Birth of the blues

Friday, March 11, 2005


The Delta blues gets its name from the Mississippi Delta, which is the fertile bottomland between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers in Mississippi. The music that originated in this area largely came from the plantation culture present before the Civil War, when slaves would sing spirituals and "field hollers."

After the war, the area was filled with levee-building sawmill camps as development progressed. The experiences of the men in these camps -- protecting themselves with weapons and spending money on strong drinks and cheap women -- became fuel for the dark lyrics of the Delta blues.

It isn't clear exactly who played the blues first, but bandleader W.C. Handy is credited with making it a recognized style when he moved to Clarksdale, Miss., in 1903. He said he heard a man playing slide guitar with a knife at a train station and began writing his own blues music. By 1920, the Delta blues was big in the region.

Most Delta blues musicians were travelers and loners who played wherever they could for whatever they could.

Some of the great Delta blues guitarists include Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Son House, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Brown. They are recognized as great musicians, but most of them sold few records in their time and died poor in true blues style.

These solo performers, whose sad tales and slide guitars stand at the heart of the Delta blues, would later be edged out by blues combos in the 1940s and 1950s.

-- U.S. National Parks Service

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: