Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home
Blues Road Trip Back to Map
Mississippi Delta: Songs and Musicians
History and Highlights
Style of Blues
Songs and Musicians
Mississippi Delta
     

Songs and Musicians
The earliest blues musicians came from the Mississippi Delta region, where the uniquely American musical genre was born. Pioneering blues artists like Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson in the 1920s and '30s influenced younger musicians such as Son House, Robert Johnson, and Bukka White, who in turn inspired blues greats like Muddy Waters, who eventually took the blues northward to Chicago in the 1940s and contributed to the emergence of both American and British rock and roll.

The bluesmen poured their hearts and hardships out through passionate, raw and evocative songs in the Delta blues style and their influence on new musicians continues to this day. Learn more about the Mississippi Delta's most significant musicians and their music, below:

Willie Brown   Robert Johnson
Son House   Tommy Johnson
Mississippi John Hurt   Charley Patton
Elmore James   Muddy Waters
Skip James   Bukka White

Willie Brown
Born: August 6, 1900, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Died: December 30, 1952, Tunica, Mississippi

Willie Brown was an outstanding guitarist as well as vocalist who had an enormous influence on the origination and development of Delta blues. Brown performed regularly with blues legends Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson, and also backed Patton and House on recordings. He is known as an accompanist rather than a soloist, although he did record three extraordinary solo performances. Later in his career he primarily performed with Son House. Both Brown and House disappeared from the music scene during the 1940s, and, sadly, Brown died before the blues revival of the 1960s, when many of his contemporaries were rediscovered by blues scholars.

Essential listening: "M & O Blues," "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor," "Future Blues"


Son House Son House
Born: March 21, 1902, Riverton, Mississippi
Died: October 19, 1988, Detroit, Michigan
Also known as: Eddie James House, Jr.

Son House was originally a preacher, and he brought the fiery intensity of Baptist gospel to his interpretation of Delta blues. A powerfully emotional performer, his presence onstage was riveting and almost frightening in its ability to move the listener. He was influenced by and often played with blues greats Charley Patton and Willie Brown, yet his style remained distinctly his own. He is credited as the primary influence on blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters as well as Bonnie Raitt and many others. House disappeared from the blues scene from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s, until researchers tracked him down, whereupon he began a second career as a respected performer. His past association with Patton and Johnson, as well as his own legendary skill, made him particularly valuable and respected as a living record of blues history. As music critic Cub Koda put it, "Hailed as the greatest living Delta singer still actively performing, nobody dared call themselves the king of the blues as long as Son House was around." *

Essential listening: "Preachin' the Blues," "Death Letter," "John the Revelator," "Dry Spell Blues," "My Black Mama"

* www.allmusic.com


Mississippi John Hurt Mississippi John Hurt
Born: July 3, 1893, Teoc, Mississippi
Died: November 2, 1966, Grenada, Mississippi
Also known as: John Smith Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt brought unprecedented warmth to the blues, characterized by his gentle, gracious presence as a performer and the tenderness and depth of his songwriting. Hurt mastered a form of finger picking on the guitar that significantly influenced generations of blues, folk and rock musicians. From the time he was 14, Hurt performed locally in and near his tiny hometown while making his living as a farm laborer. Like other Mississippi masters, he was tracked down later in life by a blues fan and scholar and introduced to the burgeoning blues revival of the mid-1960s. During the last three years of his life, to his surprise and delight, he was accepted with open arms by thousands of fans and subsequently made his living as a performer. He has influenced the musicianship and songwriting of blues, folk and rock and his musical descendants include Taj Mahal, Ben Harper, Bob Dylan and many others.

Essential listening: "Frankie," "Louis Collins," "Avalon Blues," "Stack O' Lee Blues," "Big Leg Blues"


Elmore James
Born: June 27, 1910, Richland, Mississippi
Died: May 24, 1963, Chicago, Illinois

Elmore James was a master of slide guitar, and has influenced just about everyone who has ever picked up a slide. His powerful vocals would naturally and dramatically crack and catch, giving authenticity to his sound. His on-and-off day job as a radio repairman complemented his art — he experimented with sound distortion decades before it became a staple of modern rock. James began performing at the age of 14, and played with Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. His style as a vocalist and guitarist were heavily influenced by Robert Johnson, and his reworking of Johnson's original "(I Believe I'll) Dust My Broom" became a signature hit for him (under the shortened title "Dust My Broom"). Like his contemporary Muddy Waters, James brought his version of Delta blues to Chicago, where his amazing band, the Broomdusters, added to the city's superb music scene. James has influenced blues and rock and roll musicians, from B.B. King and Eric Clapton to Johnny Winter and Duane Allman, as well as many others.

Essential listening: "Dust My Broom," "The Sky is Crying," "Hand in Hand," "Shake Your Money Maker"


Skip James Skip James
Born: June 21, 1902, Bentonia, Mississippi
Died: October 3, 1969, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Also known as: Nehemiah Curtis James

Skip James is known for his unique, haunting style of blues. He combined falsetto vocals with minor chords, complex finger picking, an idiosyncratic tuning, and a highly personal style of songwriting to create some of the genre's most original music. James was one of Robert Johnson's biggest influences; his original song "Devil Got My Woman" was reworked by Johnson and became the latter's signature hit "Hellhound on my Trail". Like many of his contemporaries of the early Delta blues scene, he turned to another means of livelihood, becoming a preacher at the age of 30 and turning his musical attention to gospel. By chance James was rediscovered during the early 1960s, and subsequently thrilled blues fans at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, thereby re-launching his career. It was obvious that his musical skills were still as sharp as ever and his unique style was intact. In 1966 the band Cream released a popular version of James's original "I'm So Glad."

Essential listening: "Devil Got My Woman," "I'm So Glad," "Sickbed Blues," "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues"


Robert Johnson
Born: May 8, 1911, Hazelhurst, Mississippi
Died: August 28, 1938, Greenwood, Mississippi

A young Robert Johnson hung around the Saturday night dances in the Delta watching Son House, Willie Brown and Charley Patton play and, to their amusement, trying to play guitar during the breaks. Years later Johnson ran into House and Brown, and Johnson's skill on the instrument stunned them. He had acquired his skill in such a short time that it inspired a rumor that became legend — Johnson must have sold his soul to the devil. His tortured voice and emotional intensity seemed to give credence to the legend, although it is more likely that his own determination and inherent talent, as well as his exposure to the great Delta bluesmen, deserve the credit for his genius. In addition to being a gifted lyricist and composer and innovative guitarist, Johnson transferred "boogie woogie" from the piano to the guitar, playing the bottom guitar strings to accompany himself with a bass line, a technique that has become standard in blues composition. His influence on blues, from Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, is legendary.

Essential listening: "Walkin' Blues," "Love in Vain Blues," "Come on in My Kitchen," "Terraplane Blues," "Crossroad Blues"


Tommy Johnson
Born: 1896, Terry, Mississippi
Died: November 1, 1956, Crystal Springs, Mississippi

Tommy Johnson was a hell-raiser who could belt out the blues with a wide vocal range, from a low throaty snarl to a high falsetto. He had a dramatic flair in performance similar to his contemporary, Delta blues king Charley Patton, and in the early, pre-Robert Johnson days his influence on the genre was second only to that of Patton and Son House. He was not a virtuoso on the guitar, but had an original, evocative style, well-matched to his theatrical delivery. Johnson significantly influenced blues greats Muddy Waters, Robert Nighthawk and especially Howlin' Wolf, who would carry on and even outdo the Patton/Johnson tradition of incendiary, down-and-dirty showmanship. Johnson was also the quintessential blues bad boy, with a penchant for rampant womanizing and for alcohol, the latter of which led him to drastic extremes. He was known to down denatured alcohol, used for artificial heat, when the real thing wasn't available, a habit he documented in his original song "Canned Heat," from which the 1960s blues-rock group took its name. Johnson left behind a small but outstanding collection of recordings, almost all of which became classics.

Essential listening: "Maggie Campbell," "Big Road Blues," "Cool Drink of Water," "Canned Heat"


Charlie Patton Charley Patton
Born: 1891, Edwards, Mississippi
Died: April 28, 1934, Indianola, Mississippi

Charley Patton is the uncontested father of the Delta blues. His ferocious, high energy performance brought the house down on a regular basis with a gritty, raw vocal style and an ability to act as a one-man percussion section with his guitar, creating an innovative flow of rhythm and counter-rhythm. His uninhibited performances onstage were reflected in his lifestyle — he was a match for any one of his musical descendants as a hard drinker and womanizer. Patton's legacy has inspired, directly and indirectly, generations of both blues and rock and roll musicians. The guitar gymnastics of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan are echoes of Patton's performance style, and his use of rhythm and "popping" bass notes presaged funk by decades. Patton influenced and played with blues greats Son House and Willie Brown, and also influenced Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Johnny Shines, John Lee Hooker, and Pop Staples, among many others.

Essential listening: "Pony Blues," "High Water Everywhere," "Oh Death," "High Sheriff Blues"


Muddy Waters Muddy Waters
Born: April 4, 1915, Rolling Forks, Mississippi
Died: April 30, 1983, Westmont, Illinois
Also known as: McKinley Morganfield

Muddy Waters grew up in the Mississippi Delta, singing as he worked in the cotton fields as a boy and playing near his favorite muddy creek — thus the nickname. He picked up a guitar when he was 17. Influenced by the deeply emotional performer Son House as well as Robert Johnson, Waters became an accomplished bluesman himself. In the early 1940s he took the raw depth of the Delta blues to Chicago, and in a few years he had revolutionized the city's blues scene. His many contributions to Chicago blues include his skill with an electric guitar, his tough, powerful vocals, and his evocative, compelling songwriting. As a bandleader he established the ensemble sound and style of Chicago electric blues — just about every great Chicago blues player of that time was in Waters's band at one point or another. British rockers the Rolling Stones took their name from a Waters's song — a testament to Waters's extensive influence on both American and British rock and roll.

Essential listening: "Rolling Stone," "Honey Bee," "I Can't Be Satisfied," "Mannish Boy," "Got My Mojo Working"


Bukka White Bukka White
Born: November 12, 1909, Houston, Mississippi*
Died: February 26, 1977, Memphis Tennessee
Also known as: Booker T. Washington White

Bukka White moved to the Mississippi Delta as an adolescent and was influenced by Charley Patton — as a result he played a particularly pure form of Delta blues. White's devotion to the music was considerable; after a run-in with the law in Mississippi in 1937, he jumped bail in order to record in Chicago. He was apprehended and incarcerated at Mississippi's Parchman Farm, where he was popular as an entertainer, and where his gift for songwriting wasn't hampered — like many of his originals, the song "Parchman Farm Blues" became a classic. White's real taste of fame came after Bob Dylan recorded White's original song "Fixin' to Die Blues" in the early 1960s. Curious about the song's original author, two young blues players found White by sending a general delivery letter to Aberdeen, Mississippi (tipped off by his blues song of the same title). These leaps in visibility led to White's fame in later life, as both a performer and a storyteller, as he embodied both the Delta blues and its rich history.

Essential Listening: "Shake 'Em on Down," "Panama Limited," "Aberdeen Mississippi Blues," "Fixin' to Die Blues," "Parchman Farm Blues"