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Delta School
Memphis School

Geographically, the Delta encompasses the fertile bottomland between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers. It also includes alluvial land across the Mississippi near Helena, Arkansas.

Culturally, the Delta has been home to large cotton plantations worked by black slaves and later, sharecroppers. Much of the Delta was cleared after the Civil War when large levees were built on either side of the Mississippi River. Life in the levee and sawmill camps had a frontier aspect, with men working in gangs, protecting themselves with weapons, and spending their hard-earned money on gambling, women, and itinerant musicians. By the turn of the twentieth century, railroad gangs began laying track to connect the Delta with larger cities. The river promoted trade with New Orleans by providing a means of transporting cotton to market.

If, as David Cohn writes, the Delta begins in Memphis, its heart lies in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Venerable Memphis bluesman Gus Cannon, who lived in Clarksdale at the turn of the century, claimed to have first heard a musician playing in a blues style circa 1900. In 1903, bandleader W.C. Handy moved to Clarksdale. Two years later, while waiting for the train in Tutwiler, Handy heard a man playing a guitar and singing along with the low, mournful sound made by sliding a knife along the strings. This prompted Handy to start writing blues music, marking the beginning its popularity.

As Robert Palmer describes the music in his book Deep Blues, "The Mississippi Delta's blues musicians sang with unmatched intensity in a gritty, melodically circumscribed, highly ornamented style that was closer to field hollers than it was to other styles of blues. Guitar and piano accompaniments were percussive and hypnotic, and many Delta guitarists mastered the art of fretting the instrument with a slide or bottleneck that made the instrument 'talk' in strikingly speechlike inflections."

Most Delta blues musicians were itinerant loners who occasionally teamed with other musicians to play parties, sawmill camps, train stations, and anywhere people with spare change congregated. Often the lumber and levee camps had pianists who played a two-fisted, eight-to-the-bar style called barrelhouse, the name given to a camp's barroom. Three of the most famous Delta pianists were Roosevelt Sykes of Helena, Clarksdale native Sunnyland Slim, and Little Brother Montgomery of Kentwood, Louisiana. All were masters of the barrelhouse style and played extensively in the lumber camps of the Delta. Good pianists like these could make better money with fewer occupational hazards in larger cities, and these three moved to cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, and even Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of the great recorded Delta blues guitarists, including Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf, learned from guitarist Charley Patton, who lived on Dockery's Plantation. It's been speculated that blues music was born in the vicinity of this large, self-sustaining cotton plantation near the Sunflower River. Patton's records sold well, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, and provided him with fame and ready cash that were widely envied by his peers. The records of many of the Delta's greatest bluesmen failed to sell in large quantities, leaving a recorded legacy that is splintered at best. Skip James and Son House in particular were hampered by working with Paramount Records, a label that went bankrupt during the 1930s.

In 1927, the National String Instrument Company attempted to increase the guitar's volume by creating a resonating aluminum-bodied instrument. The National Resonating Guitar was perfect for cutting through the noise in juke joints, creating a stir on street corners, or defending oneself from assailants. Delta bluesmen Bukka White, Son House, and Shreveport, Louisiana, bluesman Oscar "Buddy" Woods used these booming guitars to create devastating slide guitar effects with knives or bottlenecks.

Slide guitar is easily the hallmark of this period of Delta blues, and its acknowledged master was Robert Johnson. Unlike slide guitarists Patton and House, Johnson crafted his songs to fit the three-minute format of 78 rpm records. His songs were conceived as concise stories rather than rambling narratives or free verse associations. Even as Johnson was recording his classic records in the late 1930s, Delta blues had started changing. During this period, solo blues performers were edged in popularity by rhythm-driven combos that would define Delta blues in the 1940s and 1950s.

The blues bands of the 1930s were as different from the solo performers who preceded them as they were from Handy's brass bands. These groups relied upon drummers and bassists to provide rhythm in the small juke joints where bluesmen increasingly made their money. The introduction of vocal microphones and amplified guitar pick-ups allowed bluesmen to create a new vocabulary of sounds to fit their music.

Helena bluesman Robert Nighthawk recorded his blues in Chicago during the late 1930s for the Bluebird label, setting a high standard with his sweet, liquid, amplified guitar tone. Harmonica genius Sonny Boy Williamson and jazz-influenced guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood started broadcasting a radio show touting King Biscuit flour from Helena in 1941. Williamson's amplified harmonica and vocal effects, together with Lockwood's single-string electric guitar leads, influenced a large audience of younger Delta musicians, including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Joe Willie Wilkins, and B.B. King. Upon his discharge from the Navy in 1945, a young guitarist named Elmore James returned to the Delta and played an amplified slide guitar with a slashing style that became his hallmark.

The Illinois Central Railroad played an important part in the migration of blacks to higher paying jobs in northern factories and stockyards. The Great Depression had effectively ended the record companies' practice of sending field recording teams to Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, and other southern cities to record local talent. During the depression, Delta bluesmen took the train to Chicago to record for major labels like Bluebird. Many of the Delta's best musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Sonny Boy Williamson, moved to Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s to be near the recording studios. The Chicago blues sound that has become world famous came whole cloth from the Mississippi Delta.


Delta School
Memphis School

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