As I started my latest project (I’m not sure if it will be a novella or a novel), I felt the need to get into the mood of the time. As I outlined the plot, developed the characters, and settled on the style, I immersed myself in the music of the time and place I was about to write about.
The story is a supernatural tale set in the 1920’s-1930’s Mississippi Delta region. The border of Mississippi and Louisiana to be more precise. To help put my mind in that time and place, I began listening to blues recordings from the time.
I have loved this music for many years but have never lost myself in the music as I have the past few weeks. The blues as a style is still popular, and its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the decades. Despite the rise in popularity, the musicians of the Depression Era Delta are sadly neglected. Their names may get dropped here and there as major influences on modern rock, but their music is overlooked. The primitive recording techniques of the time has much to do with this neglect. Subpar equipment and makeshift studios generally don’t produce recordings for the ages, but here we are ninety years later, still talking about these itinerant musicians who eked out a living with guitar, their voice, and a handful of songs to entertain anyone willing to listen. Their difficult lives became a crutch as they turned their experiences into songs that transcended their time and place.
As I listened to the haunting lyrics delivered by flawed voices, I decided to do my part (however small it may be) to bring at least a modicum of exposure to these fading musical masters. Strictly speaking, this list is not exclusively composed of Delta musicians. Within the list are a few Texas troubadours and Carolina Piedmont finger-pickers.
- Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945)
The sparse bottleneck slide guitar introduction is a hauntingly beautiful melody which when combined with Johnson’s gravely moaning creates an eerie, almost supernatural song. The song is not a typical blues number, as it is primarily an instrumental piece, with Johnson’s humming and moaning acting as accompaniment to his guitar work. Johnson recorded the legendary song in December 1927 for Columbia.
- High Water Everywhere (Parts 1&2) by Charlie Patton (1891?-1934)
One of the “Father of the Delta Blues” best recordings, for Paramount in late 1929. The song tackles the mistreatment of African Americans during the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood. The Flood, which is the largest flood in American history devastated much of the Delta area. African American sharecroppers were bound to the landowners and not allowed to leave in the aftermath of the flood. This mistreatment led to the eventual exodus of many African Americans to northern cities.
- Canned Heat Blues by Tommy Johnson (1896-1956)
The title of Johnson’s masterpiece referred to drinking methanol derived from Sterno cooking fuel. Johnson’s alcoholism made him an unreliable and unpredictable performer. He had a sinister reputation and helped cultivate this image by proclaiming to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his mastery of the guitar (a tale later falsely attributed to the unrelated Robert Johnson). The song was recorded in 1928 with Papa Charlie McCoy accompanying on second guitar.
- Hard Time Killing Floor Blues by Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James (1902-1969)
Skip James had two things going against him when he showed up in Grafton, Wisconsin to record several sides Paramount in 1931. His minor-key sound made his music seem much darker than his contemporaries and the Great Depression was in full swing as his records went to market.
- That Black Snake Moan by Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929)
Jefferson was known to carry a pearl-handled revolver wherever he travelled and seemed to enjoy showing it off. A Texan, who spent time traveling and playing in the Delta, Jefferson was a popular and successful musician, but he didn’t have the influence in the Delta Patton had. This country blues song was recorded for Paramount in 1926. The sexual innuendos scattered throughout the lyrics were not lost on the record buying public. The song became popular which led Jefferson to re-record it as Black Snake Moan in 1927 allowing for a superior quality recording of the song.
- Rope Stretchin’ Blues by Arthur “Blind” Blake (1896-1934)
Blind Blake was one of the most accomplished musicians of his time. He was known for his Rag inspired guitar stylings focusing on an intricate finger-picking technique which influenced innumerable musicians in the Piedmont of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.
- Hellhound on My Trail by Robert Johnson (1911-1938)
There probably is no Delta musician more influential than the larger-than-life legend that is Robert Johnson. His influence did not occur in his short lifetime. His records sold poorly as his style was considered passe by the time he recorded. The singer’s life and death are shrouded in mystery. Little concrete is known about his short time on Earth and much of what is thought contradicts itself. Johnson recorded the song in 1937 for Vocalion. The song is often thought to be about the Hounds of Hell pursuing Johnson, the sinner. The Hell Hounds could also refer to law officials or Pinkerton agents pursuing Johnson for crimes committed.
- Red River Blues by Henry Thomas (1874-1930?)
“Ragtime Texas” Thomas is one of the earliest purveyors of what would become Texas Blues. Recorded in 1927 for Vocalion in Chicago. Thomas is mostly remembered today for accompanying himself on the quills (a folk instrument made from cane reeds).
- Clarksdale Moan by Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (1902-1988)
One of Son House’s initial recordings for Paramount in 1930, it was long considered lost until re-discovered in 2005. Next to Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and possibly Skip James, Son House may be the most influential blues musicians to come out of the Delta. House’s influence is notable as much of it occurred after his re-discovery in the 1960’s. House’s strong vocals and slide-guitar technique made him stand out amongst his contemporaries. Of all the Delta musicians, House literally ‘preached the blues’ louder and more emotionally than anyone else.
- The Gone Dead Train by King Solomon Hill (?-?)
In the world of the Delta Blusemen, there may be no more enduring mystery than the identity of the performer King Solomon Hill. For decades, the identity of the mysterious singer with the falsetto voice who recorded a handful of sides for Paramount in 1932 drove researchers and fans mad. Big Joe Williams laid claim to the name in a highly suspect interview. Some believed Hill was none other than Salty Dog Sam Collins based solely on a strong resemblance between the two men, despite the fact the men traveled and worked together. The debate was finally put to rest (as much as it can be) with the claim Joe Holmes (1897-1949) was the true identity of the mysterious bluesman. Several witnesses who knew Holmes identified his voice from the recordings. Joe Holmes was born in the Yellow Pine section of Sibley, Louisiana which was known at the time as King Solomon Hill for the local Baptist Church.