Any discussion of geographical variations in the Blues, while important in developing some understanding of the music, is also problematic, because those labels can be slippery. As Francis Davis points out, “the widespread availability of country blues records quickly blurred regional distinctions that were fuzzy to begin with, on account of the nomadic existence of most blues performers.” (Davis, The History of the Blues, p. 116) Sometimes, a regional label was attached to a performer simply because he/she came from an area, regardless of the type of music the performer played or sang. So, keep this in mind as we look briefly at several different “geographical” types of Blues and at a select few of the people who played them.
The Blues arose in the Mississippi Delta, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post and shall return to in another post,in more detail. Suffice to say here that biographies of Delta Blues men usually include sharecropping (e.g., on the Dockery and Stovall plantations in Mississippi), as well as at least occasional sojourns in prison farms (e.g., at Parchman in Mississippi and Angola in Louisiana) and levee camps. As Robert Palmer said, the Delta Blues originated “as a turn-of-the-century innovation, accommodating the vocal traditions of work songs and field hollers to the expressive capabilities of a newly popular stringed instrument, the guitar.” (Quoted in Erlewine, et al, eds., All Music Guide To The Blues, p. 354–hereafter, AMGTB)
Blues men moved from place to place to entertain, which put a premium on traveling light and made the acoustic guitar a favorite instrument. It was the Delta Blues that furnished the stereotypical image of the soulful but tormented Blues man, “hunched over his acoustic guitar, exorcising the demons from the depths of his soul, his rhythmic force often accentuated by thrilling slide guitar.” (AMGTB, p 353; cf. Davis, p. 115, for a similar view)
Charley Patton (1891-1934) is generally acknowledged as the “Father of the Delta Blues.” Patton’s voice, while gruff and plaintive enough to suit the purist, presents problems to newcomers, because many of his recorded lyrics are unintelligible to the novice, the result of primitive recording techniques and Patton’s deep Delta accent. (There are web sites out there that feature printed lyrics to Blues songs, including Patton’s, though these efforts are far from perfect.) Despite this difficulty in understanding what Patton is singing, even the tinny recordings that have survived still manage to convey the power of his guitar work.
Son House (1902-1988)—House recorded his first sides in 1929, at about the age of 27. He drove a tractor in the 1930s while singing and playing the Blues in his off hours. House was “discovered” not once but twice: in 1942, while still in Mississippi, by Alan Lomax, who was recording folksongs for the Library of Congress; and in 1965, after he’d moved to Rochester, N.Y., and given up music, by three eager fans during the rebirth of interest in the Blues created by the impact of African American music on various “British invasion” rock bands. As a result, House hit the concert trail and began recording again, one of the last survivors of the original Delta Blues men.
The most elusive of the Delta Blues men is Robert Johnson (1911-1938). A child of the Delta, Johnson honed his guitar skills by studying the techniques of performers like Charley Patton and Son House, but, according to Johnson himself, he received both his song-writing ability and guitar-playing prowess after making a pact with the Devil while “standin’ at the crossroads.” He died an agonizing death under mysterious circumstances in 1938, apparently poisoned by the angry husband of a woman he’d been flirting with. Because of his early demise, Johnson’s recorded output was small, a total of 41 sides produced between November 1936 and June 1937, but his influence on later generations of Blues and rock ‘n’ roll performers has been tremendous.
The link between the Delta and Chicago Blues styles was Muddy Waters (1915-1983), born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. By the early 1940s, Morganfield was a tractor driver during the day and performed at night as “Muddy Waters, Stovall’s Famous Guitar Picker” in local juke joints. He too was “discovered” by Alan Lomax, who recorded him at the Stovall Plantation in 1941 and 1942. As Muddy described the experience, “[W]hen Mr. Lomax played me the record [of his 1941-1942 songs] I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues.” (Liner notes, “Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings”) He left the Delta in 1943 for Chicago.
Highways 49 and 61, as well as the railroads that ran through the Delta, led to Chicago, and many African Americans, including a number of talented Blues performers, joined Muddy Waters along this escape route. (Davis, The History of the Blues, p. 116) The lure of war work and reports of a freer environment set off the “Great Migration” during World War I; over the next three decades, thousands of African Americans left the South for the industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast.
Before Muddy Waters arrived in Chicago, the Blues scene there was heavily influenced by one producer, Lester Melrose, who developed talent for two major record labels, Columbia and Victor. Melrose’s chief contribution was creating a sound with full band arrangements—“ensemble playing, a rhythm section, and even some electricity.” (AMGTB, p.356)
One of the most important of the pre-Muddy Chicago Blues figures was Memphis Minnie [AKA Minnie Douglas McCoy] (1897-1973), who quickly learned to play the guitar and, rather than work as a sharecropper with the rest of her family, she—and her guitar—left home at the age of 13. She toured the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus, wowing crowds with the many creative ways she could play her guitar (e.g., across the back of her head). She was a woman who took no guff from anyone. Part of her reputation was based on how she supposedly “played the guitar like a man,” and one story, perhaps apocryphal, described how she bested veteran Chicago Blues man Big Bill Broonzy in a guitar-playing contest in 1933. Memphis Minnie began recording in 1929 and remained one of the best-known female Blues performers through World War II. (Christopher John Farley, “Memphis Minnie and the Cutting Contest,” in Guralnik, et al, Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues, pp.198-201)
Newly-arrived in Chicago, Muddy Waters purchased his first electric guitar in 1944. More than any other performer, Muddy was responsible for introducing the “electric Blues” in Chicago, which would exert a major influence on rock ‘n’ roll. As he worked house parties and clubs on the South Side, Muddy realized that he needed more volume than was produced by the acoustic guitar in order to cut through the noise generated by the large, enthusiastic Chicago audiences. Using a thumb pick and a bottleneck slide with his electric guitar was a first step in increasing the volume of his performances, even as he built a band around a second electric guitar, an amplified harmonica, a bass, drums, and a piano. Nevertheless, his bosses at Chess Records, where he began to record in 1948, insisted that Muddy try to achieve a spare “Mississippi sound,” and they paired him only with a bass player on his earliest recordings.
Howlin’ Wolf [Chester Burnett] (1910-1976)—Among Wolf’s early teachers was Charley Patton. Like most Blues men, Wolf gave up farming and left the Delta, migrating first to Memphis and then, in 1953, to Chicago, where Muddy Waters helped him get established. Physically imposing, Wolf turned into a flamboyant performer who was, in the words of Blues historian Francis Davis, “given to simulating sexual ecstasy or epileptic seizures (difficult to know which it was supposed to be) by writhing on stage floors and treating his audience to the spectacle of a three hundred-pound man skipping while shaking his ass to the beat.” (Davis, The History of the Blues, p.192) Wolf was not a particularly accomplished musician, either on guitar or harmonica; what carries his records, and what made him a favorite of British rock groups like the Rolling Stones, was his voice. Again according to Francis Davis, Wolf “didn’t so much sing as cackle with malevolent glee.” (ibid., 193)
As developed in the 1920s, acoustic Texas Blues was noted for “drawing heavily from country, but leaving out the twang,” a laid-back rhythm known as the “Texas Shuffle,” and lyrics with not as many “cryin’-in-my-beer themes.” (Davis, The History of the Blues, p. 116)
A formative influence on the acoustic Texas Blues style was Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897?-1929), sometimes called the “Father of the Texas Blues” and the most famous bluesman of the Roaring ‘20s. According to Blues historian Jas Obrecht, Jefferson was a man who “lived the rough-and-tumble themes that dominate his songs. . . .[H]is lyrics create a unique body of poetry. . . , a stunning view of society from the perspective of someone at the bottom.” [AMGTB, p.135]
The Texas Blues went electric after World War II. A leading figure from that era was Aaron Thibeaux (“T-Bone”) Walker (1910-1975). According to Blues historian Bill Dahl, “Modern electric blues can be traced directly back to” Walker, whose efforts in that direction began around 1940, a few years before Muddy Waters arrived in Chicago. (AMGTB, p.261)
Piedmont/East Coast Blues
Piedmont/East Coast Blues was characterized by a complex, finger-picking guitar method that integrated earlier types of music like ragtime and country dance songs into the Blues. These tunes blended both black and white, rural and urban song elements, perhaps because, according to one writer, there were fewer restrictions on black mobility in Georgia and the Carolinas than in other parts of the musical South. (Davis, p. 116) The Piedmont Blues arose between the Appalachian Mountains and the coastal plain, roughly from Richmond, Virginia, to Atlanta. African American musicians in the Piedmont migrated from rural to urban areas along the eastern seaboard. As a result, cities “became fertile areas for black musicians to both perform and influence each other”: Durham, N.C., the center of tobacco industry, was a gathering place for Piedmont Blues men, while Atlanta “wasn’t merely an urban center but a pipeline to the North.” (http://facstaff.unca.edu/sinclair/piedmontblues/Default.htm; Davis, pp. 119-120)
According to Francis Davis, Piedmont Blues tunes were “more genuinely songlike” than Delta or Texas blues, and their most striking characteristics were “wistfulness and instrumental virtuosity.” For example, he characterizes the recordings of Georgia native Willie Samuel (“Blind Willie”) McTell (1901-1959), as having “the charm of a man singing to himself, strictly for his own amusement.” (Davis, pp. 119, 122)
A more recent practitioner of the Piedmont Blues was Walter (“Brownie”) McGhee (1915-1996), who was at his death “still the leading Piedmont-style bluesman” and known both for his solo work and for his collaborations with Sonny Terry, a blind harmonica player famous in his own right. [AMGTB, p.186] Moreover, according to several British performers interviewed in Mike Figgis’s documentary, “Red, White, & Blues,” McGhee was one of the first African American Blues men to tour in Great Britain in the 1960s and, thus, one of the earliest influences on the rising generation of white English Blues and rock guitarists, who, in their turn, proved crucial in creating an appreciation of the Blues among white American teenagers and college students.
1. Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues (New York, 1995)
2. Erlewine, Michael, et al., editors. All Music Guide to The Blues (San Francisco, 1996)
3. Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (New York and London, 2008)
4. Guralnick, Peter, et al., editors. Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues (New York, 2003)
5. __________. Searching for Robert Johnson (New York, 1998)
6. Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York, 2004)
1. Blues Masters: The Essential Blues Collection, Volume 8: Mississippi Delta Blues. Rhino R2 71130 (1993)
2. East Coast Blues. Catfish KATCD178 (2001)
3. The Best There Ever Was: The Legendary Early Blues Performers. Yazoo 3002 (2003)
4. Back to the Crossroads: The Roots of Robert Johnson. Yazoo 2070 (2004)
5. Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings. Chess/MCA CHD 9344 (1993)
6. Muddy & The Wolf . Chess/MCA CHD-9100 (1983)
7. Southern Country Blues, Volume 1 (3 cds). Starsounds 37122-1, 37122-2, 37122-3 (1997)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: