There can be few finer examples of how grand culture can emerge from the most horrendous conditions and then flourish than the story of the Delta blues. Born of the oppressed labouring the rich soils of the Mississippi Delta region, no other musical form has had such an enduring influence on western rock culture.
Although the Delta blues certainly existed in some form around the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the late 1920s that it was first recorded, when record companies realized the potential of the African American market for what was then referred to as “race records”. Around this time, the juke joints and dances in every Delta town would have been moving to its sound, characterised by insistent repeated guitar riffs and heart-rending vocal lines that owe a lot to the work songs and field hollers that the audience, and players, heard around them every day. Effectively the Delta took on the features of a “boom town” and the entertainment developed here by the predominantly young occupants of the area was original and cutting edge.
Located in the heart of the Delta, Clarksdale has often been dubbed the birthplace of the Delta blues, with the precise spot attributed to the Dockery Plantation. Amongst the many sharecropping families and field workers that lived there was one Henry Sloan. Little is known about Sloan, other than he was born around 1870 and that he was a popular singer and guitarist of the area by the 1900s. Although he never recorded, he acted as a mentor to several bluesmen who in turn became legends of the genre including Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown and Charley Patton.
If ever there was a valid claim to being the true 'King of the Delta blues', then surely this belongs to Charley Patton. It’s unfortunate that the hiss and crackle that bedevilled Patton’s original recordings for many years has prevented him from receiving the same adulation that surrounds the cult of Robert Johnson, another Delta legend synonymous with Clarksdale whom Patton greatly inspired. Unlike many of his early Delta contemporaries, Patton’s recorded output drew on his vast repertoire, such as the featured ‘Shake It And Break It’ which captures the humour of the hokum tradition.
Like Patton, other early Delta musicians headed to the northern states and cities for recording sessions then returned to their homes in the Delta to continue playing juke joints, country dances and fish fries. Although success was generally fleeting for this first wave of Delta performers who often died young or drifted into obscurity, among them were several key bluesmen who would later play a central role in the blues revival of the 1960s including Son House, Skip James and Bukka White. Both House and White had served time in the notorious Parchman Farm, and their rural blues had a similarly tough earthiness and urgency created by their distinctive bottleneck style of playing. Likewise, Skip James created an acutely distressing intensity to his sound by accompanying his haunting falsetto vocals with a dazzling guitar picking style in the unorthodox open D minor (cross-note) tuning.
Unlike the classic female blues which exploded in popularity in the early 1920s, the Delta blues was very much dominated by one man and his guitar. There were however notable exceptions including Memphis Minnie, a brilliant guitarist and undoubtedly the most popular and influential female country blues singer of all time. Mattie Delaney was another fine female guitarist as can be heard on ‘Down The Big Road Blues’ a classic rendition of one of Tommy Johnson's trademark songs.