Abstract

The transformation of blues into rhythm and blues in the mid-twentieth century mirrored the experience of migrants who traveled from the South and adapted to bustling city life in the North and Midwest. When millions of Black Americans moved to cities during the Great Migration, traditional blues traveled with them, but the faster pace of urban life engendered new approaches to blues that reflected the new environment, and rhythm and blues emerged in the early postwar period as an urbanized transformation of the earlier genre.

Rhythm and blues was loud, emphatically energetic, and, through greater use of new modern instruments, highly electrified. These attributes were, as many have observed, artistic responses to the new urban setting and marked a distinct divergence from the genre's prewar origins.

What have received less attention than timbre, tempo, and volume, though, are the many new formal approaches that mark the new style: the urban environment engendered a corresponding creative explosion of new variants on the traditional twelve-bar form, many of them characterized by faster textual pacing, greater phrase-rhythmic density, and elaborate stylization. These transformations are the formal counterparts to the electrification and livelier tempos that mark the urbanization of blues and its metamorphosis into a new postwar genre, and they appear throughout the work of many pivotal rhythm and blues musicians, including Willie Dixon, Ruth Brown, Howlin' Wolf, Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, the main artists explored in this study.

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