Exploring the Delta Blues

Delta blues also goes by the moniker Mississippi blues, but either term refers to the blues style of playing that came out of the Delta region of Mississippi, the fertile cotton-producing area of the state (not to be confused with the Mississippi River delta). Most Delta blues is played acoustically, in the manner of the original recordings of the 1920s and 1930s, with hollow-bodied guitars that were made before the electric guitar was introduced to the blues in the late 1940s. This brand of blues stands as the first guitar-based blues to be recorded.

In the Delta style, performers typically work solo and are usually self-accompanied on an acoustic six-string guitar. In the Delta style, you can also hear the first flowerings of the small combo format — sometimes called a string band combo — that would reach its zenith with the Chicago and modern electric blues styles.

The Delta blues style features plenty of great guitar playing with elaborate finger-picking, slashing slide work, and deep boogie rhythms, and all of it delivered with an emotional depth that oozes from each recording.

In the slide guitar style of playing, the guitarist depresses the strings of the guitar with a cylindrical slider worn over a finger of the left hand, rather than using his or her fingertips. This style is also called bottleneck guitar because early sliders were fashioned from glass bottlenecks that were fired to create a smooth surface. Slider material has included everything from bones to knives to various metals, such as brass.

Notable early blues artists who played in the Delta style include some of the very greatest:

  • Son House
  • Robert Johnson
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell
  • Charlie Patton

Here are a few recordings to check out:

  • Various Artists — Deep Blues (Atlantic). This collection contains modern-day Delta blues (recorded in 1992) played with a passion that's seldom heard on today's records. Features great performances by R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, Big Jack Johnson, Booba Barnes, and others.
  • Various Artists — The Friends of Charlie Patton (Yazoo). This superb collection contains original Delta-Mississippi blues recordings by some of the all-time greats, including performances by Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Kid Bailey, Bukka White, and Ishmon Bracey.
  • Searching For Robert Johnson by Peter Guralnick (E.P. Dutton). A small (83 pages) biography of the life, times, and music of the most famous (and mysterious) Delta bluesman of all time. While hard-and-fast facts about Robert Johnson are in short supply, Guralnick assembles as many of them as possible, and his quotes from legendary blues players Johnny Shines and Robert Jr. Lockwood are so provocative that they alone are worth the cover price. Guralnick carefully speculates — and sheds new light — on how Johnson created the timeless music he did during his short and tragic life.
  • King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton by Stephen Calt and Gayle Wardlow (Rock Chapel Press). Patton ruled the Delta blues circuit during the 1920s and early 1930s, packing the barrelhouses and selling loads of records to prove it. An essential read in finding out about the early history of the Delta blues, it includes an appendix featuring examples of Patton's songs and a glossary of expressions used in his lyrics.
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