Mississippi Delta Blues: American Cornerstone

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One of the two known photos of Robert Johnson. This portrait was taken by the Hooks Bros. Photography Company in Memphis, Tenn., circa 1935. i i

hide captionOne of the two known photos of Robert Johnson. This portrait was taken by the Hooks Bros. Photography Company in Memphis, Tenn., circa 1935.

Courtesy of the Delta Haze Corporation
One of the two known photos of Robert Johnson. This portrait was taken by the Hooks Bros. Photography Company in Memphis, Tenn., circa 1935.

One of the two known photos of Robert Johnson. This portrait was taken by the Hooks Bros. Photography Company in Memphis, Tenn., circa 1935.

Courtesy of the Delta Haze Corporation

The blues recordings that came out of the Mississippi Delta from the late 1920s through the late '30s have had an enormous impact on American music, influencing everyone from The Rolling Stones to Cassandra Wilson. It's powerful music that is also, by turns, stark, poetic, eerie, humorous, topical and beautiful.

Most Delta blues recordings were solo performances by singer-guitarists, though several notable recordings also feature some sort of minimal accompaniment — generally a second guitarist.

In the following list, you'll hear four of the greatest Delta blues artists, as well as an example of what some of today's musicians are doing with this timeless music in the 21st century. The first three songs are from decades-old 78 RPM records, so you'll hear "surface noise" from those discs, but don't let that put you off. Even through the hiss and crackle of well-worn 78s, the brilliance and power of these songs is undeniable and unforgettable.

This article originally ran July 13, 2009.

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Mississippi Delta Blues: American Cornerstone

Founder Of The Delta Blues

Charley Patton

  • Album: Founder of the Delta Blues
  • Song: Mississippi Boweavil Blues

It's not too reductive to say that Mississippi Delta blues as we know it begins with Charley Patton. There were certainly other delta blues musicians before (and concurrent with) Patton, but he was one of the first to be recorded. He was also immensely gifted, amazingly prolific and served as a major influence for other musicians in the delta, including Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. The breadth of topics in Patton's songs is also notable. While most musicians might be quite content to sing about love or the lack thereof, Patton would sing about whatever caught his interest, from social issues to insects. In this 1929 recording, Patton gives us what might be the first piece of music ever devoted to the boll weevil, an insect with a voracious and devastating appetite for cotton.

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  • "Mississippi Boweavil Blues"
  • Album: Founder of the Delta Blues
  • Artist: Charley Patton
  • Label: Shanachie
  • Released: 1969
 
Cover for Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929)

Tommy Johnson

  • Album: Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929)
  • Song: Cool Drink of Water Blues

Tommy Johnson was a contemporary of Charlie Patton's; they were virtually neighbors. Like Patton, Johnson was a gifted writer, singer and guitarist. Unlike Patton, Tommy Johnson recorded very little. After recording 16 songs in three sessions between 1928 and 1929, he stopped recording forever, mistakenly believing that he had signed away his right to record. However, among those 16 songs there are three certified blues classics: "Canned Heat Blues," "Big Road Blues" and the song included here, "Cool Drink Of Water Blues." Unlike most delta blues recordings, this song features two guitarists: Johnson accompanied by Charlie McCoy. The rhythmic tension they create between their instruments, combined with Tommy's inimitable falsetto vocal performance make this song a uniquely beautiful moment in American music history. (Click here for more information from Tommy Johnson's label.)

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  • "Cool Drink of Water Blues"
  • Album: Complete Recorded Works (1928-1929)
  • Artist: Thomas "Snake" Johnson
  • Label: Document
  • Released: 1929
 
Cover for The Complete Recordings [Columbia]

Robert Johnson

  • Album: The Complete Recordings [Columbia]
  • Song: If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day

Charlie Patton might have been the first important delta blues musician, but Robert Johnson (no relation to Tommy Johnson) is almost certainly the most famous. He's also one of the most intriguing and enduring mysteries in blues music. Very little is known about Johnson's life and there is much conjecture about his death. What we know for certain is that when he died, in his late twenties, he left behind a body of work which, though relatively small, has maintained an amazing presence in American music. From Cream's famous 1968 electric arrangement of "Cross Roads Blues" to Cassandra Wilson's hypnotic interpretation of "Come On In My Kitchen," Robert Johnson's music continues to inspire and nourish a broad spectrum of musicians. In this 1937 recording of "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," we get a great sample of his incredible singing and guitar playing. The song also features one of the earliest recordings of a guitar lick that would become one of the most famous in blues history, when it later became the signature phrase in Muddy Water's classic recording of "Rollin' And Tumblin.'"

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  • "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day"
  • Album: The Complete Recordings [Columbia]
  • Artist: Robert Johnson
  • Label: Columbia/Legacy
 
Father Of The Delta Blues

Son House

  • Album: Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions
  • Song: Preachin' Blues

One of the most amazing things about Son House is that he lived long enough to be re-discovered. Many of the original delta blues musicians either died at a relatively early age or drifted into obscurity. House beat the odds. He began recording in 1930, after serving time in prison for killing a man, allegedly in self-defense. In the early 1940s, he retired from music and went to work for a railroad company in upstate New York, until he was re-discovered by folk/blues enthusiasts in 1964. He then began the successful second phase of his musical career, recording and playing around the world. "Preachin' Blues" is House's 1965 version of a song that he'd originally recorded in 1930. It reminds us that the blues can be light-hearted and humorous and still be "the blues."

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  • "Preachin' Blues"
  • Album: Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions
  • Artist: Son House
  • Released: 1992
 
Cover for Electric Blue Watermelon

North Mississippi Allstars

  • Album: Electric Blue Watermelon
  • Song: Mississippi Boll Weevil

Many contemporary blues/rock artists and bands have, at one time or another, updated and electrified some of those early delta blues songs. The North Mississippi Allstars make a habit of it, and the results are always thrilling. Brothers Luther (guitar) and Cody (drums) Dickinson grew up in Mississippi. Their father, producer and musician Jim Dickinson, fed them a steady diet of great blues, so when the brothers formed the North Mississippi Allstars, it was natural for them to use that music as the basis for their sound. With this recording, we hear them take the Charlie Patton song that started this list and supercharge it, with electric guitar, drums, bass and percussion, while always remaining true to the spirit of Patton's original work.

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  • "Mississippi Boll Weevil"
  • Album: Electric Blue Watermelon
  • Artist: North Mississippi Allstars
  • Label: Ato
  • Released: 2007
 

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