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
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 Delta and the African-American experience here. …