Author: Haozhe Zhang

Program of Study: Molecular Engineering PhD

Honeyboy Edwards Blues Band (Michael Frank, Honeyboy Edwards, Kansas City Red, Floyd Jones). Picture Source:

Chicago Blues is a typical music style originated from Great Migration and growing with city. The style of Chicago Blues is undividable from Chicago City and its history. Exploring Chicago Blues with me, and having a new insight about this unique music style.




(transcript was provided by student and is unedited)

Welcome to the ELI’s Finding Chicago Global Perspectives Podcast Series for AEPP 2021. I’m your host, Haozhe Zhang, and I’m currently enrolled as a graduate student in the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Today we will be exploring the topic of Chicago Blues: From Immigration to Urban Development.

I am a music fan who likes Rock n’ Roll, Funk and Blues, and I have known that Chicago, one of the biggest industrial cities located at north America, is the most important place in blues history before I came here. Blues is a music type which was originated in Deep South such as Mississippi, by African-Americans, using thirds, fifths or sevenths notes to express the depressed mood. The rise of Blues started at about 1860s, quickly developed before and after World War II, and reached its peak around 1970s.

When I am searching the history of Blues, I noticed that the quick development term of Blues, around 1920s to 1950s, has an indivisible relationship with Chicago. This term has a lot of overlap with the Great Migration, the newcomers and resident listeners makes Blues confluence, development, and finally became a new form: Chicago Blues. Different from traditional Country Blues in Mississippi, the representative form of new City Blues, or also was named as Chicago Blues, had features like Melodious, Delicate, Tidy, Comfortable, and Remove most of the Regional Characteristics.

Why Chicago Blues is unique? Many of the music types or styles are originated in some typical places, played by local people, with strong local characteristics and conquer other listeners with features. Therefore, it was quite surprising to me that the Chicago Blues played by outsiders, abandoned some vintage features, and evolved for urban resident. I guess that the history of Chicago and whole country in this period must be special enough, so that this phenomenon can occur.

Firstly, let’s have a look on the Great Migration results reported by The Library of Congress, about migrations of the African-Americans. In early 20th century, nearly 90 percent of African-Americans resided in south. However, from nearly 1910s, more and more African-Americans start moving to the north, for escape from sharecropping, worsening economic conditions, and something like that. The lack of social opportunities from Jim Crow laws also motivated African-Americans to migrate Northward. Their destinations usually were industrial cities, especially Chicago, where have more working opportunities and higher wages. As reported by Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago attracted slightly more than 500,000 of the approximately 7 million African-Americans who left the South during 1916 to 1970, and the population constitution of African-Americans increased from 2 percent to 33 percent in Chicago.

During this period, lots of Blues men from south, especially from Mississippi, came to Chicago and continue their Blues career, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Willie Dixon. They came here not only because of the Migration, but also for opportunities in this city. As an economy heart and most populous city in Midwest America, Chicago had a serious of best record company and largest market of music. Soon afterwards, more and more outstanding blues musicians gather in Chicago, forming bands and releasing records. These newcomer musicians, bringing Blues to Chicago and making Chicago Blues with diversification and had less traditional country blues characteristics.

One important change also should be noticed, that is the evolution of the electric guitar. In “The Earliest Days of the Electric Guitar” on Rickenbacker’s website, we can find that the electric guitar starts to appear successively at 1930s to 1940s. As a central city, the electric guitar starts to be used in Chicago and make a lot of changes. Electric Blues arises, and Chicago became a center for electric blues from 1948. This year, as same as Humphrey’s book, nothing but the bluesdescribed, after Muddy Waters recorded “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, the Chicago Blues became famous in the whole country.

The time around 1930s to 1950s is also special. After the Great Depression and the New Deal recovery in 1930s, people need Chicago Blues to express their complicated feelings, including sadness, blues, anxious and hopeful. But after the World War II, America had entered a period of economic take-off and fast development, the people’s sprit starts to change. Chicago Blues starts to appear the emotion of enthusiasm and passion, to cater to the market demand. That is pretty interesting because Blues used to be gloomy. With the development of Chicago, people’s mental state has become more motivated and active, so Chicago Blues start to branch to early rock music, a more motivated music style. So, the growth of the Chicago Blues is just same as the growth of this Chicago City.

I wish this research about Chicago Blues and the history behind it can provide some interesting insight for helping people understand the relationship between music style evolution and the city, or the people.

Music comes from people, and also play for people. People listening to music, and music changed by people. For conclusion, I want to introduce one quote said by Bruce Iglauer, founder of Alligator Records, “Chicago blues is the music of the industrial city and has an industrial sense about it.” That is the real reflection between Chicago Blues and Chicago.

Thanks for listening!


Library of Congress, The African-American Mosaic, URL:



Richenbacker International Corporation, “The Earliest Days of the Electric Guitar“, URL:

Humphrey, Mark A. In Nothing but the Blues. p. 180.