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Musical Space: Oil Boom

Historic events can shape the course of music. This week marks the anniversary of the Kansas Oil Boom, when a well just east of Wichita struck crude in 1915. 

The El Dorado oil field turned out to be one of the largest known at that point, credited with being the reason we won World War I and for making Wichita the air capital. Petroleum is maybe not the most obvious influence on music history, but I’ll argue that nothing more important has happened to the culture of Wichita since.


Oil Field Blues by Walter Davis (1933), Roosevelt Sykes on piano

The oil boom was the literal and figurative lubrication of our town’s growth. People and money poured in. Wichita’s population doubled. Theaters like the Orpheum sprang up as quickly as the local refineries. National acts came to play in them, like John Philip Sousa and Louis Armstrong. 

But aside from the gusher of capital, oil changed our culture. Music comes from stories, and there’s a uniquely American flavor to these new stories of boom and bust, rich and poor, oil barons and roughnecks. A lot of the blues came from mid-continent oilfields. And the new social freedoms of car culture drove the musical tastes of jazz-age flappers, and, later, rock and roll greasers. I think Wichita was a force behind some of my favorite American music.


Oil Listening List:

Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Oil Well Blues,” (1929). The Father of Texas Blues, a style that came from African Americans who worked on oilfields and ranches.

Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson and His Orchestra, “Oil Man Blues,” (1947). A study in double entendre. Vinson was born in Houston.


Freddie King, “Texas Oil,” (1962). Freddie King was born in Texas but moved to Chicago, a link between the two blues styles.

Johnny Cash - Roughneck,” Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963)

Tower of Power, “Only So Much Oil In The Ground,” Urban Renewal (1975). One of many energy crisis songs.

Rickie Lee Jones, “Last Chance Texaco,” Rickie Lee Jones (1979)


Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.