When it comes to the roots of the blues, all roads lead to Mississippi. Exactly who first played the blues and the precise circumstances of its birth remain shrouded in mystery, but there can be no doubt about where the music emerged – the alluvial plain in the northwest section of the state, created by thousands of years of flooding and known as the Mississippi Delta. In what was an unrelentingly punishing environment for slaves working on the plantations, somehow these conditions spawned the evolution and amalgamation of field hollers, African rhythms and spirituals into what we now recognise as the blues.
Often referred to as the Magnolia State because of the flower’s abundance, Mississippi oversaw the meteoric development of the blues in the early twentieth century and was home to a large proportion of the key pioneering artists of the time. Among them was Charley Patton, widely acknowledged as the ‘Father of the Delta Blues’. An immensely gifted guitarist and singer, Patton was amazingly prolific and served as a major influence on other legendary Delta bluesmen who followed including Robert Johnson, Son House and Tommy Johnson.
Along with the tortured vocal intensity and slashing bottleneck guitar urgency of Delta blues players, Mississippi cultivated great musical variety, from the string band sound of the Mississippi Sheiks to the fast and highly syncopated guitar playing of Mississippi John Hurt. The featured ragtime-influenced ‘Pick Poor Robin Clean’ by the female duo, Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas, along with the novelty number ‘Let’s Go Riding’ by Freddie Spruell offer a lighter take and unique insight into some of the more oddball elements of country blues.
Memphis was the closest big city to the Mississippi Delta and this became a magnet for blues singers desperate to escape the hardships of the Delta country. Its epicentre was the lawless and rowdy Beale Street where many of the great Delta bluesmen were recorded, along with one of the few women to emerge from the Delta blues scene, Memphis Minnie, who accompanies her then husband Joe McCoy on the seminal ‘When The Levee Breaks’, about the catastrophic experiences and upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (see front cover).
Mystery pervades this collection with little known about many of the artists, from the country blues diva Mattie Delaney to the enigmatic Mississippi Bracey – was he related to his more illustrious namesake Ishman Bracey? What we do know is that the first Great Migration from the South to ‘the Promised Land’ of Chicago brought more African Americans from Mississippi than any other state. With the migrants came the Delta blues which became the foundation of the classic post-war Chicago blues style and in turn shaped the development of popular music around the world.
Many of the original Mississippi bluesmen either died at a relatively early age or drifted into obscurity. Son House, however, was one of several who lived long enough to be re-discovered during the 1960s folk revival. Despite his tough life, House managed to beat the odds, and along with other key figures such as Skip James, Bukka White, Robert Wilkins and Mississippi John Hurt, enjoyed a successful second phase of his musical career with young audiences thirsty for a taste of authentic blues.
Listening to this collection is the culmination of how, across the centuries and from one side of the Magnolia State to the other, slave songs travelled from the fields, through the church, out of juke joints and into the world on the spinning grooves of old 78 rpm records, where the music endures and is beloved to this day.