Thanks to Sears, the musicians who gave America the blues had an ax to grind

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by Corky Siemaszko/NBC News

Sears is currently singing the bankruptcy blues — but it’s a little-known fact that the retail giant also helped nurture the musical genre spawned in the Deep South.

Because that quintessentially American form of music was created and disseminated by Delta bluesmen wielding steel-string guitars purchased from the Sears catalog — which leveled the shopping playing field for blacks in the Jim Crow era, according to music experts.

“There was an amalgamation of a number of things that led to the development of the blues and the acoustic guitars being bought through the Sears catalog was certainly one of them,” said Michael Roberts, who teaches a class on the history of the blues at DePaul University in Chicago. “It was inexpensive enough that the blues artists were able to save up the money they made as sharecroppers to make that purchase.”

Michael Stryker, director of the jazz studies program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the catalog was likely a mecca for musicians in the Mississippi Delta.

“It makes complete sense given the pervasiveness of the Sears catalog,” he said. “That catalog went everywhere across the country and folks would mail order all sorts of goods.”

The role that Sears and their famous catalog appears to have played in revolutionizing American music is just one of the strands of the much larger story about how the company enabled blacks in the Jim Crow South to overcome the discrimination they faced in local stores.

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