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Chicago Blues (Anthropology 21201)


This course is an anthropological and historical exploration of one of the most original and influential American musical genres in its social and cultural context.  Understanding the Blues as a cultural phenomenon does not fully explain the genius and emotional power of the music, but it does help one to arrive at a deeper comprehension and appreciation of it.  The course is also necessarily an exploration of the history and cultural landscape of the city of Chicago, and its close relationship to rural Mississippi.  The course traces the origins of the “Delta Blues” in the culture of African American sharecroppers of the lowland cotton country of Mississippi in the late nineteenth century, its transposition to Chicago during the “Great Migration” of the first half of the twentieth century, its development in the bars and streets of Chicago’s South Side and West Side into the tough, aggressive urban music that has come to be known as “Chicago Blues”, its eventual spread to audiences outside the African American community, and its broader influence.  The course examines transformations in the cultural meaning of the blues and its place within broader American cultural currents and racial politics, the shifting social and economic situation of blues musicians and their audiences, and the evolving economic ecology of blues within the wider music industry.  In disciplinary terms, the course involves the intersection of ethnomusicology and urban anthropology, and it is intended to impart an understanding of the practices of these fields as well as of the music and its social context.


The course begins by providing a musicological discussion of the distinctive sonic traits and poetic forms that define the Blues and its regional variants, and it is expected that students will develop a working understanding of the Chicago Blues as a musical genre.  Consequently, in addition to its historical and sociological content, the course involves listening to music and a series of films (shown outside of class and available on reserve at the library) that show musical performances and illustrate the context for the Blues (performance and audience are crucial for understanding music).  We are also privileged to have three renowned Chicago Blues musicians, Billy Branch, John Primer, and Matthew Skoller, serve as guest professors, providing lectures and demonstrations. 


John Primer won the 2016 and 2021 Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Male Artist, the Living Blues Award as Best Guitar Player and Best Album, the Muddy Award as a Blues Heritage Icon, and was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.

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