The Origins of the Mississippi Delta Blues
by James Miller
May 20, 2002
The origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta are as deep, wide, and muddy as the
river that gives the area its name. These origins are the culmination of hundreds of years
of slavery, pain, prosperity, and revolution, and dealing with many races and creeds. The
palate for this subject is so broad that all the information cannot be addressed in a
small paper such as this one. This work covers the years 1890 to 1930, is the most
exemplary and explosive time for the birth of the Mississippi Delta Blues. The regional
focus will be on the area known as the Mississippi Delta, both colloquially and
analytically. This does not include the entire Mississippi Delta Basin, but only a few
hundred square miles of the alluvial plain. The main counties to be looked at will be
Coahoma and Sunflower, with a peripheral use of Washington, Bolivar, Humphreys, and Yazoo
counties. The origins of the blues in the Mississippi Delta can be studied in a scholarly
fashion by examining the historical and socio-economic conditions of the area, musical and
lyrical influences of the early Delta Blues, the genesis of the Delta Blues, and the Age
of the Delta Bluesman. In looking at the topic in this way, one can come to a better
understanding of the many stimuli that brought about this distinct style of music.
Goals of the Study
The goal of this study is to show the Delta Blues as not only a product of
African-American culture, but as a highly integrated mixture of many ethnic and cultural
influences. African-Americans are by far the prime purveyors of this style, but little
focus has been placed on other inspirations of the genre.
The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (henceforth termed as the Mississippi Delta) is
approximately two hundred miles long and seventy miles wide at its widest point. This area
is a flat, roaming terrain of vast acres of agricultural fields, swamp, and curving water
bodies. The land traditionally considered the "Delta" begins just below Memphis,
Tennessee and runs along the East bank of the Mississippi River to the port of Vicksburg,
Mississippi. The first Europeans to navigate this area were the Spanish under Hernando
Desoto in 1539. The land was a thick quandary of impenetrable canebrake and mosquito
swarmed swamps lined with small runs of hardwood trees. After the Spanish exploration,
little was thought about the area until after the Revolutionary War. When sufficient
Americans settled in this western region, the Mississippi Territory was organized in 1798.
Statehood came in 1817 and the trickle of settlers began to increase more rapidly, coming
to a stronger pace after the Indian removal of 1820. This step brought a small influx of
settlers down Ohio and other rivers into present-day Washington County. Initial settlement
spanned out from Lake Washington into the surrounding countryside in small stages.
The environment for early settlers of the Mississippi Delta was very arduous to say the
least. Fever and malaria ran rampant through both slaves and whites alike. To be able to
farm the rich, alluvial soil, slaves were forced to reclaim the burly wilderness acre by
acre. This caused extremely high mortality rates among slaves. The main transportation was
via the Mississippi River, with principal staples of subsistence being brought into the
area by boat.
The land was settled day by day, and the counties known today were created. The
population for the area was sparse, with the 1829 population of Washington county showing
1,184 slaves, 792 whites, and one "Free Man of Color." With settlement spreading
out from a mere foothold, the dominant socio-economic system of the age, the plantation
system, came into being. Most small farms simply could not survive. They had neither the
workforce, nor the capital to sustain the initial stages of agriculture in the area.
The plantation system that forged the life and culture of the early Delta is quite
simple to understand. Wealthy planters hired a small hierarchy of white men as overseers,
who in turn watched over the crowds of working slaves. The slaves planted, cared for, and
picked the valuable cotton crops. The plantation system gave the Delta a neo-feudalistic
stratification that worked wonderfully for the white elite until the onset of the Civil
War. The low-lying land allowed for easy absorption of rainfall and water runoff from the
hills to the North, East, and South. Seasonal winter flooding allowed insect and weed
reduction, while replenishing the soil. Delta Plantations usually ranged from 750 to 2,000
acres in size. The entire livelihood of the inhabitants (with exception of the white
elite) hinged on the ability to grow their own food along with the cotton crop. By 1850,
the Delta counties (Bolivar, Coahoma, Issaquena, Sunflower, Warren, Washington, and Yazoo)
had over 306,000 improved farm acres, with a total population of 51, 864 (38,711 slaves,
The golden age of the plantation system would subside with the Civil War. Plantations
were marginally run during the war period, but not on the scale as before.
The Union sweep through the Delta began in late 1862 with Coahoma County, and then
moving downward towards Vicksburg. The Delta was basically a Union-controlled area until
the end of the war, with only minimal Confederate partisan activity. The post- war economy
was initially comprised of new, northern landowners, freed slaves, and a residual of
former plantation owners. The formation of the Freedmans Bureau in 1865 gave a small
amount of freedom to former slaves in the region, but the subsequent "Black
Codes" enacted by the Mississippi legislature from 1865 to 1867 virtually destroyed
these changes. The southeastern United States "Black Belt", running from
Virginia along the East and Gulf coasts in a crescent, would re-absorb the freedmen back
into the post-war economic structure. The old plantation system gave way to a different,
yet archaically similar device, the tenant farmer system.
The tenant farmer system revolved around a microcosm of the same facets as the
plantation method, but with a few differences. With physical slavery gone, economic
slavery came into the equation. The newly resurgent lineage of the antebellum elite had to
have a labor force to make crops, and the newly-freed African-Americans had a dire need
for income, so the tenant system emerged. The Delta plantation owners combined
organization and supervision into this distinctive economic system. The plantation owner
gave the tenant housing, tools, seed, fuel, and limited plantation store credit, in return
the tenant worked a set acreage of land from planting to picking. At the end of the year,
the owner subtracted the debts from the tenants gross revenue and made arrangements
for the coming year. This system usually ended in the tenant owing money to the plantation
owner, thereby perpetuating the tenants subjugation to the land. The use of labor
contracts consolidated tenant immobilization even further, and brought the
African-American majority into an updated form of slavery. This would play an integral
role in the origins of the Mississippi Delta Blues.
Transportation advances also greatly affected the region during this period. The
Mississippi River was still the primary means of trade, but the backcountry waterways were
quickly taking a backseat to the railroads. The introduction of railroads into the Delta
began at the end of the 1870s with the Columbus and Greenville Railroad, and by the
1880s the Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railway had solidified this
transportation method.The railroads revenues boomed, and small "whistle stop"
communities rose along the lines. The benefit brought by railway commerce was sublimated
by the problems it caused concerning labor. The mobility of this transportation allowed
African-American tenants to leave their plantations with considerably more ease. From 1910
to 1920, Mississippis African-American population decreased by 74,303. The majority
of these moved north along rail routes to Midwestern urban centers such as St. Louis and
Chicago. Italian and Mexican immigrants arrive into the Delta at the end of the nineteenth
century. Few in number, immigrants evened out the labor gap somewhat, but the tenant
system began to crumble. By the beginning of the 1950s, the system would be all but
The Delta Blues is a product of the history of the Mississippi Delta. The early
settlement, plantation, and tenant farmer systems all laid the building blocks for the
emergence of the genre. There would be no blues without slavery, physical and economic, or
the transportation explosion of the late nineteenth century. The genre is an indication
that grand culture can come out of horrible conditions, and consequently flourish.
The Delta Blues deepest roots lay in the music of Africa. The music made its way
to North America through the culture of the 15 to 20 million slaves brought during the 300
years of the slave trade. The majority of the slaves entering the Mississippi Delta were
from West African tribes: Bantu, Yoruba, Ewe, and Akan. The music of these people is
different, but do have recurring themes in all of them. The music is participative in call
and response, drenched in oral history and tradition, and rhythmic pitch-tone
fluctuations. While the vocal theme and methodology is primarily West African, the
majority of the instrumentation has its beginnings in the savanna and Sahel zones of the
Western Sudan. The main instrument of the West African coastal tribes was the drum, but
the use of drums was outlawed during the early days of North American slavery, so the
adaptation of savanna-derived string instruments came into prominence. The instruments
were easily adaptable to English and Scot folk music, since all three relied on stringed
instruments. These instruments were mainly two-string bowed and plucked lutes, griots,
bania/halam, beta, and earth bow. Melodic lines are plucked by finger with these, in
varying speeds and tone, to simulate the accompanying story being sung or chanted. The
instruments crafted from local wood, and the string made from the gut of animals. This
allowed for the relatively easy translation of instrumentation into early slave life.
String instruments, at least of a certain type, were easy to make from local materials.
The tone and timbre of African music also reflects a great influence on the early
blues. These aspects of the music centered on the playing style and accompaniment
articles. Flattened notes and fluctuated tone, played to an upward drive in accordance
with the drum rhythms, sound strikingly similar to pentatonic and heptatonic scales.
The lyrical and song structure of African music also plays a large role in the early
blues. The first major correlation is song content. West African music is steeped in oral
tradition and religious imagery. The tribes kept their history through long ritual chants
with repetition and loud calls and chants. This allowed the thematic information in the
song to be learned more easily. The music was used to celebrate marriages, rituals,
funerals, and even recreational activity. The flow of words helped to dictate rhythm, and
the speed corresponded to the type of activity subject in the song. The words were then
copied in the movement of the dancers to add more thematic presence to the song topic.
The topics of the songs fit the act being done, work songs dealt with the ritualistic
imagery of the crop or soil, historical songs would concern the tribes migration,
movements, or ethnic endowments, and religious songs centered on the power of specific
deities and their prowess. The religious songs lent themselves well to the Trans-Atlantic
Diaspora. The African concept of the "devil", the gods Esu and Legba,
were more tricksters than creators of evil. This was somehow translated into the
Judeo-Christian concept of Satan, because of the themes of deceit and temptation. All of
this, in conjunction with the rhythmic and repetitious themes in African music, led to the
initial traits of African-American music and subsequently early Delta Blues.
The first slaves transported to North America faced nothing but hardship and relentless
toil in an alien environment. The experience brought the need for the oral and musical
traditions of Africa to mutate into a form of cultural communication to give hope and a
sense of historical roots with their homeland. Slave ship captain Theodore Canot described
the sound of the slaves on one middle passage voyage:
"During the afternoons of serene weather, men, women, girls, and
boys are allowed while on deck to unite in African melodies which they always embrace by
extemporaneous tom-tom on the bottom of a tub or tin kettle."
The slaves were keeping the music alive to plant in their new homes. At the same time,
African slaves would allow the culture of those dominating them to seep into their
traditions, creating a melting pot of cross-cultural pollination. This is how the first
African-American music came about.
The earliest form of African-American folk music is the "cry" or
These vocalizations were almost spontaneous exclamation of feeling concerning the
slaves new environment. The "cry" usually reflected pain or disorientation
in its subjectivity. The cry could be answered by others with a choral refrain, or simply
repeated by the initial singer with rhythm or no rhythm supplied by the other workers.
The cry, also termed "call" by white witnesses, had loud tone volume, high
pitch, and could almost be mistaken for a yell. Cries were mainly centered on pain, but in
some cases they could address relaxation, complaint, or some iconoclastic image. The
shout, a version of cry sung after work in the slave quarters, was accompanied by trance
dances derivative of African religious rites. Shouts were rarely seen or recorded by
outsiders because of their critical commentary on white culture, but some did survive into
the early 1930s by way of field recordings.
Work songs were another early form of African-American folk music. These were much like
hollers or calls, but the song was always sung in the working environment and had
accompaniment. The work song involved the entire working unit as an instrument. The lead
singer or singers announce a beginning verse line, and the rest of the laborers stomp,
swing tools, and refrain in rhythmic accompaniment. The work theme can be seen well in
"Aint No More Cane on this Brazos." This song typifies the slow,
easy rhythm of a cotton chopping work song. The type of work would dictate the speed and
nature of the song. A railroad work song would move much faster than one used for
agricultural maintenance. Religious themes are also used to create an identifiable dynamic
between the workers and biblical themes. Short, sporadic melody lines, and long, melodic
lines with loud chorus refrain characterize the work song. Guttural tone and use of
"oooh" and "hmmm" by the chorus of laborers solidify the collective
ideology that harkens back to the African roots. Instrumentation relied heavily on the
collective laborers voices and the work tools used. A railroad work song would have the
syncopated rhythm of the hammers hitting steel, while a tree chopping work song would use
the axe connecting with wood as cadence. The duple meter of these songs would have a
strong influence on spirituals, and eventually, the emergence of the blues.
Spirituals arose out of the early African-American indoctrination into Christianity and
rose sometime between the slave voyages of the 1600s and the antebellum period.
These songs mixed the retained tradition of African water rites with the imagery of
Pentecostal Protestant teachings. The spirituals linked such themes as the Jewish
captivity with African-American enslavement. This can be seen in the words to When
Israel Was in Egypt Land:
When Israel was in Egypt Land, Let My People Go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go;
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land,
Tell ole Pharaoh, Let my people go.
The song expresses the identification of the white owners (Egypt, Pharaoh) and the
African-Americans (Israel, Moses) with the biblical imagery. The songs replace the old
African gods with the monotheistic idea of God and messianic Jesus. The spiritual gave the
slaves a glimmer of hope, if not on earth, then in the afterlife. The white owners saw
these types of song as soothing, and the biblical themes could be associated with the
adherence to Christian ideology. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were black vocalists that mixed
popular songs of the day with spirituals, and gained widespread acclaim from 1866 to 1898.
They toured the continental United States and Europe, playing to mainly white audiences,
and did much to bring the genre of music into acceptance. The historical and cultural
qualities of the music fit easily into the African oral tradition. The spirituals provided
the singers with a sense of unity, and segued African ideas into Western.
The technique and instrumentation were performed in major, minor, and slight variant
mixtures of scales. The accompaniment, when used, would use I, IV, V, chord structure to
give more foundation to the already structured singing. This is very much like the chord
patterns of twelve and eight bar blues. The instrumentation would focus on the vocal
arrangement, with whatever device that could be found to back up the vocals. Banjo,
harmonica, fiddle, and when available piano or organ was used, but the primary focus was
on vocalists. The ornamentation of spirituals centered around triplets with bended and
sustained notes for added emotion. This allowed the singer to express individuality in a
culture full of restraints set by the white hierarchy. The form of lyric structure was
integral in blues beginnings. The spiritual used one lyrical line sung three times in
succession, and second differentiated line at the end of the verse. Blues lyricism uses
the same form. The legacy of the musical and lyrical components of spirituals left a
lasting effect on the later birth of the blues.
Minstrel songs, or minstrelsy played the next role in the evolution of African-American
music. Afro-American minstrelsy began in Africa and rose from the slave quarters to
prominence after 1850.The popularity of minstrelsy from 1850 to 1900 is mainly because
African-Americans or whites in blackface played the music. The white performer who played
for white audiences, copied gestures and action associated with black cultural
stereotypes. The African-American performer played mainly for black crowds, unless the
performances were of great skill and interest to white patrons. The minstrel show was mix
of music, jokes, and stories, all pulled together with connecting scenes and dialogue.
This style of presentation would eventually mutate into vaudevillian music and "tin
pan alley" compositions. The subject matter varied from lighthearted comedy numbers
to darker, stern death ballads. The term Jim Crow is derived from a comedy song
sung by white minstrels in mock caricature of African-Americans.
The instrumentation of minstrel songs relied on a varied collection of devices. Banjo,
piano, gong, guitar, drums, winds, brass, and violin were all widely used in most minstrel
shows. Musicians were found, as needed, town to town and then stayed for unspecified
durations. Most minstrels could play numerous instruments and sing in a range of harmonic
dispositions. Each traveling group was like an all-star band of sorts.
The most important form that the blues took from minstrelsy was the ballad. These songs
romanticized certain aspects of cultural ideology and are drawn from courtier style,
European poetry. The subject matter was not as refined as its earlier roots. Other ballads
took historical or social inspiration and meshed them into song. One of the most famous of
these was The Boll Weevil:
Oh, have you heard de lates,
Dc lates' of de songs?
It's about dem little Boll Weevils,
Dey's picked up bofe feet an' gone
A-lookin' for a home,
Jes a-lookin' for a home.
De Boll Weevil is a little bug
F'um Mexico, dey say,
He come to try dis Texas soil
En thought he better stay,
This particular song narrates the boll weevils migration from Mexico into the
cotton fields of the southern United States. Early blues musicians would later pick up the
theme. Ballads subjects also brought in themes of folklore in such songs as "John
Henry" and "Travelin Man", both early blues repertoire staples.
Ballad form structure led directly to the materialization of standard blues structure.
ABAB, AABB, and AAB chord progression style is seen in minstrel balladry, and this
convention permeates blues songs. The ballad structure lent itself well to subject
variation and individualized vocalization, so the early blues musicians were able to
create new songs based on older traditional forms.
The African-American folk traditions built on the African influences, but with a
decidedly Western twist. The music gradually evolved over the 300-year period between the
first slaves until the end of the 19th Century. American Negro folk tales,
biblical theme, African instrumentation influences, and economic servitude all blended to
shape a new musical genre using roots in the past and stylistic representations of the
The musical influences of the early blues are not solely African-American. Slave
culture did not grow in a vacuum devoid of Western societal influence. The slave
owners traditions segued into the past African and African-American stimuli to
change the musical technique distinctly. All Western European ethnicities in the New World
influenced the emerging genres style.
The first blues used the guitar, an instrument Spanish in origin and, perhaps,
introduced into the Delta by Mexican and Italian immigrants during the late 1890s.
Spanish/Latino song practices came into serious involvement with the instrumentation of
the first blues. Tenant housing on Dockery Plantation between Ruleville and Cleveland,
Mississippi boasted this ethnic mixture during the beginning of the twentieth century. The
guitar perfectly suited the rural musician in an accompaniment capacity. Its small size
and weight allowed mobility, while at the same time having a large and varied tonal range
for different performance styles. The flexible rhythmic qualities of the guitar allowed
the musician to add emotion and dramatics to each different song when warranted. The 6 and
12 string arrangement of the instrument allowed for variable tunings. A popular tuning was
the "Spanish" tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D) or open A. This tuning was primarily used for
slide guitar compositions. This tuning is similar to a standard banjo tuning, so
adaptation from one instrument to the other was easily learned. The tonal composition was
more fluid and orchestral than a standard E tuning. This allowed for a fuller, extra
textural sound during performance.
Anglo-European influence can also be seen in the surfacing of the Delta Blues.
The first popular African-American musicians were trained to play classical European
music. Waltzes appear in most accounts of minstrel shows. European folk tunes and hymns
from the British Isles found their way into black music in such songs as
"Greensleeves", "Lord Randall", and " The Golden Vanity".
The nuances of the folk tunes would mix with whatever ethnicity was predominant in the
region. Caucasian country music would arise from these in some areas while zones with
Afro-American majorities started the blues. The musicians methodology was much less
segregated than conventional society, with genre styles intermingling with one another
Charlie Patton, and subsequently country artists like Jimmie Rogers and Hank Williams,
held no constriction to a genre mentally, just in playing capability. Pattons "Going
To Move To Alabama", is a prime example of this integration. The song is the
basic blues form, but the fiddle accompaniment adds the distinct sound of a white country
song. Hank Williamss "Move It on Over" is an almost blatant copy of
The structure of most ballads was almost identical to that of early blues, with the AAB
form, and differed in the minstrel type in that the blues concerned bawdier, less publicly
performed subjects. The Anglo-European style was already apparent in most minstrelsy, so
picking up on the structure was relatively easy for most blues musicians. The subject
matter dealt with in ballads is also echoed in the blues. Ballads dealt with themes of
love, locations, people, and events. The ballad almost always took the narrative form,
relying on the iconography of the subject matter to help produce greater imagery in the
The main division between African-American and Caucasian styles of balladry is the
degree to which the topic matter was taken. The "black" ballad venerated
outlaws, tricksters, and folk heroes its "white" relative would never touch, and
at a much faster, call and response oriented rhythm. Figures such as John Henry, Long Jim
or John, Stackolee, and the Grey Goose permeated the storylines of most of these songs.
"John Henry", the black railroad worker who wins the Pyrrhic victory over the
steam engine and consequently dies, represents the conflict between white and black, and
even the fight against industrialization. "John Henry"-type songs were performed
in minstrelsy, but not with the same character content shown in this type of ballad. The
occupation of John Henry could be changed to fit any form of work the African-American was
engaged in. "Long John" or "Long Jim" were aphorisms for the
downtrodden worker or prisoner who rebelled against his master successfully.
"Stackolee" or Stagger Lee was a "bad nigger" who completely
disregarded the society that held him captive and murdered or committed violence against
others. "Stackolee" is so unstoppable that in some versions he dies and then
battles the devil in Hell and wins. The "Grey Goose" was a sign for
indestructibility and defiance in the face of an almost insurmountable enemy. The goose is
shot, skinned, and eaten, but is seen once again flying over its killers.
These influences melded the Western with the African, and changed music forever. The
infiltration of the European styles into the Afro-American cultural lexicon produced an
inherently new and distinct genre. The drawing from these different roots would make the
blues startlingly new, but with historically recognizable oral, social, and ethnic themes.
The European styles picked up by the musicians would be the final ingredient to the
emergence of the early "Downhome" blues.
The instrumentation type used in the early beginning of the early Delta (or Downhome)
Blues was integral to its popularity and song style. The guitar became by far the most
important instrument used by the initial bluesmen. As previously stated, the
instruments mobility and vast sound capability allowed the musician a veritable
mobile orchestra, and at the same time had a rudimentary structure close to that of the
banjo. The burgeoning artists could have just as easily picked it over the guitar. They
both use the same "claw hammer" picking style, and the five-string banjo has
only one less string than a regular guitar. The banjo was also a traditional African
instrument, and held a prominent role in minstrelsy. The main reasons the guitar overtook
banjo are price and sound. Guitars became available to most people, even the extremely
poor, around 1890 with its listing in the Sears-Roebuck catalog at a minimal price. This
gave the musician a well-built, quality instrument and did not pull too much out of his
already tight budget.
The sound capabilities were also an important factor. The banjo relies on the tightness
of the drum-like centerpiece to draw sound from, whereas the guitar has an open sound hole
and larger body to create a higher volume. The guitars string distance in relation
to the fret board allowed slides, bottlenecks, and knives to use to mimic human voice and
machine noises. Alan Lomax notes:
"The bluesmens skill with the guitar gave them great power
among their music-and- dance mad brothers. The six-string, to one who understands its
resources, (is) capable of sounding several parts at once. It backs up and responds to the
mordant wit of the singer, and at the same time provides dance music for a roomful of
people. The lone bluesman could pocket the fee for a whole orchestra."
The guitar was the bluesmans most prized possession, his livelihood and cathartic
mechanism all in one. The musician suited the style of playing, fingerpick or slide, to
the type of music being performed. A slow, meditative drag about a lonesome train whistle
would be accompanied by a mimicked slide guitar line, just as a fast, up-beat dance number
would be quickly finger picked to give a jovial feel. The harmonica would also be used in
accompaniment. This small, cheap instrument was centered on an ascending (or descending)
major or minor scale. The lone guitarist played the harmonica provided he had a neck rack;
otherwise another musician would play the instrument. The highly mobile adaptability and
relative playability of these instruments made them ideal for the blues genre.
The early Delta blues gained most of their artistic power from the lyrics and themes
used in the songs. They are used to create a bridge between the musician and the audience
by imagery. The primary narration method used was first person, with a smaller number
using the third person. The Bluesman usually tried to portray the song as
autobiographical, with the singer as the main protagonist or antagonist. Feeling was
always emphasized over structure. The singer may take the persona of the character in the
song, but for that short time period he was the character. The imagery in the songs
most often pertained to religious, journey, or relationship themes. The religious themes
are highly derivative of the spiritual roots of the blues. The idea of a better afterlife
was a way for the African-American to retain hope in hopeless surroundings. These songs
mixed personal and collective memory to entrench their theme into the audience psyche. The
songs continued the African oral tradition while at the same time updating it for the
modern culture. The transportation themes, usually in the form of a train, gave the idea
that there might be a way out of the turmoil in the African-American existence. Charley
Pattons "Down The Dirt Road" echoes this theme.
Every day seems like murder here,
Every day seems like murder here,
Im gonna leave tomorrow, I know you dont bid my care.
The theme of man/woman relationship problems is also shown in the majority of most
blues songs. The singer may want to kill or maim his lover, and at the same time be
heartbroken for her company. This is often attributed to the African-Americans
feeling of pain, loss, or alienation by the cultural climate of the times. The songs could
also be grand allusions to a persons sexual prowess or whimsy. The singer, in either
mode of song theme, was still sublimating the current sexual mores and standards of
mainstream society. The metaphor and simile used was often missing to the white ear, but
to the more colloquially astute African-American audience, double entendre abounded.
Another Patton song illustrates this:
Everybody have a jellyroll like mine, I lives in town,
I-aint got no brown, I-an want it now.
My jelly, my roll, sweet mama, dont let it fall.
"Jelly Roll" was period slang for the male sexual organ, and this song
illustrates the singers promiscuity and potency with flare. The darker themes of the
early Downhome blues focused mostly on the idea of enslavement and economic servitude.
The earliest documentation of the Mississippi Delta Blues comes from two decidedly
divergent sources, Charles Peabody and W.C. Handy. Peabody was an archaeologist excavating
Indian mounds in Coahoma County around Stovall Plantation during the summers of 1901 and
1902. The African-American workers he hired to do the manual labor constantly sang.
Peabody noted the lyrics and subsequently printed them in the Journal of American
Folklore. He transcribed such lyrics as:
The reason I loves my baby so,
Case when she gets five dollars she give me fo.
They had me arrested for murder
And I never harmed a man.
These lyrics show that if Peabody was not hearing the blues, then it had to have been
some very late precursor to them.
W.C. Handy was an African-American bandleader traveling from Memphis to Clarksdale to
take up residence as the local "Negro" orchestras supervisor. One night in
1903, Handy became stranded in the small town of Tutwiler by a late train. He fell asleep
and was awakened by:
"A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside
me while I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar
effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. "Goin where the
Southern cross the Dog," the singer repeated three times, accompanying himself
on guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard."
This account is the definitive starting point for the early Delta Blues as known today.
The lyrics "Goin where the Southern cross the Dog" refer to Moorhead,
Mississippi, where the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad (Yellow Dog) intersected
with the Southern Railroad. The man Handy saw was simply identifying his destination in
Handy received yet another blues revelation when performing in Cleveland, Mississippi
the same year. Handys band of seasoned musicians was blown offstage by a rag-tag
group of local "blacks" whose music attained a "disturbing monotony".
The almost all-white crowd subsequently rained dollars and quarters on these bluesmen, and
from then on Handy would only play a "polite" version of the mens blues.
Handy eventually became nationally known, wealthy, and then poor. These initial accounts
of the blues genre would steadily increase year by year.
By 1910, the golden age of the Mississippi Delta Bluesman had cemented itself firmly in
the regional culture of African-Americans. No Saturday night "juke",
barrelhouse, or holiday function was complete without blues musicians. The early bluesmen
worked traditional routes throughout the Delta, using trains and dirt roads.
The musicians played in small groups or alone at any social event that would pay them,
either in food, lodging, money, or alcohol. Saturday was the day of relaxation and
celebration for the African-American worker. Gambling and drinking, along with barbecue
for the children, started during the mid-afternoon. The children would be sent to the
older relatives at sunset, and the adults (17-40 years old) made their way to the
"juke joint" for the evenings entertainment. These raucous affairs often
included violence, sex, and heavy dancing. In an interview with Robert Palmer, Joe
Dockery, the owner of Dockery Plantation between Cleveland and Ruleville during the mid
twentieth century, told this anecdote:
"Theres a story about a psychologist from up North who comes
down here and asks this big buck (Black male worker), "Why do you work hard all week long and then
get drunk and throw your money away and have a scrap and get put in jail?" And the buck says,
"Boss has you ever been a nigger on Saturday night?"
This type of statement signified the white idea of Afro-American celebrations. The more
violent partygoers were bailed out of jail by the plantation owner on Sunday, and resumed
normal work on Monday. This type of lifestyle gave the bluesmen their ideal and mode of
operation. The musicians would pack up on Sunday and then leave for another venue to
perform a few miles away.
Charlie Patton has come to reflect the strange icon the early Delta bluesman became.
Pattons life and work were a wealth of contradictions and stereotypes that most
bluesmen would come to characterize. Charlie was born to Bill and Annie Patton in Hinds
County sometime between 1884 and 1889. The Pattons moved to Dockery Plantation
around 1897. This was where a young Charlie most likely began to learn guitar. Most
accounts have Charlie coming under the tutelage of Henry Sloan, an early blues musician.
Little is known of Sloan, but he may have been one of the very first bluesmen. Two of
Pattons later accompanists, Tommy Johnson and Son House, both stated Charlie
"dogged every step" of Sloans. This was to great chagrin of Pattons
father, and by 1906 Charlie was on his own.
From this time on, Charlie constantly moved and played, never staying in the same town
for more than two years. Patton somehow gleaned a decidedly different yet traditional
sound during the initial years of his wandering. All sources account that Patton never
did field work, and etched out life from female admirers and his performances. He lived
all of his life, with the exception of one recording trips to Indiana in 1929 and New York
in 1934, in the Delta between Tunica and Yazoo City. Pattons primary performing area
was a triangle between Clarksdale, Indianola, and Cleveland. P Patton was an amiable man
to most, playing with just about any musician available, which could account for his
characterization as leader of the "Drew" group of four bluesmen. These men
played almost any function in the area and eventually became local stars to the
African-American workers. Patton was somehow a breed apart from his counterparts. His
playing style and disdain for even seasonal labor gave him the persona of a blues prince.
Pattons music was much harder and propulsive than others, and he set the standard
for which the other musicians composed songs. Patton used altered speech, slide nuance,
and picked bass runs to increase the effect of his songs. Whereas other early blues
musicians emphasized beat over lyrics, Patton emphasized both. Patton was peerless dance
singer, but he never allowed the form overcome his lyrical content. He had an eye for
great story compositions, such as "Tom Rushen Blues", a laughable song about the
sheriff of Merigold, Mississippi circa 1927.
Pattons songs greatly influenced the "Drew" group of Tommy Johnson, Son
House, Willie Brown, and Kid Bailey. The tone of Pattons music greatly changed after
1930, when his throat was cut in a knife fight. His later works proved to be more
religious, like he somehow knew his death was soon to come. Patton died on April 28, 1934
in the small town of Holly Ridge, Mississippi.
Pattons legacy seemed to eclipse him in his own time, because as his popularity
waned, the novices he "learned" to play became more prominent. Tommy Johnson,
Willie Brown, Son House, and Kid Bailey would all take the music they learned from Patton
and market it to the other burgeoning musicians. Johnson and Brown were Pattons
primary accompanists, backing him on rhythm guitar. House and Bailey were students of
Brown and Johnsons who would eventually go on to teach Muddy Waters, Howlin
Wolf, and Robert Johnson. The early fathers of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins,
and Jerry Lee Lewis would subsequently pick up their albums. This type of synchronistic
influence gave America the basis for most of its present musical culture. Johnson and
Brown most likely met Patton near Rolling Fork, Mississippi around 1915. They would then
follow him off and on for the next two years as students.
Their primary area of performing was in the Drew-Cleveland-Indianola area, hence the
name the "Drew" group. Their music is much less abrasive than Pattons, but
still hold many of the characteristics. Brown left Patton around 1917 and was not heard
from until he took Robert Johnson under his wing in 1926. Brown was the most likely source
for Johnsons "Devil" persona, where he told audiences of trading his soul
to Papa Legba at the crossroads for his guitar abilities. Kid Bailey was more of a
peripheral figure, playing with the group when they were in the Itta Bena area only.
Baileys style was much less serious than Pattons, but has a definite Patton
influence. Son House learned his style from Brown and Tommy Johnson, and then went on to
accompany Robert Johnson at barrelhouses. House would prove to live the longest of this
group, lasting until the 1960s. The traditional form of the early Delta Blues
effectively died with him. Younger artists such as Robert Jr. Lockwood and Son Thomas keep
the music alive, but it is not the original.
The early Delta Blues and the musicians that formed this unique style will never fade
from the consciousness of history. These men may seem like a minor speck in timeline of
other major events, but they are responsible for much of the music being heard today. The
early Delta bluesmen unwittingly took deep African musical traditions, African-American
cultural customs, and European form to create the basis for American popular music. The
roots of all this are set the frenzied past of slavery, war, and economic servitude.
Charlie Patton is the starting point for the bluesman, and his influence has shaped all
blues music since. The cultural underdog, no matter what the conditions, has given some of
the most resounding gifts to society. The early Delta Blues are a resounding testament to
how diverse influences can come to gain worldwide prominence in the course of a history.