Blues festivals are held around the world, with the largest number concentrated in the United States, the birthplace of the genre. The roots of blues reach back to the late 1800s and early 1900s in African-American communities, primarily located in the country's Deep South. You will, indeed, find many of the best blues music events in these states from Tennessee and stretch down to the Mississippi Delta.
The Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival is one of the most important cultural festivals in the country and has been held in Greenville, Mississippi, during September since 1977. It is sponsored by the Delta Arts Project to support the contribution of this uniquely American music genre to the larger story of the United States and to preserve the culture that nurtured it. This is the heart of blues country, and the festival offers stages for blues performers as well as gospel and related forms. Blues legends including Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker have returned to their roots to play these stages.
The big-city home of the blues is considered to be Memphis, and one of the country's best blues music events for up-and-coming talent is the International Blues Challenge held here for six days in February. It is sponsored by the Blues Foundation, which is headquartered in Memphis and offers a stage for new bands and solo performers who only need that last break to achieve fame.
Farther north, the Mayor of Chicago sponsors a popular festival that is held in June in that city's Grant Park. It is held over three days and draws as many as 500,000 attendees, making it one of the largest free blues festivals in the world. Look for performers like Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Ray Charles, and Buddy Guy. Also held over three days in June is the Monterey Bay Blues Festival in that beautiful Pacific Coast Town.
Unfortunately, the longest-running of all blues festivals—the San Francisco Blues Festival 1973—was hit by the 2008 recession. Some of the icons of the music genre performed at this festival, including famed harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, zydeco musician Queen Ida, John Lee Hooker, and powerhouse singer Etta James. This has been the sad fate of a number of the best blues music events around the world probably because the pool of attendees in smaller than the audiences you will find for more popular genres like rock, which has been able to sustain other kinds of music festivals.
A relative newcomer to the scene, also in San Francisco, is the Polk Street Blues Festival held over two days in September. Like jazz festivals, blues festivals are generally quieter and more intimate. In fact, some blues and jazz festivals that used to be separate events have combined forces to offer the two related genres in the same event. This is true of the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festivals held on Johnston Beach on the river near the town of Guerneville, California. Look also for smaller local festivals like the Blues By the River Festival held in Redding, California.
You'll also find blues festivals in Europe, where the genre is extremely popular Head for Notodden, Norway in August for the continent's largest and most famous. Plenty of well-known European artists perform here, but you will also find famous American blues icons like Koko Taylor and Charlie Musselwhite. Belgium has a couple popular blues festivals where you can find English acts like the Blue Bishops. Head for the beautiful historic city of Gent in July, and you can hear the British Blues Bishops and stars like B.B. King. Even Australia gets into the act with the Byron Bay Blues Fest (also called the East Coast Blues and Roots Music Festival) held for six days in April. Stars like Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, and Leon Russell have headlined this popular Down Under event.
Image: Polk Street Blues Festival / Kevin Hooker