History: BMI and the Blues

The Blues is one of the pivotal forms of American culture and constitutes one of the “roots” of virtually all popular American music. BMI has supported the work of Blues writers since its founding in 1940, at which time the major performing rights organization did not include many Blues-connected individuals in their membership. Blues continues to be a central element of BMI’s repertoire and, as a result, BMI has also been a long time sponsor of the Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tennessee. Founded in 1979, their annual Blues Music Awards honor the best in the field. Additionally, 89% of the Blues Foundation Blues Hall of Fame members are BMI songwriters.

From its origins in the delta plantations of the South, the Blues found its way to the pen of W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” whose compositions like “St. Louis Blues” helped turn what was an unwritten form of music to one that could be set down in sheet music. The recording industry realized the marketability of blues early on; the first blues disk was the 1920 “Crazy Blues,” written by Perry Bradford and sung by Mamie Smith. During the 1920’s, the record labels included the genre in its “race” series, and scouts throughout the country sought musicians who could play three original songs, the key to getting an audition and, perhaps, a record contract. Some of the greatest bluesmen came from the deep South or Texas, like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson.

The Depression led to a lack of blues records being made, but with the springing back of the economy during World War II, both major labels and independent companies sought blues musicians once again. This coincided with the founding of BMI in 1940. Unsupported by other organizations, many of the most important blues performers found a home at BMI and support for their songwriting. Some of them had migrated to the major cities, such as Chicago, where Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B. B. King and others played in the clubs of the city’s South side. Others went further North, such as John Lee Hooker, whose “Boogie Chillen” was a chart-topping hit in 1948. Women continued to sing the blues, like Ruth Brown, although with the rise of rock and roll, the audience for hard core blues dwindled. The excitement over the music returned in the 1960s, when younger musicians, including the Rolling Stones and others, found in the music the kind of gut level emotion they sought in rock and roll. Today, musicians like Robert Cray carry on the tradition, and the blues reaches an audience in clubs throughout the country and on the stages of the several hundred annual blues festivals.

For more information, contact:

The Blues Foundation
421 South Main
Memphis, TN 38103
901-529-4030 (fax)

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