‘Rivers of Rhythm’: Episode 3 Takes a Look at The Blues

In the third episode of a six-part series presented by American Songwriter and Renasant Bank, Rivers of Rhythm takes a deep look at the popularity of blues music as we celebrate Black History Month.

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“The seeds of the blues were buried long ago, planted in the music of Africa, but harvested in the fields of the deep south,” says the narrator in the video. “It was the pain, the sorrow, the struggles through and after slavery that gave the blues the simple structure in this emotionally complex sound.”

Rivers of Rhythm—highlighting the work of The National Museum of African American Music—explores and celebrates the music genres and styles created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans.

In episode 3, titled The Blues, artists, alongside leading historians and museum curators, take a look at the history of the blues, which takes place after emancipation, from the late 19th to the early 20th century.

“Today we pay particular attention to the delta blues because of the number of influential musicians who came from that region of Mississippi, Arkansas. But you have blues performers in places like Virginia and North Carolina, who will become known as the piedmont blues, you have blues performers in Northern Mississippi, who become known as the hill country blues, you have all these kinds of regional styles that emerge at around the same time,” explains Dr. Steve Lewis of the National Museum of African American Music. “You have this new music that reflects kind of the new situation of which black people have found themselves after the end of slavery. So many blues songs, for example on subjects like travel or romantic relationships, we can think of them as explorations of the new freedoms that people had after emancipation.”

“Blues aesthetic is that message of encouragement in a tough time,” adds artist and producer Otto Gross. “That’s kind of the ethos that the music comes from—is this idea of struggle.”

After World War 1, African Americans migrated from the rural south to the urban north and brought the blues sound with them as they moved into the cities. The series looks at early artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, and T Bone Walker, and the influence they had on the genre.

“You don’t have American music without the blues,” says Katie Rainge-Briggs of the National Museum of African American Music. “The blues music opened the door and enabled an artist to tell their story on a popular stage. Rather than limiting their emotion to their home, to their church, now on stage, there can be an emotional camaraderie.”

Watch the full episode below and check out episodes 1 and 2 of Rivers of Rhythm HERE and HERE.

A new episode of Rivers of Rhythm will premiere here at American Songwriter each week for the next 3 weeks.

Episode 1: The Music of Africa – Watch HERE.
Episode 2: Spirituals & Gospel – Watch HERE.

Episode 3: The Blues – Watch below.
Episode 4: Jazz -Airs Feb. 22
Episode 5: Rhythm & Blues – Airs March 1
Episode 6: Hip Hop – Airs March 8

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