The history of the blues in America is about more than just music, historian says ahead of Northeastern concert

B.B. King performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The blues is foundational for contemporary American music, but the genre’s roots in slavery and the African Diaspora demonstrate “that Black culture is central to American life,” says Jessica Parr, professor of the practice in history at Northeastern University. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

If you want to know where your favorite musician came from, the answer is probably the blues. One of the most distinct and influential forms of American music and culture, specifically Black music and culture, the blues is the foundation on which rock, R&B and even hip-hop was built.

But Jessica Parr, professor of the practice in history at Northeastern University, says the genre’s roots dig deeper than the history of American pop music. The blues is Black history itself. 

At a time when Black history is under attack, Parr says there has never been a better time to sing the blues. The genre is a reminder that “Black culture is central to American life.” It’s why she is bringing The History of Blues in America, a trio of musicians and storytellers, to Northeastern for a concert on Sept. 20.

“We are in a moment right now where there is a lot of hostility to talking about Black history and talking about Black culture outside of Black communities, and I think that’s something that needs to change, to be blunt,” Parr says. “Emphasizing Black contributions to American history and American culture is more important than ever.”

As a genre, the blues came out of the post-Civil War Deep South at the turn of the 20th century, as formerly enslaved people continued to labor away on Southern plantations, although its roots go back farther than that. The genre brought together spirituals, work songs, chants and stories and myths among African Americans. It also heavily incorporated elements of African music that enslaved Africans brought with them to the Americas. 

“The storytelling ethos of blues music, that is especially from West African griot heritage,” Parr says. “And there are other forms of oral storytelling and oral tradition in African history as well that survives a horrific Middle Passage and gets disseminated in the Americas more broadly in what becomes the United States but also all throughout the Caribbean in all its various flavors and mixes.”

Made up of veteran musicians Joey Leone, Earl Irving and Darrow Sandler, the History of Blues in America guides the audience on a journey through the genre’s centuries-spanning history, from slavery to the modern day. The concert, scheduled for 7:30 to 8:40 p.m. in Blackman Theater, is an extension of Parr’s own work on public memory, public history and early modern Atlantic history, particularly around race.

The blues offer an important balance when it comes to the dominant narratives around Black history and slavery, Parr says.

“As somebody whose work heavily focuses on the history of slavery, certainly it’s important not to forget these difficult pasts and it’s really important to be able to talk about them and recognize there’s still those legacies,” Parr says. “But also, one of the ways people used to talk about slavery was in terms of the erasure of Black history, Black culture and African history and African culture. That’s just not true. It’s in some sense resistance.”

The roots of the blues lie in music that was meant not just for entertainment and self-expression, but also survival and to pass on lessons to future generations, in the grand tradition of oral storytelling. The classic spiritual “Wade in the Water,” which has been covered countless times by blues musicians, is not just a religious song. Historians say Harriet Tubman used it to warn people to get into the water in order to escape from dogs sent by slave owners.

Parr says even the instruments that blues musicians choose to use are significant, connecting them to the parts of American history that some people would rather ignore. Rhiannon Giddens, the blues and country musician who co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, often plays the banjo in her more political songs because of its African roots, Parr points out.

The concert being held at Northeastern is a gateway into broader conversations about American history, something Parr has personal experience with. Parr grew up listening to Etta James, BB King, Big Mama Thornton, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, artists her disc jockey father would play continuously in her home. She understands intellectually and intimately how music can diffuse the discomfort some people have when it comes to talking about the more painful parts of U.S. history.

“It’s an accessible way to get into it,” Parr says. “People may be squeamish about talking about history and talking about race, but you throw on some Etta James, you throw on some BB King, you throw on some Ray Charles, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and I think that tension just goes away. Music has that effect on people.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.