Mississippi—particularly the Delta region—is often called the Birthplace of the Blues, a designation that derives from the oppressive sociopolitical conditions that shaped the music’s development, the historic overrepresentation of Mississippi natives among blues recording artists, and the great influence of musical styles that derive from Mississippi. There is scant evidence, however, to support the music’s genesis here rather than in other areas of the South, largely as a consequence of the paucity of historical documentation of African American vernacular cultural expressions.
The term Delta blues is widely used to describe music characterized by the percussive use of the guitar, the employment of the slide or “bottleneck” in guitar playing, minimal harmonic development, a harsh vocal approach, and a general quality of intensity. Many leading blues scholars refrain from using the term Delta blues, however, because its “typical” traits also characterize styles found in other parts of the South.
Musically, blues is typified by the twelve-bar chord progression (though other lengths are common); in practice this means that a song segment extends over twelve musical measures and employs specific patterns of the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. A notable characteristic of the blues (as well as other types of music based on the pentatonic scale) is the “blue note,” which is expressed in the diatonic scale as flattened thirds, fifths, and sevenths.
The blues most likely emerged in a recognizable form in the 1880s or 1890s, around the same time that both jazz and ragtime were born. While many researchers speculate that blues first emerged in the Mississippi Delta, by the early 1900s the music was rapidly gaining popularity across the South from Virginia to Texas. Some of the earliest accounts of the blues were in Mississippi. Harvard archaeologist Charles Peabody documented blues lyrics during a 1901–2 excavation of Indian mounds near Clarksdale, and W. C. Handy—dubbed the Father of the Blues because of his pioneering song publishing work—recalled first encountering the blues around 1903 at the train station in Tutwiler, describing it as “the weirdest music I ever heard.” The unnamed musician played his guitar using a knife for a slide and sang about where the “Southern crosses the Dog,” a reference to a railway crossing in Moorhead.
Distinctive local styles emerged in both rural and urban areas of the South. Although no African American recorded the blues until 1920, these styles spread earlier via itinerant musicians, the vaudeville circuit, the sheet music of professional songwriters such as Handy, and traveling tent shows such as the Port Gibson–based Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels that brought sophisticated entertainment to rural areas such as the Delta. From 1920 to 1925 the vast majority of blues recordings were of women who worked on the vaudeville circuit, very few of whom were Mississippi natives. In the latter part of the decade labels increasingly documented “down-home” blues styles via mobile recording units and field agents in the South; the process captured many regional styles, including the rich traditions of Mississippi musicians. Over subsequent decades the blues changed dramatically, the result of its mass mediation via phonograph and radio, migration and urbanization, electrification, and broad changes in cultural taste.
It is impossible to explain exactly why the Mississippi Delta became such an influential center for blues, but it is evident why the area was ripe for innovations in secular culture. The Delta was settled largely in the decades following the Civil War, and the workers recruited for land-clearing projects and the resultant plantation system were largely African Americans from more established areas of Mississippi and other southeastern states. Consequently, older folk traditions had less traction in the Delta, and the preponderance of African Americans in Delta counties meant that less cross-racial musical interchange occurred there than in other areas. Although the string band music that flourished among both blacks and whites in the 1800s remained popular in the Delta into the 1930s via groups such as the Mississippi Sheiks, the relative “blackness” of Delta blues appears to reflect the area’s unique demographic makeup. In an early 1940s study of the Clarksdale region, John Work III noted the Delta’s relative lack of religiosity—the pervasiveness of religious authority across social life—compared to more settled areas. Under such conditions, secular music flourished, particularly as many plantation owners either encouraged or tolerated juke joints and other informal music gatherings. Documentary evidence also suggests that itinerant gamblers, musicians, and sex workers were well aware of the pay schedules of plantations, levee camps, and logging camps. Larger cities such as Greenville and Clarksdale also offered more formal venues in addition to good locations for soliciting tips.
The most important early center for blues in the state surrounded the Drew area beginning in the 1910s and revolved around Charley Patton (1891–1934), a native of Edwards who has been called the Father of the Delta Blues. Patton influenced many local artists as well as bluesmen from other parts of the state, including Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) from White Station and Booker White from Houston. Patton’s colleague Eddie “Son” House, known for his conflict between the blues and religion, was also very influential and served as the mentor to both Robert Johnson, who modernized the Delta style by incorporating sounds he heard by artists from other areas via phonograph records, and Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) from Rolling Fork. Waters played a major role in electrifying and popularizing Delta blues after moving to Chicago, as did fellow Delta natives including Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, and Sonny Boy Williamson II. James and Williamson made their first recordings in 1951 for Jackson’s Trumpet Records, one of the few labels in the state at the time.
Most other important early artists came from the Jackson area and areas bordering the Delta. These include Crystal Springs’s Tommy Johnson, the most important bluesman in the Jackson area; Skip James from Bentonia; and Mississippi John Hurt from Avalon. For social reasons, female musicians were relatively scarce in rural blues traditions; notable exceptions in Mississippi included Memphis Minnie, long associated with Walls, and Geechie Wiley, about whom little is known. Compared to more urbanized areas of the South, Mississippi spawned relatively few piano players, though notable exceptions include Albert “Sunnyland Slim” Luandrew, Little Johnny Jones, Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, and Waters’s longtime sideman, Otis Spann.
Acoustic country blues styles declined in popularity beginning in the 1930s, particularly after electric amplification became commonplace. The influence of radio and records dampened the relative role of oral tradition, and in the 1940s–50s artists such as B. B. King and Little Milton Campbell developed popular styles that were based largely on jump blues traditions from the Southwest. They were better able to adapt to changes in the African American market than those who played in a straight Delta blues style, scoring national hits into the 1970s. By the mid-1950s most of the younger influential artists native to Mississippi had moved north, but blues remained popular locally, particularly in Clarksdale, Greenville, and Jackson, with a vibrant juke joint and nightclub network throughout the state. In the 1960s the music of this circuit began to turn more and more toward soul, and by the latter 1970s and early 1980s the music became popularly known as soul blues, a genre with a largely southern and almost exclusively African American base. Jackson’s Malaco Records became the dominant label in this field in the early 1980s, continuing in this role into the twenty-first century; stars on its roster include Mississippi natives and/or residents including Little Milton, Denise LaSalle, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Rush, Willie Clayton, and Dorothy Moore.
Folklorists including Herbert Halpert, John Lomax, and Alan Lomax began documenting folk traditions in Mississippi in late 1930s. A new wave of folkloric activity was sparked by Alan Lomax’s 1959 return visit, which resulted in the discovery of Mississippi Fred McDowell in Como. Many early Mississippi blues artists subsequently were “rediscovered” and brought to the festival-coffeehouse circuit, including Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Booker White, and Skip James. By the mid-1960s the largely white “blues revival” audience on both sides of the Atlantic had embraced the electrified down-home blues of Mississippians, including Waters, Hooker, and Williamson, whose music was at the base of much popular music in the late 1960s and beyond. Beginning in the early 1980s, labels such as Earwig and Rooster Blues began documenting and popularizing the music of contemporary down-home artists in Mississippi, such as the Jelly Roll Kings, and in the 1990s the Oxford-based Fat Possum label successfully reached out to alternative rock audiences through recordings and later modern remixes of North Mississippi hill country artists David “Junior” Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside.
Blues-related tourism has grown considerably since 1978, when the Delta Blues Festival was founded in Greenville, and many other annual events now draw thousands of international visitors and highlight the state’s contemporary blues talents. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale opened in 1979, and the University of Mississippi began actively documenting the blues in 1983 via its acquisition of Living Blues magazine and the founding the following year of the Blues Archive. In 2008 the B. B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, budgeted at more than ten million dollars, opened in Indianola. Most promotion of blues initially came from grassroots activists, but the state and local tourist bureaus gradually began marketing blues more actively as they recognized the economic potential of using the music to promote cultural tourism. In 2003 the state created the Mississippi Blues Commission, which three years later initiated the Mississippi Blues Trail, comprised of more than 200 historic markers around the state, to encourage tourism and recognize the state’s historically overlooked blues heritage.
- Blues Archive, University of Mississippi Libraries, website, http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/general_library/archives/blues/;
- David “Honeyboy” Edwards, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards (1997);
- David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in Folk Blues (1982);
- William Ferris, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Delta (2009);
- Ted Gioia, Delta Blues (2008)
- Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began (1993)
- Paul Oliver, The Story of the Blues (1969)
- Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1981)
- Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (2004)
- John Wesley Work, Lewis Wade Jones, and Samuel C. Adams Jr., Lost Delta Found: Rediscovering the Fisk University–Library of Congress Coahoma County Study, 1941–1942, ed. Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov (2005)