Online Exhibition - Sweet Home Chicago: Blues and African American Life

Online Exhibition - Sweet Home Chicago: Blues and African American Life

Sunday, Aug 2, 2020


Between 1940 and 1970, almost four million African Americans left the farms and small towns of the South to seek a better life in northern and west coast cities. This population shift came to be called the Great Migration. Along with their dreams of a better future, these newcomers brought with them an incredibly vibrant type of music: the blues. A prime destination for southern migrants was Chicago and one major result was the Chicago Electric Blues.  

The Illinois Central Railroad, running from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta and Memphis to Chicago, brought hundreds of blues musicians to the city. Adjusting to the noisy, bustling urban scene, these artists plugged their guitars into amplifiers, added piano and drums, and pioneered the Chicago Electric Blues.

Originating in the work and leisure-time songs of rural black laborers, the blues genre is most closely associated with the Mississippi Delta, the region surrounding the floodplain of the Yazoo River in northwest Mississippi. The Delta Blues uses a 12-bar format: a four-measure phrase that is repeated and then a capping four-measure phrase. The music has a strong rhythmic drive, and acoustic guitar and harmonica are the main instruments. Guitarists from the region often use a glass or metal slide on the fretboard to bend their notes, creating powerful emotional effects as they sing of love won and lost and the traveling life.

In the 1960s, music industry veteran Raeburn Flerlage captured the Chicago blues scene in thousands of photographs. He also documented many other facets of African American life in the city. Those images are now preserved at the Chicago History Museum. Take a look at a selection of these photographs that document the Chicago Electric Blues: a major cultural expression of the Great Migration and a widely influential musical form.

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