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

Sears may be bankrupt, but thanks to the retail giant we're all singing the blues.
Image: Sears
A Sears store in Hackensack, N.J. Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday, buckling under its massive debt load and staggering losses.Seth Wenig / AP

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.

Image: vintage Sears and Roebuck catalog
This is a vintage Sears and Roebuck catalog cover circa 1897.AP file

"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.

The discussion comes as Sears Holdings, facing extinction and buckling under a massive debt load, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Monday — and after Louis Hyman, an associate history professor at Cornell University, weighed in on the catalog in a Twitter thread that was shared more than 16,000 times and attracted the attention of The Washington Post and other news organizations.

"The Sears catalog played a radical role in combating the Jim Crow laws," Hyman told NBC News. "Whether it was a guitar or a gun or a nice suit, it enabled African-Americans to buy what the white people bought and at prices that were cheaper than in the local country store."

Most African-Americans lived in rural areas back then, and "the only place they had to shop was the local store, which was often owned by the guy who rented them the land," said Hyman.

While these stores were one of the few places where blacks and whites could freely mingle, African-Americans had to endure humiliations like being served last or denied credit, he noted.

"So the Sears catalog was an opportunity to buy at city prices and maintain some dignity," he said.

Local white store owners were resistant, Hyman said, "and not just because they were losing business."

"The Sears catalog helped blacks push back against white supremacy and Jim Crow capitalism," Hyman said.

Image: Muddy Waters
American blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters performs at the American Folk Blues Festival in London, 1963.Tony Evans / Timelapse Library Ltd. via Getty Images

Guitars made their debut in the Sears catalog in 1894, six years after the company began publishing them. The cost? Four dollars and fifty cents, or about $112 in today’s dollars, Chris Kjorness, a Michigan-based musician wrote in Reason magazine.

"Throughout the 1910s Delta blacks routinely ordered a wide assortment of goods from Sears, Roebuck, including the instrument that would define them," he wrote. "There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars."

Sears began selling those for $1.89 in 1908.

"Soon sharecroppers throughout the Delta were ordering guitars from Sears in hopes of supplementing their income on weekends," Kjorness wrote. "The catalog is frequently mentioned in the biographies of Delta bluesmen."

One of them was Muddy Waters, often called the "father of modern Chicago blues," who bought a used Sears "Stella" guitar in 1930 and embarked on a legendary career that would land him in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.