When Jim Baird is asked to define the blues, he pauses for a moment and then recites a B.B. King line: "Nobody loves me but my mother - and she could be jivin' too."
"Americans are loved for two things around the world: their movies and their music. And the blues are the basis of popular music," says Mr. Baird, a professor at the University of North Texas who has been studying American culture and music since he first discovered the blues as a college student in 1962.
The juke joints where the blues took root here in the Delta have been closing down, but academic exploration of this uniquely American art form - midwife to a half-dozen other musical genres - is thriving from coast to coast.
At the University of Virginia, for example, a class looks at the impact of Robert Johnson, an early bluesman credited with influencing performers as diverse as Eric Clapton and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Johnson was only 28 when he died in 1938, but his music "remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice," Clapton has said. Although Johnson received little formal education, the course description says his lyrics are "tightly wrought poems worthy of intense literary examination."
The rise of African-American studies departments on university campuses, in fact, has been a significant catalyst for a proliferation of courses on the blues.
And an annual symposium for scholars interested in the blues is now in its eighth year at Arkansas State University. It was conceived as a conference on the history and culture of the Mississippi Delta region, but the response to the first year's subject, the blues, was so overwhelming that it has been repeated ever since.
The original conference took place during what is generally referred to as the second blues revival, sparked by Columbia Records' 1990 reissue of Robert Johnson's collected music. This year's symposium, which just concluded, lured about three dozen scholars, some from as far away as Genoa, Italy.
The flip side of the American Dream
Why the intense academic interest in the blues? If movies and music are indeed America's two truly unique cultural exports, the history of film is largely a product of white America, while the blues is an African-American creation. For that reason, say some, the music that chronicles the flip side of the American Dream has been slower to receive scholarly attention, and its impact on music worldwide is still underrated.
Wholly different strains of African and European music were combined to produce Delta blues, says William Clements, a professor of folklore at ASU and an organizer of the symposium. "The blues were not only a new creation, but became the foundation on which other forms of music were built."
A product of the Delta
Unlike rock 'n' roll, which has but a few vague geographical landmarks, such as Graceland, the blues are a specific product of the …