Styles & Forms | Delta/Country Blues

It was in the rich cotton–producing Delta stretching from Mississippi to Tennessee that black labourers working the plantations gave ferment to an earthy style of music born out of African songs, chants, spirituals and gospel tunes that had been handed down for generations. They called it the blues.

The man usually recognized as the first star of Delta country blues is Charley Patton. An acoustic guitarist of impressive facility with a hoarse, impassioned singing style, Patton was a house-rocking entertainer who played plantation dances and juke joints throughout the Mississippi Delta during the early 1920s. Combined with a high-energy performance style, the strong rhythmic pulse of his music was so galvanizing that he held emotional sway over audiences everywhere he played. Legend has it that workers would often leave crops unattended to listen to him play guitar.

Patton’s Prototype

When he finally documented his entertaining tunes in the studio (beginning with ‘Pony Blues’, for the Paramount label, in 1929), his records could be heard on phonographs throughout the South. And while he did not invent the form (nor was he the first Delta bluesman to record), Patton was the genre’s most popular attraction: a genuine celebrity whose appetite for food, liquor and women were legendary, and who travelled from one engagement to the next with a flashy, expensive-looking guitar fitted with a custom-made strap and case. In essence, he was the prototypical rock star. When Patton died in 1934, he left behind a total of only 60 recorded tracks but his legacy was a colorful one, thoroughly addressed in 2001’s Grammy-winning seven-CD box set, Screamin’ And Hollerin’ The Blues: The Worlds Of Charley Patton, on the Revenant label.

By the late 1920s, at the time of Patton’s first recordings, other Mississippi bluesmen were also making their mark on records, including Patton contemporaries such as Tommy Johnson and Son House. While Johnson emulated Patton’s powerful, rough-hewn vocal delivery and showboating style – playing the guitar behind his neck and the like – he lacked the ambition that drove Patton to the pinnacle of stardom in the late 1920s. Instead, Johnson spent most of the 1920s drinking, gambling and womanizing, until his slow descent into alcoholism started to take its toll. Canned Heat, the popular, California-based boogie-blues band of the 1960s, took its name from the title of a Johnson song about drinking Sterno-denatured alcohol used for artificial heat.

The Major Innovators

Another major innovator of the Delta blues style, Eddie James ‘Son’ House brought an extraordinary degree of emotional power to his singing and slide guitar playing on his first recordings in the early 1930s for the Paramount label. A main source of inspiration for both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, Son (unlike his contemporary Charley Patton) lived long enough to experience his own rediscovery during the folk blues revival of the mid-1960s. A one-time Baptist preacher, House imbued his blues with an almost demonic intensity on recordings such...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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