When it comes to this most influential of all the blues forms, all roads lead to its father figure, Charley Patton. Born in 1891, Patton was older than most of the other Delta musicians who recorded during the golden age of the late 1920s and early 1930s and was central to developing many of the themes that are now considered standard to the Delta blues repertoire. Widely considered as the “Father of the Delta Blues”, only the hiss and crackle that has bedevilled his original recordings has prevented him from receiving the true adulation that is due. Although his 1929 recordings made him one of the most popular country blues singers of his time, his showmanship had already made him a Delta celebrity long before he even entered a studio.
Skip James was undoubtedly the most stylistically original and idiosyncratic of all the early Delta blues performers. Accompanying his haunting falsetto vocals with a dazzling guitar picking style in the unorthodox open D minor (cross-note) tuning, James created his own brand of blues which was acutely distressing yet at the same time sublimely beautiful. In the words of guitarist John Fahey, who helped rediscover James in an Arkansas hospital in the 1960s, he was “The strangest, most complex and bizarre of all blues artists”, and it’s a common belief that had he disappeared in the 1930s rather than living on, his deep, dark blues would be as revered as those of Robert Johnson.
Bukka White led a battle-hardened life that landed him in the notorious Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary) on an assault charge, and his rural blues had a similarly tough earthiness. The legendary ‘Shake 'Em On Down’ was one of two sides recorded shortly before beginning his sentence in 1937. When he emerged from jail in late 1939, his fortunes had changed, for while he was behind bars this song had become very popular and even been covered by Big Bill Broonzy. Fast forward a couple of decades and another of his trademark classics, ‘Fixin' To Die Blues’ was recorded by Bob Dylan, which aided a rediscovery of White in 1963 by John Fahey and Ed Denson, propelling him into the folk music revival of the 1960s.
Tommy Johnson was a contemporary of Charley Patton and an incredibly gifted writer, singer and guitarist who was renowned for performing tricks with his guitar, and playing it between his legs, behind his head and throwing it in the air while playing. With his eerie falsetto voice and intricate guitar playing, his featured signature song ‘Canned Heat Blues’ records his struggle with trying to find a "kick" by any means. The song took its name from the slang term for Sterno, a cooking fuel made of denatured alcohol and sold in cans, to which Johnson was addicted.
Many of the pioneering country bluesmen like Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson either died at a relatively early age or drifted into obscurity. Son House, however, was one of the most notable exceptions and despite his tough life he managed to beat the odds and achieve a new lease of life in the 1960s folk revival. Having been brought up in a Baptist home, Son House became a preacher at a young age, before being sentenced to a year in Parchman Farm for manslaughter, after pleading self-defence. On his release, House left the ministry and fully embraced the “devil’s music”, and it was the ongoing tension between his spiritual and secular sides that probably gave his songs such intensity. Only first picking up a guitar when he was aged 25, Son House developed a singularly fierce style of delivery which helped shape modern blues.
Whilst Willie Brown may be the least well-known of these featured blues greats, he was a true pioneer of the Delta blues. Brown recorded six sides at a 1930 recording session in Grafton, Wisconsin which were released on three 78-rpm shellac discs. Unfortunately, only one of these has ever been found, containing the featured ‘M & O Blues’ and ‘Future Blues’. Very much at the epicentre of the Delta blues circle in the 1920s and early 30s, Brown performed and recorded with other notable Delta greats, including Charley Patton and Son House whom he accompanies on the closing track ‘Walkin’ Blues’.