As I mentioned in my blog (part 1) the Delta Blues has travelled near, far and throughout the world. Here are some additional notable artists from the Delta region, many of whom roamed from place to place often never staying for very long. Despite my blog views being somewhat dismally low for topics such as these, it is a subject critical to the understanding of today’s music, in particular modern blues and much of classic rock. While I feel the need to set a baseline by mentioning these artists, later I think I’ll reverse engineer from names such as Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Canned Heat and today’s biggest guitar hero Joe Bonamassa. There is much to say about these legendary characters, originally just referred to as “songsters” or “wandering songsters” and “minstrels” many of whom have several stories written about them and I should do a blog or two on their own.
John Smith Hurt know as Mississippi John Hurt (March 8, 1892 or 1893, Teoc, Mississippi – November 2, 1966, Grenada, Mississippi). Known for his syncopated fingerpicking style and among the first Delta musicians to be recorded. His first sessions in 1928-9 were not commercially successful and he went back to the life of a sharecropper. Perhaps never to be heard from again but thanks to a musicologist named Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins a noted blues enthusiast he was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1964 and later Vanguard Records 1964-66.
Here is one of his early recordings and his most covered at 18 versions.
“Candy Man Blues”
. This is the first known cover version of this song (1965) but it’s more of an ‘inspired by’ cover as the lyrics are changed significantly and are not the same sexually suggestive words but the tune stays pretty true.
Robert Johnson (May 8, 1911, Hazlehurst, Mississippi – August 16, 1938). Singer-songwriter, guitarist and the quintessential ‘itinerant musician’ he travelled mainly in the Memphis, Tennessee and Helena, Arkansas areas. Often identified incorrectly as the first “Bluesman” however there is little doubt as to his mastery of the guitar and his influence is as legendary as his own brief life story. Referenced a couple times and likely again as his recordings have become something of a pivotal point in music. You may know of the story of the man who sold his soul to the devil for mastery over the guitar, that myth is about Robert Johnson. He died at the age of 27 in extreme pain, some say poisoned by strychnine laced whisky provided by a jealous husband.
His two recording sessions occurred in San Antonio and Dallas. The account of music engineer Don Law and particularly the first session at the Gunter Hotel, November 23 to the 27th
in 1936 has been played out in songs, books, movies and tv shows
. Here is one of the songs which tells the story of a man at critical time in his life and helped to feed the mythology of selling his soul to the devil (which is never actually referenced in the song).
“Cross Road Blues
” by Robert Johnson (Nov. 27th
1936). Covered about 90 times to date.
Eric Clapton and The Powerhouse
, from a compilation album What’s Shakin’
(June 1966). This features Steve Winwood on vocals. The group only recorded four songs, this is one of three to be released. The feature group on the album was the Lovin’ Spoonful but also included; The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Al Kooper and Tom Rush.
Charley Patton (born perhaps between April of 1887 and 1891 – April 28, 1934). Guitarist and a forerunner of the slide guitar style he was a great singer and a songwriter. He’s considered by many to be the “Father of the Delta Blues”. So before there was Robert Johnson, there were bluesmen like Patton who traveled the Delta region and inspired and taught many others in the style. Of mixed heritage including some say Asian, White, Black, Mexican and Cherokee he learned his trade from perhaps the original bluesman Henry Sloan. Best know for “Pony Blues” from 1929, his recordings were quite rare until 1996 (thanks to John Fahey) and that’s perhaps the reason he was less influential on the early rock and blues stars of the 1960’s.
These song lyrics are somewhat ambiguous, he’s either referring to sex or drugs (not unusual content for Delta Blues lyrics), I think both as “a spoonful” at the time had an equivalent meaning. The fact the protagonist was willing to kill a man and go to jail over it does not clear things up either as men have done it over both. “A Spoonful Blues
” Most likely written by Charlie Patton himself.
Son House was Eddie James House, Jr. (March 21, 1902, Lyon, Mississippi – October 19, 1988). Another early bluesman and forerunner to Robert Johnson. A former preacher and church Pastor he was good enough to be invited by Charlie Patton to play with him and Willie Brown, another key early blues singer.
“My Black Mama”
written by Son’s tutor, James McCoy and performed by Son House (1930)
“My Black Mama” was covered as “Walkin’ Blues
” by Robert Johnson during those famous recording sessions.
Since covered over 100 times. Rory Block recorded a tribute album to Son House, here’s her version of “My Black Mama
David Honeyboy Edwards (June 28, 1915, Shaw, Mississippi – August 29, 2011). Along with Pinetop Perkins, Henry Townsend and Robert Lockwood he won a Grammy Award for the Album ‘Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas’; at the time of his death he was most likely the last living original Delta blues player of the twentieth century. Not particularly well known for original compositions but he was a purveyor of the Delta Blues and an accomplished singer and guitar player. One of the musicians to come from the famed Dockery Plantation in Mississippi where several of the great Delta bluesmen worked.
Joseph Lee “Big Joe” Williams (October 16, 1903 – December 17, 1982). Know for his own unique creation the ‘nine string guitar’ (you can see he added the tuning pegs to the head of the guitar) and his homemade set up of coiled wires around his guitar then attached to his beat-up old amplifier, he had a sound like no other. He became a favorite on the Folk and Blues Concert circuits where he influenced Bob Dylan among others. He discovered a 14-year-old David Edwards (above) and the two of them would travel together and play with Robert Johnson and other Blues greats.
“Baby Please Don’t Go”
written and performed by Big Joe Williams (1935). Covered over 160 times and one of my favorite Delta tunes by any artist. Here is a great live performance from the 1960’s.
“Baby Please Don’t Go”
by Bob Dylan recorded during the ‘Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ sessions in 1961 and 62, this song was an outtake not released until 1991.
Music Trivia. What makes ‘The Blues’ so unique? As I’ve read, among other things it’s the adaptation of the African 5 note or Pentatonic scale to the Western/Americanized 7 note scale. The blues began largely on guitar and the musicians would actually bend the strings to produce the lower and hence ‘flat’ (vs. sharp) notes that are an identifiably ‘melancholier’ (for lack of a better term) sound.
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Click here for a playlist of all the songs