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Blues Styles: Mississippi Delta Blues

Mississippi Delta Blues style defined


Muddy Waters in Toronto, Canada, 1971
jlacpo/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most influential of the many styles of blues music, Mississippi Delta blues (also called "Delta blues") rose out of the fertile agricultural triangle located between Vicksburg, Mississippi to the south and Memphis, Tennessee to the north, and bordered by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east. In this region, where cotton was the primary cash crop, much of the property was owned by white plantation owners and worked by black sharecroppers. Poverty was rife throughout the Delta, and working conditions were harsh.

Delta Blues Tradition

Traditional blues songs were handed down by word-of-mouth from one performer to another, and many times an artist would add new lyrics to an old song and make it their own. The guitar and the harmonica were the primary tool of the Delta bluesman, mostly due to the ease of carrying them around, and many of the musicians of the Early Blues era (1910-1950) were sharecroppers, or worked on one of the many plantations that were located across the Mississippi Delta.

The Delta blues are typically identified by the music's highly rhythmic structure, sometimes featuring clashing rhythms, accompanied by strong vocals. Although the lyrics of Delta blues are often simple, with repeated lines a trademark of the style, they also tend to be highly personal and reflective of the hard life of the African-American farmer in the South.

An acoustic guitar is the instrument of choice in playing Delta blues, although several artists adopted the National Resonator guitar (one brand of which is known as a "Dobro") for its louder sound. The harmonica is also widely used, albeit as a secondary instrument. Delta blues is one of the many forms of what is called "country blues."

Mississippi Delta Blues Artists

Charley Patton is generally considered to be the first Delta blues star, and he traveled widely throughout the region, often with fellow bluesman Son House. Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Tommy McClennan, and Skip James are generally considered to be the most creative and influential of the Delta blues artists.

Although best-known for their work in Chicago or Detroit, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and John Lee Hooker all came out of the Mississippi Delta.

Delta blues enjoyed a brief commercial run during the 1920s, coming to an abrupt end when the Depression derailed many artists' opportunities to record. Robert Johnson, who recorded during the '30s, is widely considered to be the last of the original Delta blues artists. Mississippi Delta blues artists would prove to be a major influence on the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s.

Recommended Albums: Although Charley Patton's currently available recordings were copied from inferior-quality 78s, King of the Delta Blues offers beginners a solid collection of two-dozen tracks of varying sound quality.

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