Old Highway 61, near Tunica Ms.
that 61 Highway, is the longest road I know,
started school one Monday morning, Lord I throw'd my books away.
Mississippi seems to have raised more than its share of well-known blues artists and musicians. Many were recorded commercially between 1928 and 1934 and again, or for the first time, in field and commercial recordings from the late 50's onwards.
'First-generation' artists include: Charley Patton, William 'Big Bill' Broonzy, Walter 'Furry' Lewis, Jim Jackson, John Hurt, Armenter Chatmon ('Bo Carter'), and Tommy Johnson - all born between 1891 and 1896.
'Second generation' artists - all born between 1902-1906 and raised in Mississippi include: Eddie 'Son' House, Booker T Washington ('Bukka' White), Fred McDowell, Garfield Akers, Joe Callicutt, Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, 'Big' Joe Williams, 'Skip' Nehemiah James, Jack Owens and Robert Wilkins.
'Third- generation' artists (1910-1918) include: Chester Burnett (Howling Wolf), Robert Johnson, McKinley Morganfield (Muddy Waters), Joe 'Pinetop' Perkins, Dave 'Honeyboy' Edwards, Robert Lockwood Jr, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Elmore James.
'Fourth-generation' artists include: Jimmy Reed, R L Burnside, Elias Bates (Bo Diddley) and J B Lenoir, born in the late 20's and Hubert Sumlin, Little Milton, Buddy Guy and Iverson Minter (Louisiana Red), born in the early and mid thirties.
The early Delta blues
were closely akin to work songs and field hollers
RA. The labour was hard, and
workers sang the blues to make themselves feel better and to work their brain as
they worked their bodies.
The first notation of
Delta blues lyrics was made in 1903 by Charles Peabody, a white archaeologist
who had hired a team of black workers as diggers at a site near Stovall,
Mississippi. Peabody wrote down some of the lyrics of the songs he heard, many
of which were improvised on the spot. Howard Odum, a folklorist, travelled
throughout the Delta on a field trip at the same time. More than half of the
songs he heard and noted were blues.
The blues may have began in the fields, but it quickly moved to recreational gatherings, such as picnics, barbecues and Saturday night dances. Around 1900 the guitar, harmonica and sometimes the piano began to be added to, and replace, the banjo and fiddle among black musicians, although string and jug bands remained popular into the 1930's - for example The Mississippi Sheiks, the Gus Cannon Jug Stompers and Memphis Jug Band.
Square dancing became outmoded in Mississippi, replaced by couple dancing RA. Although initially these dances were based on ragtime themes (often with 'animal' names such as the 'Grizzly Bear') the rhythms of the blues made it excellent for dancing, the music was easily followed and lead to the popularity of 'slow drags' and boogie-woogie.
The slide technique seems to have become associated with early Mississippi Delta blues, although it is used across all areas by a variety of artists. In part this is perhaps due to the autobiographical story concerning W. C. Handy hearing such 'strange wild music' being played by a 'ragged black man' at Tutweiler station in the heart of the Delta in 1903 (and that story leading to 2003 being declared 'The Year of the Blues' by the US Congress).
Tutweiler station (2001)
technique is where the guitarist uses a knife, a metal slide or a bottle-neck to
slide along the strings to fret notes or chords. Using a slide, the guitar could
approximate the tones of the human voice; it also allowed the guitarist to pluck
out the rhythm on the bass strings while playing a melody on the treble strings.
Following the success of the early recordings (particularly those of Blind Lemon Jefferson) many Mississippi artists were 'recruited' by local white 'talent' scouts such as H C Speir in Jackson Ms to record in Memphis, Grafton Wisconsin, Chicago, Dallas or even New York.
It would be hard to think of artists more different than Charley Patton, 'Big Bill' Broonzy and John Hurt, yet they were all 'first generation' artists, born in 1891 or 1893. They grew up within fifty miles of each other, were blues singers as well as songsters and all first recorded in 1928 or 1929 respectively.
Some Mississippi blues strike the ear as being stripped down to the essentials. There is very little ornamentation and the vocals are often harsh and raspy, like field hollers. The instruments provide a powerful, percussive, driving rhythm that often accelerates as the song progresses.
Mississippi John Hurt RA was from Avalon in the low hills on the edge of the Delta and uses his wonderful thumb to produce the steady alternating bass providing the pulse for dancing.
Beginning during the First World War there was a huge black migration from Mississippi, especially the Delta region. In the forefront of this migration were many of Mississippi's finest blues musicians. Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Jim Jackson and Big Bill Broonzy RA all had abandoned the state for points north - Memphis, St Louis or Chicago - by the mid 1920s.
Others, such as Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson travelled on a 'local' (Jackson-Clarksdale-Helena-Memphis) circuit, and some only played at local jook joints and fish-fry's at weekends, such as Garfield Akers, Willie Brown, Eddie 'Son' House and the as yet unrecorded Fred McDowell.
Before settling in Chicago in the late 40' a later generation of artists travelled a huge circuit from Texas up to St Louis and Chicago during the 30's (Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines visited New York, Chicago, St Louis and Detroit)