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Delta Blues: A Genre That Changed American Music

Updated on October 10, 2017
Rachel Dawidowicz profile image

Growing up in a musical household, jazz and classical music were prominent in her home. She enjoys seeing how music affects society.

Robert Johnson

One of the pioneers of delta blues, Robert Johnson paved way for mid 20th century blues and beyond. Interestingly, he's also a club 27 member.
One of the pioneers of delta blues, Robert Johnson paved way for mid 20th century blues and beyond. Interestingly, he's also a club 27 member. | Source

In the movie The Perfect age of Rock n Roll, the protagonist Spider is in an interview, and he has something to say about the blues. Listen.. you can hear the fingers sliding up and down the strings, it's like there's a eulogy buried in every blues song." He isn't wrong. Here is the story of how the blues found it's way to our hearts.

Map of the Delta orgin
Map of the Delta orgin

Delta Blues: Orgin

The Blues; hoarse voice, harmonica, and a relaxed guitar melody. We all know famous Blues artists like Muddy Waters, Otis Redding, and B.B King. Before this form of Blues came along, there was a sub-genre known as the Delta Blues. It originates from the Delta region in Mississippi. The region spreads from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg, Mississippi. The story starts at the start of the 1920's until the late 1930's.

The Story of the Delta Blues masters are often times left where it all started. In the wind of the south.

You can see the mechanically turned knob. This is the most common image of the gramophone used by many Americans. Thomas Edison perfected it.
You can see the mechanically turned knob. This is the most common image of the gramophone used by many Americans. Thomas Edison perfected it.

One of the First Songs Pressed on Vinyl

So, when I say vinyl, I am not talking about what you see when you walk into the record store. I am talking about the 78 rpm record. Better known as the gramophone record. It was unlike earlier records, this is the format that was made from what modern records are made from; polyvinyl chloride. If you are unfamiliar with the gramophone it literally is the first record player. Unlike today's that have USB connectivity, a stainless steel stylus, and RCA connectivity, the gramophone had a bell attached to it, known as the phonograph cylinder. Instead of it being an automatic turn arm, you had to mechanically turn a knob to get the gramophone going.

It was one of the very first records available to the public. As far as American music, when delta blues began in the early 20th century, that is where the songs were recorded on.

Composer, and musician W.C Handy is considered to be the "father of the blues"
Composer, and musician W.C Handy is considered to be the "father of the blues"

The Man Who Fathered the Blues: W.C Handy

In 1903, William Christopher Handy supposedly stood at a train station in Tutwiler in Mississippi, where he heard a tune played by a street performer on the guitar. Instead of a guitar pick or his own fingers, he used a knife to create a slide effect that seemed to mimic tones from a person in distress, as he wailed "Goin where the southern cross' the dog."

Handy, who supposedly had perfect pitch (the ability to hear a song once, and mimic it accurately), he was able to recreate the song. He created from there, one of the most famous chord progressions in the blues "A-A-B-B" Rhyme Scheme, which means a poem or song in which the first two lines and second two lines rhyme creating a pattern. An example is "The cat on the mat, played with my hat, under the yellow sun, on a day of great fun."

Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley: Example of AABB

The Delta Becomes the Blues Capitol and a Cultural Explosion

The Delta is the region between Mississippi, a Tennessee. By the 1920's while Jazz shook speakeasies and Jazz Clubs, the south had the Blues. Dances and clubs were all around the Delta region. It was also the birth of post-war blues.

Artists such as Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, BB KIng, Otis Redding, fueled the blues capital of America. The delta also gave the Black population a chance to show what they can do, (Just like the Harlem Renaissance in New York was doing, with the explosion of Black art and Jazz). Also, much of the black population in the 1920's and 1930's began to move out of the poverty-stricken areas.

As they began to move up north, more Blues artists emerged. Artists such as Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim, Little Milton, Hubert Sumlin, and Shakey Horton. It created an expansion of the genre that began in the small region of Delta Mississippi.

The famous Cotton Club located in Harlem, New York. The building has seen its days, including a fire, were the building had to be renovated. You can still peek in for a performance today.
The famous Cotton Club located in Harlem, New York. The building has seen its days, including a fire, were the building had to be renovated. You can still peek in for a performance today.
One of Mississippi's Juke Joints. Note the staggering differences economically between the two places. Both spread cultural music around America. The North spread Jazz, the South spread the blues.
One of Mississippi's Juke Joints. Note the staggering differences economically between the two places. Both spread cultural music around America. The North spread Jazz, the South spread the blues.

Juke Joints: Jazz Clubs of the South

Jazz clubs grew rapidly in the North during the 1920s. The south had Juke Joints. A club where blues artists would perform their songs. It was in these clubs that the genre began to spread around the Delta region. Now it is much easier, just upload your song on Soundcloud and you have people listening. Back then, you had to do live performances. The phenomenon of Juke Joints and Jazz clubs set a foundation to the Burger joints in the 50's. All had the same idea, get a crowd of good people, some great music, and dance the night away. The only difference between Juke Joint, Jazz Clubs, and Burger joints is that with Juke Joints and Jazz clubs, they doubled as speakeasies, a type of bar the illegally sold alcohol during a time in the 1920's known as the prohibition era.

Robert Johnson- Me and the Devil Blues

Legacy of Delta Blues

The Delta Blues became a platform for Blues, Bluegrass, and folk. It also became America's music of the 20th century. It gave the black community a sense of belonging as they paved the path for generations of new musicians, and new genres. The south is well known for their Jazz, literature, and art. However, people forget how that music got there.

It came from a man who took his guitar to the crossroads, met the devil, sold his soul to learn to play the blues. It came from shacks used to become clubs to perform the music, and from the stories of those who sung those songs. Next time you come across a delta blues song, sit back, relax, and enjoy the roots of all of America's music.

© 2017 Rachel Dawidowicz

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