The house party is important in southern musical forms as diverse as blues, country, jazz, and hip-hop. Country music fiddlers play at rural house parties, which Bill Malone calls “one of the great seedbeds of country music.” Jazz is associated with rent parties, where people gather and raise money to pay the next month’s rent. In William Miller’s children’s book, Rent Party Jazz (2001), New Orleans musicians perform to raise rent money for a friend who has lost her job. Jazz rent parties in Chicago and New York are associated with pianists such as Speckled Red, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. And today in Clarksdale, young hip-hop artists such as Jerome Williams (TopNotch the Villain) perform at house parties.
For more than a century house parties have been home to blues in the Mississippi Delta, with audiences gathering each Friday and Saturday night to hear a guitarist or pianist play and sing, sometimes accompanied by a harmonica player and a drummer. At times, a musician rubs a broom handle across the floor to provide rhythm. Once the music begins, audience members join in with their own verses and verbal encouragement. Stories, jokes, and music are all part of the blues performance at a house party. As small rooms fill with smoke and the smell of alcohol, couples talk, dance the Slow Drag, and sing along with the performer. Blues house parties are found in Delta neighborhoods such as Kent’s Alley, Black Dog, and the Brickyard in Leland.
At the house party, dancers speak to the singer, who responds through the music. Blues singers learn to “talk the blues” with the audience as they integrate conversation among the blues verses. After singing each verse, musicians continue their instrumental accompaniment and develop a talk session. Then they sing another verse while the audience recalls rhymes and jokes to tell at the next verse break. The audience influences the length and structure of each blues song, forcing singers to integrate the songs with the responses. Experienced blues singers know that audience response is a measure of their musical skill, and a successful blues session is filled with comments and jokes that are told as the music is played. This call-and-response exchange between blues performers and their audiences is also familiar in the black church service, where a similar pattern develops between the preacher and the congregation.
Constant verbal interplay occurs between the singer and the audience during a blues performance at a house party. The role of performer shifts back and forth between the singer and the audience. After an audience member tells a joke, the performer recaptures the audience by changing the musical beat or striking louder chords. The singer allows the center of attention to shift to members of the audience but maintains overall control through his music.
During house party performances, the distinction between music and talk blurs as performer and audience respond to each other. Blues talk mixes with verses and at times becomes the focus of the performance. The form of blues talk at a house party can be either short phrases or lengthy conversations. Short phrases such as “Play the blues, Pine” appear during musical breaks after each line. These phrases are reminiscent of how the blues disc jockey speaks as he plays a record. Rather than interrupt the blues verse, both the disc jockey and the blues audience insert phrases during instrumental breaks. More lengthy blues talk pulls the center of attention away from the verses. For example, a long conversation between the singer and the audience can be inserted like a verse within the song. Lengthy blues talk can also feature obscene tales, toasts, and dozens that are performed with instrumental accompaniment.
Blues house parties remain common in the Mississippi Delta. When a musician finds an audience and a comfortable room, the party begins early in the evening and will last “into the wee, wee hours.”
- William Ferris, Blues from the Delta (1988)
- William Ferris, Mississippi Delta Blues (film 1983)
- Bill C. Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (2002)
- William Miller, Rent Party Jazz (2001)
- Ali Colleen Neff, Let the World Listen Right: The Mississippi Delta Hip-Hop Story (2009)
- Eudora Welty, in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980)