|Cultural origins||Early 20th century, Mississippi, U.S.|
Delta blues is one of the earliest-known styles of blues. It originated in the Mississippi Delta, and is regarded as a regional variant of country blues. Guitar and harmonica are its dominant instruments; slide guitar is a hallmark of the style. Vocal styles in Delta blues range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery.
Although Delta blues certainly existed in some form or another at the turn of the 20th century, it was first recorded in the late 1920s, when record companies realized the potential African-American market for "race records". The major labels produced the earliest recordings, consisting mostly of one person singing and playing an instrument. Live performances, however, more commonly involved a group of musicians. Current belief is that Freddie Spruell is the first Delta blues artist to have been recorded; his "Milk Cow Blues" was recorded in Chicago in June 1926.Record company talent scouts made some of the early recordings on field trips to the South, and some performers were invited to travel to northern cities to record. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981), Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey were recorded by Victor on that company's second field trip to Memphis, in 1928. Robert Wilkins was first recorded by Victor in Memphis in 1928, and Big Joe Williams and Garfield Akers by Brunswick/Vocalion, also in Memphis, in 1929.
Son House first recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930 for Paramount Records.Charley Patton also recorded for Paramount in Grafton, in June 1929 and May 1930. He also traveled to New York City for recording sessions in January and February 1934. Robert Johnson recorded his only sessions, for ARC, in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas in 1937. Many other artists were recorded during this period.
Subsequently, the early Delta blues (as well as other genres) were extensively recorded by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, who crisscrossed the southern U.S. recording music played and sung by ordinary people, helping establish the canon of genres we know today as American folk music. Their recordings, numbering in the thousands, now reside in the Smithsonian Institution. According to Dixon and Godrich (1981) and Leadbitter and Slaven (1968), Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress researchers did not record any Delta bluesmen or women prior to 1941, when he recorded Son House and Willie Brown near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, and Muddy Waters at Stovall, Mississippi. However, this claim has been disputed, as John and Alan Lomax had recorded Bukka White in 1939, Lead Belly in 1933 and most likely others.
In big-city blues, women singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith dominated the recordings of the 1920s.Fewer women were recorded playing Delta blues and other rural or folk-style blues, but we don’t know how many were simply not recorded.
Geeshie Wiley was a blues singer and guitar player who recorded six songs for Paramount Records, issued on three records in April 1930. According to the blues historian Don Kent, Wiley "may well have been the rural South's greatest female blues singer and musician."
L.V. Thomas, better known as Elvie Thomas, was a blues singer and guitarist from Houston, Texas, who recorded with Geeshie Wiley.
Memphis Minnie was a blues guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter whose recording career lasted for over three decades. She recorded around 200 songs, some of the best known being "Bumble Bee", "Nothing in Rambling", and "Me and My Chauffeur Blues".
Bertha Lee was a blues singer, active in the 1920s and 1930s. She recorded with, and was the common-law wife of, Charley Patton.
Rosa Lee Hill, daughter of Sid Hemphill, learned guitar from her father and by the time she was ten, was playing dances with him.Several of her songs were recorded by Alan Lomax between 1959-1960, including "Rolled and Tumbled" and others.
Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, and Susan Tedeschi are contemporary women blues artists who were influenced by Delta blues and learned from some of the most notable of the original artists still living.
Many Delta blues artists, such as Big Joe Williams, moved to Detroit and Chicago, creating a pop-influenced city blues style. This was displaced by the new Chicago blues sound in the early 1950s, pioneered by Delta bluesmen Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter, harking back to a Delta-influenced sound, but with amplified instruments.
Delta blues was also an inspiration for the creation of British skiffle music, from which eventually came the British invasion bands, while simultaneously influencing British blues, which led to the birth of early hard rock and heavy metal.
Blind Willie McTell was a Piedmont blues and ragtime singer and guitarist. He played with a fluid, syncopated fingerstyle guitar technique, common among many exponents of Piedmont blues. Unlike his contemporaries, he came to use twelve-string guitars exclusively. McTell was also an adept slide guitarist, unusual among ragtime bluesmen. His vocal style, a smooth and often laid-back tenor, differed greatly from many of the harsher voices of Delta bluesmen such as Charley Patton. McTell performed in various musical styles, including blues, ragtime, religious music and hokum.
Edward James "Son" House Jr. was an American delta blues singer and guitarist, noted for his highly emotional style of singing and slide guitar playing.
Fred McDowell, known by his stage name Mississippi Fred McDowell, was an American hill country blues singer and guitar player.
Robert Lockwood Jr. was an American Delta blues guitarist, who recorded for Chess Records and other Chicago labels in the 1950s and 1960s. He was the only guitarist to have learned to play directly from Robert Johnson. Robert Lockwood was one of the first professional black entertainers to appear on radio in the South, on the King Biscuit Time radio show. Lockwood is known for his longtime collaboration with Sonny Boy Williamson II and for his work in the mid-1950s with Little Walter.
Geeshie Wiley was an American country blues singer and guitar player who recorded six songs for Paramount Records, issued on three records in April 1930. According to the blues historian Don Kent, Wiley "may well have been the rural South's greatest female blues singer and musician". Little is known of her life, and there are no known photographs of her. She may have been born Lillie Mae Boone, later Lillie Mae Scott.
Booker T. Washington "Bukka" White was an American Delta blues guitarist and singer. Bukka is a phonetic spelling of White's first name; he was named after the African-American educator and civil rights activist Booker T. Washington.
Willie Lee Brown was an American blues guitar player and vocalist. He performed and recorded with other notable blues musicians, including Son House and Charlie Patton, and was an influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Brown is considered one of the pioneering musicians of the Delta blues genre.
The Memphis Jug Band was an American musical group active from the mid-1920s to the late 1950s. The band featured harmonica, kazoo, fiddle and mandolin or banjolin, backed by guitar, piano, washboard, washtub bass and jug. They played slow blues, pop songs, humorous songs and upbeat dance numbers with jazz and string band flavors. The band made the first commercial recordings in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded more sides than any other prewar jug band.
Tommy Johnson was an American Delta blues musician who recorded in the late 1920s and was known for his eerie falsetto voice and intricate guitar playing. He was unrelated to the blues musician Robert Johnson.
Othar "Otha" Turner was one of the last well-known fife players in the vanishing American fife and drum blues tradition. His music was also part of the African-American genre known as Hill country blues.
Juke joint is the vernacular term for an informal establishment featuring music, dancing, gambling, and drinking, primarily operated by African Americans in the southeastern United States. A juke joint may also be called a "barrelhouse".
Fiddlin' Joe Martin was an American blues musician, who played mandolin on Son House's recording sessions inspired by Alan Lomax in 1941.
"Jim Jackson's Kansas City Blues" is a 1927 song, written and recorded by the American blues musician Jim Jackson. He recorded it on October 10, 1927 for Vocalion Records, who released it as a two-part A-side and B-side single. It was Jackson's first record and an early blues hit. Music writer Peter Silvester suggests it was one of the first million-seller records. This sales figure is disputed, but the recording was "immensely popular... and became a standard among Mississippi and Memphis bluesmen". The song is also mentioned as one of the first rock and roll records.
James "Son" Thomas was an American Delta blues musician, gravedigger and sculptor from Leland, Mississippi.
"Pony Blues" is a Delta blues song recorded by blues musician Charley Patton. Patton recorded the song in June 1929 during his first session. The song was also the first song to be released by Patton on the Paramount label.
"Walkin' Blues" or "Walking Blues" is a blues standard written and recorded by American Delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Although unissued at the time, it was part of House's repertoire and other musicians, including Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, adapted the song and recorded their own versions.
L.V. Thomas, better known as Elvie Thomas, was an American country blues singer and guitarist from Houston, Texas.
Freddie Spruell was an American Delta blues guitarist and singer, variously billed as Papa Freddie or Mr. Freddie. He is generally regarded as the first Delta bluesman to be recorded, although Mamie Smith (1920) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (1925) predated him in recording the first blues records. Details of his life are sketchy and sometimes contradictory.
Wade Walton was an American blues musician and local civil rights leader from Mississippi. He was also a renowned barber, who counted many famous musicians amongst his friends, colleagues, and customers.