Those Low Down Country Blues: The Mississippi Blues
Created | Updated Oct 6, 2003
Down where the Southern Cross the Dog: The Beginnings of the Blues
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I know why the best blues artists come from Mississippi. Because it’s the worst state. You have the blues alright if you’re down in Mississippi.
- John Lee Hooker 1
Doubtless there may be arguments in favour of naming many other states in the Union as the worst, but Hooker had a point. For a working black man during the opening decades of the century, Mississippi did not represent an earthly paradise. It was then, and still is, the poorest of the United States, per capita. Its economy is almost totally based on cotton and other agricultural produce, and the Civil War had destroyed that economy, transforming a rich and prosperous state into a grindingly poor one.
And the poor black farmer was the poorest man in Mississippi. Although the sharecroppers of Mississippi were no longer slaves, they worked hard in the fields - but they partied hard as well. Whether on the plantations themselves or just outside them, the juke joints and drinking houses did good business, and that meant that there was good business for a man who could play and sing the blues. One such man was Charlie Patton.
Charlie Patton, The Delta Dandy
I like to fuss and fight
I like to fuss and fight
Lord and get sloppy drunk off a bottle and ball2
And walk the streets all night
Charlie Patton - Elder Green Blues
Charlie Patton was small man, weighing perhaps only 135 pounds, but, by his own account, he had a fast mouth that often got him into fights he was ill-equipped to win. Patton's parents settled on the Dockery Plantation in Cleveland, Mississippi. Born in either 1887 or 1891 (depending on whether one believes his sister or his parents), Charlie was a troublesome child, and the move had been made in order to remove him from certain undesirable influences, but he quickly took up with Henry Sloan, possibly the first recognisable blues player.3
Throughout the 1920s, Patton travelled Northern Mississippi and the surrounding states, more often than not in the company of Willie Brown (who despite only recording a handful of sides, eventually came to occupy his own unique position in the history of the blues). By 1927, Charlie had become a well-known figure and was approached by a scout for Columbia records to record for them. Astonishingly, given the success already being enjoyed by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie turned them down and returned to his life as a travelling man. Patton was the epitome of the travelling musician. Along the way, Patton's muscular blues-playing attracted a number of younger musicians – amongst those that were taught or influenced by Patton were Son House, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and a young Roebuck (later 'Pops') Staples, all of whom would go on to occupy their own places in the history of American music.
Patton advertised himself as the 'Delta Dandy' and did his best to live up to his reputation by dressing as well as he could afford at all times, normally sporting an expensive suit, spats and a bow tie. According to a contemporary, Charlie was a showman of some note, throwing his guitar in the air, playing it behind his head and introducing many tricks that were later to be associated with rock guitarists the world over. During these exhausting shows (juke joint players could play for upwards of six or seven hours at a time), it was Willie Brown who kept rhythm for the dancers.
By 1929 Patton had changed his mind about recording and a letter was written on his behalf (like most early blues artists, Patton was totally illiterate) and he recorded his first session for Universal records in June 1929 in company, with the ubiquitous Brown playing on some of the tracks. Patton's success was immediate, and there is good evidence to suggest that his second release (under the name of 'The Masked Marvel', part of a promotional competition), his signature tune, 'Pony Blues,' sold in excess of 10,000 copies.
Patton had three further recording dates in October 1929, May 1930 and January 1934. The quality of the final session was severely affected by the fact that in the four years since Patton had last been in a studio, he had been involved in a bar fight during which his throat and vocal chords had been slashed. In addition, it was the coldest winter in New York (where the sessions took place) for many years, and Charlie had a severe cold. He returned to Mississippi and died only a matter of months later due to heart failure at the age of 43.
By all accounts, Charlie Patton was not an easy man to like. A compulsive womaniser (and woman-beater), a drug addict and tireless egoist (it appears he is at least partly to blame for Willie Brown's lack of recorded material), Patton nonetheless left an indelible mark on the history of popular music. His wild, slashing, rhythmic guitar style was to be the norm for delta blues players until the present day, and many of his songs became standards amongst his contemporaries and those that followed him. Perhaps there was only one other man who can be said to have exercised equal influence over his immediate circle of acquaintances, and that was failed preacher and convicted murderer Eddie 'Son' House.
Preachin' the Blues: Son House
Son House was born in Coahoma County, Mississippi. As a teenager he was a hard worker in the cotton fields and was so keen on the church that he preached his first sermon at the age of 15. In spite of this, he took up with a married woman and they fled together to Northern Louisiana. Within two years, however, House returned (alone) to Mississippi and attempted to revive his career as a preacher (apparently having lost interest in the hard work of his youth).
There he took up with James McCoy, an otherwise obscure blues man who taught House a rudimentary guitar style and two songs that were to become delta standards, 'My Black Mama' and 'Preachin' the Blues'. The latter title was to become House's signature tune, and it did indeed appear to sum up the course of his life;
Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day
Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day
But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not set me free
Matters came to a head when House shot and killed a man in a drunken brawl in 1928, resulting in his incarceration at the infamous Parchman Farm prison. However, in 1930 he was released with the sound advice that he move away from the area. House drifted for a while, but soon ended up in the small town of Lula, where he met Charlie Patton. Patton took a liking to the younger man, and went as far to suggest that Son accompany him and Willie Brown to a recording session. Accordingly, House recorded several songs, including Preachin' the Blues, in May 1930.
Either House's records did not sell, however, or his drunken bad temper stood in the way of his making further records, for he was not to record again until 1941. It was in 1941 that musical historian and blues aficionado Alan Lomax came to the Delta in search of the roots of Mississippi blues. On that trip he recorded House, as well as a young Muddy Waters, and was able to obtain from House a first-hand account of various missing links in the Delta's musical history, particularly regarding Son's most famous protégé, Robert Johnson.
Lomax returned to the region in 1942 and recorded further sides with House, one of which, 'Pony Blues', was clearly a version of Charlie Patton's most famous song.
And there the story of Son House ends, for the time being. Changes in the music scene after the war meant that House's primitive rural blues fell out of fashion, and he effectively disappeared for two decades, only to be discovered again in the 1960s.
Recording Musical History: John and Alan Lomax
No history of the blues, however idiosyncratic, would be complete without some mention of the father and son team of John and Alan Lomax, who did a great deal work in Mississippi and the surrounding area recording musicians of all types. To achieve this they transported a 500-pound recording machine that enabled them to record performances far from the supply of electricity (virtually non-existent in rural, pre-war Mississippi).
The Lomaxes also established the Archive of American Folk Songs at the Library of Congress, becoming world authorities on a form of music that was regarded by many of their contemporaries as worthless, or, at best, worth only a cursory glance.
The work was often hazardous. The Deep South of the 1930s and 1940s was profoundly segregated, and laws intended to improve life in the area further hampered the Lomaxes' progress, as they found themselves, as whites, banned from black premises. However, Alan Lomax in particular seemed to have a knack for getting the musicians to trust him, and was able to obtain not only excellent performances (not always an easy proposition, as many recording engineers were to find), but also first-hand accounts of life in the south. One such session was released on record as 'Blues in the Mississippi Night'. It is indicative of the times that the artists who were recorded, all major stars of the blues world, (Memphis Slim, Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson I) demanded anonymity before they were prepared to speak openly about life in Mississippi.
Not that the Lomaxes were in any doubt about the travails of the blues man in the south. Throughout their time in the south they were regarded with stubborn hostility by a white population which believed that no good would come of recording the music of the black populace. During his field trips of 1941 and 1942, Alan Lomax was constantly harassed by the authorities, threatened with arrest for consorting with 'coloureds' and accused of being a foreign agent who had been sent to stir up trouble amongst the agricultural workers. He was even once arrested for daring to refer to Son House as 'Mr Son House' when in conversation with the local sheriff.
However, Lomax's persistence paid off as he was able to obtain from Son House a first-hand oral history of the blues in the Mississippi Delta - in particular, that of its most elusive figure, the haunted and bedevilled Robert Johnson.