Friday, February 13, 2015

Black History Month: The Delta Blues

Mississippi Delta
(in green)
One of the quintessential and perhaps most influential styles of American music is known as "The Blues."  "The blues" denotes depression and sadness in everyday parlance, but in music it means that and much more.

After the turn of the Twentieth Century, the descendants of slaves who had worked the cotton fields of the Northwest Mississippi (The "Delta") were free to leave the agricultural life.  Many migrated North to factory jobs.  Many turned to the trades to make a living.  And some became entertainers. Musicians playing the blues could play "juke joints," street corners or house parties.  As they traveled through the South, they spread the style that would be known more generally as "the blues."  During the definitive, Depression Era, years, the guitars were acoustic, but some musicians went on to play electric guitars, developing the Chicago Blues style.

Although the musicians were typically rural farm kids, Memphis and other cities became meccas for both performing and recording.

Classic blues lyrics depicted unrequited love, poverty, or the itinerant travels of the bluesmen.  They  could also be raunchy songs about sex, which did not endear the genre to the religious communities of the South.   It was considered the "devil's music" by more proper, church-going Mississippians, and some of the lore of the Blues embraces the idea.

The Delta Blues experienced renewed interest when Alan Lomax, of the Library of Congress, and other researchers recorded folk musicians around the world.  These recordings reached as far as England, where they influenced the development of rock n' roll.  Artists such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton counted Delta blues musicians among their musical heroes.

For more about the Delta Blues, check out these resources:
The Hidden History of Mississippi Blues
ML 3521 .S76 2011

Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues
ML 3521 .G58 2009

The Land Where the Blues Began, by Alan Lomax
ML 3521 .L64 1993

DVDs in the Educational Technology and Resources are of Bracken Library:
Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey (Compact Discs and DVDs from the television series)

Blues Masters: The Essential History of the Blues
DVD Video 3813

Legendary Country Blues Guitarists
DVD Video 11591

Delta Blues Musicians:

Charley Patton (ca. 1890 - 1934) was one of the first Delta bluesmen to be recorded.  He influenced many of the younger generation of performers as a mentor and teacher.  Check out Screamin' and Hollerin the Blues:  Compact Disc 12986, which includes recordings from 1929-1934 and interviews.

One of the most famous of Patton's protegés was Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938).  He only made a few recordings in 1936 and 1937, but the songs are enduring classics. Eric Clapton's "Crossroads" festival is named for Johnson's song, Crossroads Blues. The complete recordings are available on Compact Disc 12686  Clapton first performed Crossroads in the 1960s while a member of the band, Cream.

Guitarists can emulate Johnson thanks to Robert Johnson: The New Transcriptions, transcribed by Pete Billmann.  Whether you read staff notation or TAB, it's all there:
M 1630.18 .J665 R6 1999

Mississippi John Hurt (1892 - 1966) was a self-taught musician who was one of the first recorded blues singers, recording a session in 1928, but his influence was more widely felt when he recorded his music at the Library of Congress in the 1960s.  His songs have been performed by modern blues and rock musicians.  For more information, check out:
Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues
ML 420 .H986 .R37 2011

"Son" House (1902 - 1988) was one of Charley Patton's protégés, and he in turn influenced Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.    Like Mississippi John Hurt, he recorded for the Library of Congress.  His recordings continue to influence modern country, rock, and blues musicians.

Howlin' Wolf (1910 - 1976) learned to play guitar from Charley patton and he also played harmonica, Chess Records, he moved to Chicago, as did many bluesmen.  For more, see:
with Robert Johnson, Son House or other guitarists backing him.  After scoring a recording contract with

Moanin' at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin' Wolf
ML 420 .H72 S44 2004

Muddy Waters (1913 - 1983) began his career in the Mississippi Delta, emulating Son House and Robert Johnson.  Alan Lomax traveled to his plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi to record his music, and from then on he became one of the biggest stars of the blues.  He was one of the first to amplify his guitar, developed a Chicago blues style.  He recorded and performed until 1982, keeping the Blues alive for younger generations.

John Lee Hooker
in The Blues Brothers movie
John Lee Hooker (1917 - 2001) was also from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  He learned the blues from his stepfather, but in the 1930s his home was Memphis, where he performed on the famous Beale Street.  He performed throughout his life, and appeared in the Blues Brothers movie, singing his hit, "Boom Boom."

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post about the Delta Blues and all the different musicians that came from the Delta. Thanks for sharing!