Rural Blues:

Structure And Development In The Post-Civil War South

by Ethan Crosby

Goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin' so miserable and bad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm tired of eatin' your corn bread and beans, baby,
Tired of eatin' your corn bread and beans, right now,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin so low and bad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

These two dollar shoes is killin' my feet, baby,
Two dollar shoes is killin' my feet right now,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

Take ten dollar shoes to fit my feet, baby,
Ten dollar shoe to fit my feet right now,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin' so miserable and sad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' where the weather suits my clothes, baby,
Goin' where the weather suits my clothes tomorrow,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' where that chilly wind don't blow, baby,
Goin' where the chilly wind don't blow tomorrow,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.

I'm goin' down this road and I'm feelin' bad, baby,
Goin' down this road feelin' so miserable and bad,
I ain't gonna be treated this way.1

America has produced many forms of music that are genuinely American, but none have had such far reaching appeal and influence then the blues. The blues formed the basis for rock n' roll and is still a thriving musical form in it's own right. The developed separately in three different regions of the postbellum South: the Mississippi Delta and eastern Texas at the turn of the century, and in the Piedmont ten years later. These rural blues were carried from the plantations and prison farms to urban areas such as Chicago and St. Louis and eventually became the blues of John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and others. The blues also spawned rhythm and blues, which in turn became rock n' roll. This paper will explain what the blues is and how it developed into what we know now.

Rural Blues


It is very difficult to nail down the exact origins of the blues; the structure of the blues is very specific and very unique. The twelve-bar, AAB pattern is not found in any other music during the time the blues originated. The blues uses only three chords, the I, IV and V chords. The I chord is a chord built on the first tone of a scale, so if we were in the key of F, the chord would be built on an F. The IV chord, also called the subdominant, is a chord built on the fourth tone of the scale, in our example, a B-flat. The V chord, the dominant chord, is built on the fifth tone of the scale, or a C. In twelve-bar blues, which is the most common, there are three sets of four bars (or measures, whichever term you prefer). The second four bars is a repetition of the first four bars, with a slight variation, and then the third bar is something new, which brings the pattern full circle and the cycle repeats. Lyrics might look like this:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Asked the Lord above to have mercy, save poor Bob if you please.2

Chord progression would be as follows:

    |1 |2 |3 |4 | 
    |I |I |I |I |  
    |5 |6 |7 |8 | 
    |IV|IV|I |I | 
    |9 |10|11|12| 
    |V |IV|I |I |  
This simple pattern is easily modified to eleven, thirteen and fourteen bars. The simplicity is one of the reasons the blues is so popular: it's simple to follow and to learn, and there is a certain measure of predictability to it.


The blues first emerged as a distinct type of music in the late-1800s.3 Spirituals, worksongs, seculars, field hollers and arhoolies all had some form of influence on the blues. Early blues were a curious amalgam of African cross- rhythms and vocal techniques, Anglo-American melodies and thematic material from fables and folktales, and tales of personal experience on plantations and prison farms. After the war, blacks were still slaves to King Cotton, and many found themselves struggling to support themselves working on plantations well into the mid-twentieth century, or struggling to support themselves as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. The blues developed into a distinct form of folkmusic as a direct result of this. The emergence of the blues coincided with the worsening of the social and economic conditions for blacks in the South.

Griots And The Oral Tradition

The blues follow the west African tradition of the "griots." The griots were the libraries of their tribe. They held the history and the culture of their tribe, often in songs, and passed that knowledge on to their descendants.

The African-American songsters who synthesized the blues from earlier genres of black folk music were descendants of the griots, carrying forward the historical and cultural legacy of their people even while they were setting a new agenda for political discourse and action. (3, p. 8)

These new griots helped to continue the oral tradition. Through their songs, they often expressed discontent with their situation and their hope for change.


They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.4

Spirituals are what Du Bois called "the Sorrow Songs." They were one way the slaves expressed their discontent and maintained hope in the face of hardship. They often used biblical motifs and characters, and spoke of redemption and hope of eventual triumph and freedom. They were one of the most important parts of the black oral tradition. Many of these sorrow songs contained a lyrical pattern very similar to that of the blues: often an AAB or AAAB pattern:

No more driver call me
No more driver call
No more driver call me
Many thousand die!
(3, p. 10)

Many of the spirituals also expressed some form of hope for freedom or relief from tribulation, usually by the hand of God. The slaves gained freedom from slavery, they were given a new set of chains, in the form of racial segregation, sharecropping and tenant farming. As times changed, so did the music, and the blues was one of the forms of music that emerged as the result of this.


The big bee flies high,
The little bee makes the honey.
The black folks make the cotton
And the white folk gets the money
(3, p. 12)

Seculars served many purposes for blacks before, during and after the Civil War. They often glorified exploits of the slaves in spite of their white masters; they sang of chicken stealing and escape, often right under the nose of the authorities. They also complained about the status of the slaves as second class citizens and the hardships they had to endure as slaves; this they shared with many of the spirituals. Frederick Douglass recorded this song in his autobiography:

We raise the wheat,
Dey gib us de corn.
We bake de bread,
Dey gib us de crust.
We sif' de meal,
Dey gib us de huss.
We peel de meat,
Dey gib us de skin
And dat's de way
Dey take us in.
We skim de pot,
Sey gib us de liquor
And say dat's good enough for nigger.
Walk over, walk over,
Your butter and fat.
Poor nigger, you can't git over dat,
Walk over5

Field Hollers And Arhoolies

I'll tell you where the blues began. Back there working on them cotton farms, working hard and the man won't pay 'em, so the started singin', "Ohhh, I'm leavin' he one of these days and it won't be long." See, what's happenin' is givin' them the blues. "You gonna look for me one of these mornings and I'll be gone, ohhh yeah!" -- Sonny Terry (3, p. 18)

Field hollers and arhoolies began in the fields as musical exclamations that expressed the mood of the singer, and they eventually grew into longer phrases and verse. Few recordings of these exist, so we have to accept the testimony of the old bluesmen, such as Sonny Terry and Son House, as to their nature:

All I can say is that when I was boy we was always singing in the fields. Not real singing, you know, just hollering. But we made up our songs about things that were happening to us at the time, and I think that's where the blues started. -- Son House (3, p. 18)

The vocal techniques of these were very unique and they formed the basis for early blues vocals.


Born on a day when the sun didn't shine.
Picked up my shovel and I went to the mine.
Loaded sixteen tons o' number nine coal,
And the straw boss said well bless my soul.

Load sixteen tons, what do ya get,
Another day older and a deeper debt.
St. Peter don't you call me, cuz I can't go.
I owe my soul to the company sto'

Another tradition that the slaves brought with them from Africa was that of worksongs. Worksongs were used to coordinate labor in the fields and homes in western Africa, and this tradition was continued in America. The rhythms of the songs necessarily reflected the rhythms of the repetitive labor, and these cross-rhythms found their way into the blues. Big Bill Broonzy and Huddie Ledbetter both recorded versions of a song called "Take This Hammer," and on one of his albums, Broonzy talks about where the song came from:

This is one of the songs that a friend of mine wrote back in the Twenties. "Course he recorded it in the Twenties but we'd been singin' this thing all up and down the levee camps and the street camps and the road camps and different places. The guy was named Huddie Leadbelly...The title of this is "Take This Old Hammer."6

The lyrics go like this:
Take this old hammer, take it to the captain,
Take this old hammer, man take it to the captain,
Tell him I'm goin', tell him I'm gone.

If he asks you, was I runnin',
If he asks you, was I runnin',
Tell him I was flyin', man tell him I was flyin'.

Take this old hammer, take it to the captain,
Take this old hammer, man take it to the captain,
Tell him I'm goin', tell him I'm gone.7

The form of the lyrics is the same as that of the blues and the theme is one that is constant in early rural blues: the man has become fed up with poor working conditions and runs away.

The term, "the blues," is in itself interesting. "Blue devils" were referred to as causing discontent and restlessness (3). The idiom is apparently of English descent. It evolved into term for a type of feeling (i.e. being blue, having the blues), and it further evolved into the name for the type of music.

Regional Development

After the end of the Civil War, the South was forced to abandon slavery, but did not abandon the plantation economy. The plantations still existed, and blacks still provided the labor, but now it was through a system of share-cropping and tenant farming. Blacks gave up large shares of their crops to the white landowners for use of field, tools and clothing, and they often ended up owing more to the landholders than they produced (2, p. 25). After the Civil War, blacks were still in a feudal economy with King Cotton at the top.

For the many blacks who found themselves in perpetual debt to white landowners, the only way out was to move away. Most black families moved every two to three years to escape debt (3). The idea of personal mobility is a theme that runs through many blues songs. Personal mobility was equated with individual freedom and the hope of better working conditions in new places.

Because of the intense poverty, these people were forced to create their own entertainment, and the blues was one form of that.

Mississippi Delta Blues


Lord, that 61 highway, is the longest road I know,
61 highway, baby longest road I know,
It run from New York City, to the Gulf of Mexico.

I started school one Monday morning, Lord I throw'd my books away.
I started school one Monday morning, Lord I throw'd my books away.
Wrote a note to my teacher, Lord I'm gonna try 61 today.8

The homeland of the Delta blues stretched from Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south to Memphis, Tennessee in the north and from central Mississippi in the east to the Ozark plateau of Arkansas in the west. This land was previously uninhabited, but in the 1840s, white planters began to move into the Delta, and they brought their slaves with them. Cotton grew well in the fertile soil of the Delta, and the lumber industry boomed as well. After the slaves were freed, blacks continued to move into the region to work on the plantations, and this influx continued until World War I, when blacks outnumbered whites four to one (3).

The early Delta blues were closely akin to work songs and field hollers. The labor was hard, and workers sang the blues to make themselves feel better and to work their brain as they worked their bodies.

The first notation of Delta blues lyrics was made in 1903 by Charles Peabody, a white archaeologist who had hired a team of blacks as diggers at a site near Stovall, Mississippi (3, p. 27). Peabody wrote down some of the lyrics of the songs he heard, many of which were improvised on the spot. Howard Odum, a folklorist, traveled throughout the Delta on a field trip at the same time. More than half of the songs he heard and noted were blues.

The blues began in the fields, but when instruments were added, it quickly moved to recreational gatherings, such as picnics, barbecues and saturday night dances9. The guitar, harmonica and sometimes the piano began to replace the banjo and fiddle as the instruments of choice among black musicians. The rhythms of the blues made it excellent for dancing, and the music was easily followed. Square dancing became outmoded, in lieu of couple dancing and other forms.

The tradition of the saturday night dances originated during slavery. The slaves worked six days a week, and the only time allotted for recreation was Saturday nights (9, p. 20). Many slaveholders allowed their slaves to hold dances on the plantation or attend them at nearby plantations. After emancipation, this tradition continued.

The bluesmen who taught themselves to play their own instruments were the most musically innovative. They brought new music and new techniques to old instruments like the guitar. Many of these early bluesmen started out on homemade, one-stringed instruments that were made by attaching a taut wire to a house or barn (9). The player then plucked out a rhythmic pattern with one hand while sliding a glass bottle along the wire to control tone. This slider technique was easily transferred to the guitar.

The slider technique has become synonymous with early Delta blues. Guitarists would slide a rock, a bottle-neck or a knife along the strings. Using a slider, the guitar could approximate the tones of the human voice; it also allowed the guitarist to pluck out the rhythm on the bass strings while playing a melody on the treble strings.

Delta blues strike the ear as being stripped down to the essentials. There is very little ornamentation and the vocals are often harsh and raspy, like field hollers. The songs are generally very serious in nature. The instruments often have a powerful, driving rhythm that accelerates as the song progresses.


I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Went to the crossroad, fell down on my knee,
Asked the Lord above to have mercy, save poor Bob if you please.10

The first blues artists in the Delta were part-time musicians. They worked as field hands on cotton farms in the daytime, and played the blues for tips and drinks at parties, picnics and dances. The moonlighting that these men did kept the blues closely tied to the farm community and the hardships that went with it. As artists' followings grew, many of them recorded their songs for money and managed to be come independent from farm salary (3).

In addition to cotton plantations, Delta had a large and notorious contract levee labor system. Levees were the sole defense from flooding in the river valley, and the blacks provided the labor for building and maintaining of them. Labor contractors hired a labor force, predominantly black, and the laborers lived on the levee site (3). The laborers found themselves in a situation much like that of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers. All food, clothing and entertainment was provided by the contractor at exorbitant prices. They often ended up owing the contractor money. The labor contractors hired bluesmen to perform on the weekends. Many performers who later gained fame outside of the Delta worked as weekend entertainers for levee workers.

In the twenties, the terrible living and working conditions caused the beginnings of a migration from the Delta. In the forefront of this migration were many of Mississippi's finest blues musicians, whose music often encouraged the exodus. Henry Sloan, Joe Hicks, Frank Stokes, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Jim Jackson, J.D. Short, Big Joe Williams, and Big Bill Broonzy all had abandoned the state for points north by the 1920s. (3, p. 54)

East Texas Blues

If you ever go to Memphis,
Man, you better walk right,
Cause the police'll arrest you,
And he'll carry you down.
Take you down to the station,
With a gun in his hand,
And the judge will tell you,
You been a naughty man.

Let the Midnight Special
Shine her light on me,
Let the Midnight Special
Shine her everlovin' light on me.11

The cotton belt in Texas has an area of about 300 square miles. It is rimmed by Houston, Austin and Dallas, and is cut by the Trinity and Brazos rivers. Slaves were moved into this area during the war to avoid the Emancipation Proclamation (3, p. 56). After the war, Texas also maintained its plantation economy, and in addition, Texas had a large and infamous prison farm system. Gangs of prisoners, predominantly black, were leased to white landowners. This system helped to keep the tradition of the worksong alive.

Worksongs were the largest influence on East Texas blues, both on the repertoire of early bluesmen and the vocal styles. The vocals are much breathier than Delta blues, they are less raspy. The songs are also less dependant on traditional lyrics. The guitar or piano is often played percussively. Many artists feature a steady, thumping groundbeat in the lower strings. The treble strings play an insistent short phrase after each vocal line, that is responsorial, and often rhythmically free.

Gates Thomas was the first to note a blues song in Texas. In 1890, he wrote down the lyrics to a song called "Nobody There," which features lyrics similar to the traditional AAB pattern:

That you nigger man, knockin, at my door?
Hear me tell you nigger man,
Nobody there no more.
(3, p. 64)

After the turn of the century, Thomas noted the lyrics to several other songs that are now recognized as being blues classics.

Texas was rather isolated from the entertainment industry, so styles and repertoires were able to mature without commercial influences. In 1925, Blind Lemon Jefferson became "the first southern self-accompanied folk blues artist to succeed commercially on records, and his success can be said to have opened the door to all the others who followed in the next few years."12 Jefferson sold albums throughout the south. He was born blind, and turned to the blues as the only means of self-sufficience for a black man in the south.

East Coast Piedmont Blues

The Piedmont stretches from Atlanta, Georgia to Richmond, Virginia. It is bordered on the east and west by the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic coastal lowlands. Tobacco and Cotton were the key crops of this region. Many blues artists from this region sang of "pickin' low cotton" (3). Because the Piedmont was one of the first areas to be settled and cultivated, the soil had become depleted by the early twentieth century. The economies of this area were based on either cotton or tobacco, and this one-crop economy led to further depletion of the soil. Crops grown in this depleted soil were much smaller than those grown in the fertile soil to the west.

Because of the drop in crop production, a move was made to create a "New South" through industrialization. White farmers, whose farms were failing, were taking the jobs in the factories, and the blacks were left out. The blues were a collective response to the racism and oppression felt in the region.

The Blues arose as a distinct form of folk music much later in the Piedmont than in the rest of the South. One hypothesis for this slow development sites the strong anglican folk tradition. Because of the rigid segregation in the region, this hypothesis is suspect. Samuel Charters suggests a different reason (3, 81). He believes that the rigid African folk tradition slowed the emergence of the blues. The folk tradition was very well established in the black community, and it simply would not change. Heavy racial antagonism served to strengthen resistance.

When the blues did begin to emerge it was based on the folk tradition. Techniques that had been used on the banjo were transferred to the guitar. The Piedmont was much less isolated than the Delta or Texas because of the proximity to the population centers of the North. Musicians took folk traditions and fused them with other types of popular music. One of these new types of music was ragtime, which put African-style crossrhytms underneath European melodies, creating a new type of music. Ragtime became a large part of Piedmont blues.

Another part of the spread of the blues were medicine shows. Many black musicians found employment as entertainers to draw people to medicine shows, where men tried to sell "medicine" to the crowds. These shows helped to disseminate the new music styles much more quickly.

Family ties were also important. In areas such as southwestern Virginia, many musicians learned from members of their family. Families often played together in bands.

Durham, North Carolina was one of the focal points of the tobacco industry and became a focal point of the Piedmont blues. The Duke family set up their tobacco factories in Durham and employed black workers with higher wages. The result was a great influx of black workers who brought the blues with them. Many musicians worked in the factories in the day and performed for tips on the streets at night. This also aided the development and dissemination of the blues. The large blues tradition is also the reason for the name of the Duke University "Blue Devils."

The Piedmont blues is a very different form of music than that of the Delta or Texas. Ragtime stylings form the basis along with techniques transferred from the banjo. Musicians used their thumb to strum down low while finger-picking the melody higher up on the neck of the instrument.

Ultimately, the things that made the Piedmont blues so unique are the same elements that caused it to die out. The blues began to change when it was moved to the city. Delta and Texas blues styles were easily transferred to the electric guitar, and the blues took off from there. Unfortunately, the Piedmont blues did not adapt well to the electric guitar; the ragtime rhythms and finger picked runs did not sound good when amplified. Also, blues began to fall into a national pattern. The American Federation of Musicians banned new commercial recordings from August of 1942 until September of 1943.13 Two of the larger record labels, Victor and Columbia, lost their preeminence because they refused to pay royalties to the AFM. The smaller labels that sprang up to fill the gap focused more on gospels and rhythm and blues, which is very different. Urban centers became the repositories of the blues, and the Piedmont was left out. Eventually, Piedmont blues fell into obscurity.


No food on my table, no shoes to go on my feet,
No food on my table and no shoes to go on my feet,
My children cry for mercy, Lord they ain't got no place to
call their own.14

The blues arose both as a form of social protest and as a means of expression. The music is very personal both to the artists and the listeners. As blacks migrated to find jobs in more tolerant northern factories, they took the blues with them and began the process that gave us urban blues, rock 'n roll and rap.

The blues is one of the few forms of American music that has stayed with us since its inception a century ago. The blues began in the south and moved to the cities of the north, and today, the blues still come to mind when people speak of Chicago and St. Louis. Every year, thousands of people attend blues festivals all over the country. The blues is still alive and well in America.


1. Big Bill Broonzy, "I'm Goin' Down the Road," on Black Brown & White, Storyville Records

2. Robert Johnson, "Crossroad Blues," on Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues, Columbia CL 30034

3. William Barlow, "Looking Up at Down: the Emergence of Blue Culture, Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1989). Further references to this work will be made parenthetically within the text.

4. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, New York: Bantam Books (1989), p. 179-180. Further references to this work will be made parenthetically within the text.

5. Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself, New York: Pathway (1941), pp. 146-147

6. Big Bill Broonzy, on Black, Brown & White

7. Big Bill Broonzy, "Take This Hammer," ibid.

8. Fred MacDowell, "Highway 61," from Fred MacDowell: Mississippi Delta Blues, Arhoolie CD 304

9. Samuel Charters, "Workin' on the Building: Roots and Influences," from Nothing But the Blues: The Music and the Musicians, Lawrence Cohn ed., New York: Abbeville Press (1993), p. 16. Further references to this article will be made parenthetically within the text.

10. Robert Johnson, "Crossroad Blues," from Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, Sony/Legacy 46222

11. This is a traditional work song. The Midnight Special was a train that left Houston at midnight, bound for points west. The train ran past the Sugarland prison farm, and the light at the front of the train became a symbol for freedom and mobility to blacks in East Texas.

12. David Evans, "Goin' Up the Country: Blues in Texas and the Deep South," from Nothing But the Blues, ibid. Further references to this article will be made parenthetically within the text.

13. Bruce Basin, "Trucking' My Blues Away: East Coast Piedmont Styles," from Nothing But the Blues, ibid.

14. John Lee Hooker, "No Shoes," from Travelin', Vee Jay 81023

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