Origins and Aspects Of The Delta Blues

Switch on the radio. You may get some rock with some hard guitar riffs- or some rap. Put on Robert Johnson's recording of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," and you'll hear it all-- set down in the 1930s by a guitarist who integrated aspects of the music he heard with the genius that he got from God - perhaps the devil, if you go for that stuff.

son house - delta blues bottleneck guitarThe blues and Mississippi are associated closely to music enthusiasts. The collection of any blues or rock band has plenty of tunes, guitar licks, and singing styles obtained from Mississippi bluesmen - from Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, and Son House to Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, and Furry Lewis- just to mention a few of the early ones. A few generations later on, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, James Cotton, and lots of others were still making Mississippi blues and sending it out all over the world.

By the 1890s, the blues form had really been set in stone and the strains of a unique new music started to be heard beyond the work camps were they were born. In 1930 Robert Johnson taped 2 tunes for the Paramount label: "Preachin' the Blues" and "Dry Spell Blues," about a farming crisis in the Delta. His recording sessions in 1936 and 1937 produced some of the most influential music in the history of the blues: "Crossroads," "Love in Vain," "Hellhound on my Trail," and "Dust My Broom," amongst others.

Tommy Johnson, like Robert Johnson (no relation), declared he too had actually offered his soul to the devil in exchange for his incredible guitar abilities. Tommy Johnson, well known for his tune "Canned Heat," a name taken by the 1960s blues band, was an early guitar master of the genre. The blues did not emerge from Africa; it was born out of 2 musical cultures - white and black-- that were prospering and growing individually and together.

Harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite was the only white Chicago blues man throughout the period to play Southside clubs with black bands. Growing up in Kosciusko, Musselwhite heard his daddy playing c and w, however he gravitated to music of black blues men due to the fact that "their music was the truth."

Juke joints in The Mississippi Delta and Beyond.

The music called the blues that emerged from Mississippi has actually formed the the hard core blues music distinctive in USA and known around the globe as American music. When African-American artists emigrated northward to cities like Chicago, they heard the music of tin pan street and jazz. They started to boost their instruments electrically and to include drums as well as horns. The single blues man was changed into the blues band, and a brand-new age had actuallystarted.

Through the blues, Mississippians offered another look, hope, even delight in their joyful ragtime dance blues tunes - in field hollers, throughout crowded juke joints and rural barn dances, and throughout the wireless to fans tuning in to their preferred radio programs. Mississippi artists looked to music for much of the happiness in their lives. Perhaps that is the genuine tradition of their music.

This section of an article on Wikipedia explains it nicely:

Although Delta blues certainly existed in some form or another at the turn of the 20th century, it was first recorded in the late 1920s, when record companies realized the potential African-American market for "race records". The major labels produced the earliest recordings, consisting mostly of one person singing and playing an instrument. Live performances, however, more commonly involved a group of musicians. 

Current belief is that Freddie Spruell is the first Delta blues artist to have been recorded; his "Milk Cow Blues" was recorded in Chicago in June 1926. Record company talent scouts made some of the early recordings on field trips to the South, and some performers were invited to travel to northern cities to record. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981), Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Braceywere recorded by Victor on that company's second field trip to Memphis, in 1928. Robert Wilkins was first recorded by Victor in Memphis in 1928, and Big Joe Williams and Garfield Akers by Brunswick/Vocalion, also in Memphis, in 1929.

Son House first recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930 for Paramount Records. Charley Patton also recorded for Paramount in Grafton, in June 1929 and May 1930. He also traveled to New York City for recording sessions in January and February 1934. Robert Johnsonrecorded his only sessions, for ARC, in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937.

Subsequently, the early Delta blues (as well as other genres) were extensively recorded by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, who crisscrossed the southern United States recording music played and sung by ordinary people, helping establish the canon of genres we know today as American folk music. 

Their recordings, numbering in the thousands, now reside in the Smithsonian Institution. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981) and Leadbitter and Slaven (1968), Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress researchers did not record any Delta bluesmen or women prior to 1941, when he recorded Son House and Willie Brown near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, and Muddy Waters at Stovall, Mississippi. However, this claim has been disputed, as John and Alan Lomax had recorded Bukka White in 1939, Lead Belly in 1933 and most likely others.

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Birth of the Delta blues.

big bill broonzy - from the mississippi delta to chicagoAmong the very first Mississippians to take the blues to Chicago was Bill Bill Broonzy. He got here there in 1920 and played "for chicken and chitlin at Saturday night lease celebrations." By the late 1930s he was among the most popular entertainers in the nation and ended up being a coach to lots of Mississippi blues artists who followed him north.

Born near Edwards about 1887, he moved to Dockery Plantation in the Mississippi Delta to work. Throughout those years, 1897 to 1934, he took a trip with another blues master, Son House, tutored the young Howlin' Wolf, and influenced many others.

Lots of other Mississippi blues greats moved to Chicago: James Cotton, Otis Rush, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Dawkins, Albert King, Big Joe Williams, Magic Sam, and Elmore James.

In these makeshift structures that served as social clubs, the blues spread out and established. Lyrics and tunes were created and borrowed, adapted from artists who moved from joint to joint, songs and picking patterns were copied and elaborated upon.

The source of the majority of the tunes sung by Chess recording stars like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters was "Big" Willie Dixon, born in Vicksburg in 1915. A skilled bass player, record manufacturer, and scout, in addition to songwriter, Willie Dixon is called the granddaddy of the Chicago blues..

The most powerful legend in the blues was Robert L. Johnson. Legend has it that Johnson offered his soul to the devil in exchange for his skill to play and sing the blues much better than anybody else.

The king of the Chicago blues was Muddy Waters. Born in Rolling Fork in 1915, Waters (McKinley Morganfield) set a brand-new style for the blues.

As far as historians can ascertain, the blues was born in the Mississippi Delta, an extension of work songs, emotional slave songs & tunes, and the lyrical and haunting "field hollers." As early as the American Civil War, white soldiers often sang music produced by black soldiers - tunes about marching and other aspects of war where they "extemporized a half-dissonant middle part." These tunes were direct precursors to the blues, if not the genuine thing.

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