Delta Blues is the oldest and purest form of blues music. It is often claimed that ‘the Delta’ was the birthplace of the blues. The first musicians who were recorded playing the blues guitar came from this area.
Geographically, the Delta is the fertile area between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers, and it also extends to the land across the Mississippi near Helena, Arkansas. Culturally, the Delta was an area of large cotton plantations worked by black slaves and later, sharecroppers. Much of the Delta area was cleared after the American Civil War, when large levees were built on either side of the Mississippi River. Life in the construction camps was tough, with men working in gangs, frequently fighting among themselves, and spending their hard-earned cash on women, gambling and itinerant musicians. By the year 1900, gangs were also building railroads through the Delta area.
The Delta starts in Memphis, but its heart is in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Memphis bluesman Gus Cannon, claimed to have first heard music played in a blues style in Clarksdale around the turn of the twentieth century. In 1905, in Clarksdale, bandleader W.C. Handy heard a man playing a guitar and singing along with the low, mournful sound made by sliding a knife along the strings. This prompted Handy to start writing blues music, marking the start of its popularity.
As Robert Palmer describes the music in his book Deep Blues, “The Mississippi Delta’s blues musicians sang with unmatched intensity in a gritty, melodically circumscribed, highly ornamented style that was closer to field hollers than it was to other styles of blues. Guitar and piano accompaniments were percussive and hypnotic, and many Delta guitarists mastered the art of fretting the instrument with a slide or bottleneck that made the instrument ‘talk’ in strikingly speech-like inflections.”
Most Delta blues musicians were itinerant loners who occasionally teamed with other musicians to play their music anywhere where people with spare change congregated. Often pianists played a two-fisted, eight-to-the-bar style called barrelhouse (from the name of a camp barroom). Three of the most famous barrelhouse pianists in the Delta were Roosevelt Sykes of Helena, Clarksdale native Sunnyland Slim, and Little Brother Montgomery of Kentwood, Louisiana. Good pianists such as these moved to cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, and even Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s.
Many of the great Delta blues guitarists, such as Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, and Howlin’ Wolf, learned from guitarist Charley Patton, of Dockery’s Plantation. Possibly blues music was originally born in the vicinity of this large cotton plantation near the Sunflower River. The records of many of the Delta’s greatest bluesmen playing the blues guitar failed to sell in large quantities, leaving a recorded legacy that is splintered at best. Skip James and Son House in particular were hampered by working with Paramount Records, a label that went bankrupt during the 1930s.
These delta blues guitarists provided great inspiration for the blues rock guitarists who started to emerge in the 1960′s, such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. These guitarists openly acknowledged this inspiration, often covering delta blues classics, while adding their own unique style of playing the blues guitar.
Here’s Eric Clapton’s wonderful version of Robert Johnson’s classic Crossroads: