History Of The Blues Part II: The Delta Blues
Delta blues is one of the most famous sub genres of blues music. It is one of the earliest forms of the blues and one that remains popular to this day.
Forged in the Mississippi Delta in the American Deep South, early Delta blues music has shaped the genre as we now know it. Almost every blues musician since the 1920s has been influenced by the Delta blues.
This will be a continuation of my last article on the early history of the blues. Here we will look at life in the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century for African Americans and the role this played in the history of the blues.
Farming & Slavery In The Mississippi Delta
Farming was the main industry in the Mississippi Delta from as early as the 18th century. Crops like sugar cane and rice were brought to the area by European settlers. Along with tobacco, they were the main crops grown in the Delta.
This changed with the invention of the cotton gin. The gin made wide scale cotton production both easy and immensely profitable. Between 1830 and 1850, the cotton industry in the Deep South grew by 400%.
This rapid growth was supported by black slave labour.
Over the course of the 19th century, white landowners became totally reliant on black labour. By the turn of the century there were more black people in Mississippi than in any other part of America. In some places, the black population outnumbered whites by three to one.
Life in the Mississippi Delta was extremely difficult for African Americans. Black slaves were treated abhorrently. They were forced into long hours of manual labour, abused by their slave owners and housed in appalling conditions.
When slavery was abolished following the American Civil War, their circumstances only marginally improved. Whites were not prepared to live side by side as equals with ex slaves. So they introduced the Jim Crow Laws.
Jim Crow Laws, Violence & Segregation
Originally a character from black slave music, Jim Crow became a popular figure in the Deep South in the mid 19th century. ‘Jump Jim Crow’ was the main act of Thomas D. Rice. Rice was a playwright, theatre performer and the ‘father of American minstrelsy’. He reenacted the story of Jim Crow in black face, doing so in the cruel and deeply troubling fashion of Southern minstrel shows.
Rice and other minstrels mocked blacks, depicting them at best as good natured simpletons and at worst as idle, immoral and base. His performance captured the public’s imagination and by the mid 19th century, the term ‘Jim Crow’ had become modern parlance for ‘negro’.
Some 40 years later, and the same term came to refer to the various state laws and legislature that enforced racial segregation. These laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court under the principal that black and white populations would have access to ‘separate but equal’ facilities.
The reality was starkly different.
The Jim Crow Laws disadvantaged blacks in every way imaginable. They were economically, politically and socially subservient to their white counterparts. As author Giles Oakley observed:
Blacks were socially and racially ostracised, economically expolited and politically crippled in Mississippi…Segregation and humiliation, sometimes massive, sometimes petty, was the lot of every black, whether poor or not.
Emancipation had done little to improve the lives of African Americans. And in fact, when the Jim Crow Laws were first introduced, the resulting unrest and violence was arguably worse than anything that had preceded it.
‘Southern Trees Bear Strange Fruit’
Petty violence had long been a reality for blacks in the Deep South. Beatings and whippings were fairly commonplace on plantations. Generally though, white landowners recognised that they were reliant on able bodied men and women for labour. As such, they exercised some degree of restraint when it came to their violent inclinations.
Following the introduction of the Jim Crow laws however, this quickly changed. Violence became a very real and deadly threat for blacks. Although exact figures vary, it is estimated that around 4000 African Americans were lynched between 1888 and 1950. 85% of these lynchings happened in the Deep South and many occurred in the early days of the Jim Crow Laws.
These lynchings were unspeakably brutal. Blacks were raped, tortured and mutilated, often in front of crowds of hundreds or thousands of white spectators. Lynchings were sometimes publicised ahead of time in local newspapers. And in one case a special train was organised to bring whites from neighbouring areas to attend. It became common practice for photographers to capture lynchings and create postcards using the images of the dead bodies.
The lynchings and the ritual surrounding them illustrate the extent of white supremacy and attitudes towards blacks in the Deep South at the time. As historian Leon F. Litwack has observed:
The men and women who tortured, dismembered, and murdered in this fashion understood perfectly well what they were doing and thought of themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their actions. This was not the outburst of crazed men or uncontrolled barbarians but the triumph of a belief system that defined one people as less human than another
It was in this cultural context that the Delta blues was born.
Early Delta Blues
For some emerging blues artists, lynchings in the Deep South provided subject matter for their music. In 1939, Billie Holiday famously recorded the song ‘Strange Fruit‘, the lyrics of which are as follows:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
The contrast between the beauty of the southern landscape and the brutality of it’s inhabitants is immensely powerful. Yet Holiday’s scathing depiction of the south is somewhat unique, as there are few songs that refer to lynchings so overtly.
This is particularly true of Delta blues. This may seem unusual, as the Delta blues originated in those areas where lynchings were most common. It may partly be attributed to fear, for blacks who protested lynchings risked being lynched themselves.
More than that though, it is illustrative of the style and subject matter of Delta blues music.
Blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta at this time were itinerant performers. They performed on plantations, as well as at ‘juke joints’ and on street corners. Although their music addressed themes of oppression, financial woe and hardship, it did so without a sense of self pity. Delta blues was designed to provide entertainment and relief for plantation workers.
At a national level, blues music was gaining popularity. Female blues singers like Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith were hugely popular in the cities. Blues music was fast becoming the popular music of the day. So blues musicians in the Delta were welcomed by the rural communities there.
Charley Patton -‘The Father of the Delta Blues’
It was around this time that Charley Patton entered onto the Delta blues scene. Nicknamed, ‘The Father of The Delta Blues’, Patton was somewhat of a local celebrity in the Deep South. He became renowned for his gritty, raw vocals and powerful performing style. He was said to have frequently played his guitar behind his back and between his legs, in much the same way that Jimi Hendrix did 40 years later.
Patton’s playing style was both unusual and innovative. He is credited with being one of the early guitarists to use syncopated rhythms in the blues. He was also one of the earliest Delta blues musicians to record. Yet despite his musical ability and local celebrity, Patton’s legacy has diminished over time. He is much less famous than his successor Robert Johnson, and his music is rarely held in the same regard. The reasons for this are multiple and complex and will be given much more attention in a future article. But what is of note here, is that Charley Patton played a significant role in the history of the blues in a number of ways.
The Original Bluesman
By far the most significant of these, was the way in which Charley Patton cultivated the persona of the bluesman. The bluesman has become a central theme within the blues and is one of the unifying elements across different strands of the genre. He appears as a lead character in Chicago blues, Texas blues and British blues.
The bluesman is a downtrodden, but ultimately aspirational character. His life is difficult. Money troubles, discrimination and scorned lovers out for revenge are just some of the many challenges that the bluesman faces. Yet in spite of it all, he emerges from the other side relatively unscathed.
Patton was one of the original bluesmen. He was remembered for his womanising, occasional brawling, but most of all for his drinking. As Howling Wolf recalled:
He was a nice guy, but he just loved the bottle – like all the rest of the musicians. He was a great drinker. I never did know him to do no gambling or anything like that.., but drink!
Above even alcohol though, the bluesman is preoccupied by sex. Sexual relationships are the most central theme within the blues. Almost all of the concerns of the bluesmen return in some way to their sexual relationships. As Giles Oakley has noted:
The core of the relationship is seen as inherently unstable, transient, but with infinite scope for pleasure and exultation in success, or pain and torment in failure. This give the blues its tension and ambiguity…
Both through his behaviour and the lyrics of his songs, Patton played a key role in establishing these themes as central to the blues. The impact that this had on the genre is immeasurable.
The King Of The Delta Blues
The second and most famous figure in the Delta blues, is Robert Johnson.
The story of Robert Johnson is one of the most compelling and mysterious in music history. So the legend goes, Johnson set out as a musician in pursuit of fame and glory. Frustrated by his lack of progress, he left his hometown of Robinsville in Mississippi and went to a crossroads in nearby Clarksdale, where he made a pact with the devil. He sold his soul and in return was gifted with super human song writing and guitar playing abilities.
What happened at the crossroads that night is a mystery. Regardless, Johnson returned to Robinsville a very accomplished musician.
During his lifetime, Johnson was little more than an itinerant bluesman. He played in juke joints and on plantations and street corners. He enjoyed very little fame during his lifetime. It wasn’t until Columbia Records posthumously released the album ‘Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers’ in 1961 that his name became synonymous with the blues.
This album showcases the depths of Johnson’s skill as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. Speaking about Johnson’s technical aptitude, Eric Clapton wrote in his autobiography about trying to imitate Johnson as a teenager:
I tried to copy Johnson, but his style of simultaneously playing a disjointed bass line on the low strings, rhythm on the middle strings and lead on the treble strings while singing at the same time, was impossible to even imagine.
Both technically and stylistically, Johnson totally altered the landscape of the blues.
The Legacy Of The Delta Blues
The album ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’ went on to influence almost every British blues musician in the 1960s, including Keith Richards, Peter Green and Eric Clapton. Another excerpt from Clapton’s autobiography notes the effect it had on him as a teenager:
After a few listenings, I realised that on some level, I had found the master, and that following this man’s example would be my life’s work.
It is a sentiment that many British blues musicians have expressed. For them, Johnson captured the feeling and the spirit of the blues. It is not overstating the case to say that the modern landscape of the blues would be a very different – and much less interesting place – without Robert Johnson.
Yet had Johnson not had the opportunity to record his music, it would have been lost. This was the case for so many early delta blues musicians. Johnson and others were granted access to recording facilities, thanks to the popularity of female blues performers in the cities.
Although the music of these women was somewhat ephemeral, the impact they had on the genre was immense. The next part of this series will look at the early women of the blues and the role they played in the history of the blues.