War II, when Memphis blues music musicians slowly started buying and using them. Memphis blues music also started to transform itself as new musicians came onto the Memphis scene. This is because many African Americans started to migrate away from impoverished rural areas in search of cities and good jobs. Among those making the trek to Memphis were Willie Nix, Ike Turner, Howlin Wolf and B.B. King.

Still, Memphis blues music remained confined to the area of Memphis. That is, until Sun Records took an interest in Memphis blues music and started signing local artists as fast as they could. Eventually, Memphis blues music would go on to influence rock and roll, modern jazz and rhythm and blues music, and has been cited by several famous musicians in their songs.
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