Acoustic Delta blues

Delta blues refers to a region of Southwestern Mississippi where a specific form of acoustic blues spawned and evolved. Most of these artists were self-accompanied (acoustic guitar and vocals) and often served as the entertainers at "house parties" that poor, rural Afro-Americans held in their homes. Starting in the late 1920s, having discovered that there was an audience for this material, record companies sent scouts to Mississippi and elsewhere, searching for bluesmen to record. For a period of about 6 years (1927 to 1933, until the Depression hit really hard and people could no longer afford records), these artists were recorded. Along with Blind Lemon Jefferson in Texas, these were the first true blues performers to be recorded. This first generation of artists may not have influenced the Stones directly, but they are among the foundation that blues rests upon, and that second-generation blues artists like Robert Johnson learned from.

SON HOUSE  (1902-1988)

Whereas Charley Patton was short and jovial, Son House was tall, skinny and morose. Before setting out on his blues path, House had spent time in jail for murdering a man. Patton helped Son House get started, though the two frequently argued. Like Patton, House helped lay the blueprint for Delta blues and blues in general, playing with extreme emotional intensity. Although he originally only recorded a handful of sides (c. 1930), more so than Patton he was THE main inspiration for both young Robert Johnson, and even younger Muddy Waters, who both had the chance to see him play. House's Walkin' Blues in particular became a blues classic, which was reworked by Robert Johnson, and which the Stones played as they rehearsed in 1968 at their Rock and Roll Circus event.

Unlike Patton who died in 1934, House had the chance to live long enough to be re-discovered and re-recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress archives. He disappeared again and was re-discovered again in the 1960s, along with many other acoustic blues greats. He joined the festival circuit and recorded again until he retired in 1976 from ill health.

Howlin' Wolf introduced the Stones briefly to the aging Son House when they appeared with Wolf on the 1965 Shindig television program.

SKIP JAMES  (1902-1969)

James was a figure who stood apart from the other great Mississippi acoustic blues players. First, he came from a region slightly different from that of his fellow Delta players, called Bentonia. Second, his style was radically unique. He played in distinctive eccentric tunings (open D minor for example) and sang in a thin, reedy, melancholic style that was chilling, especially giving so that his songs expressed much desolation and hatred (for women who had done him wrong, etc.). He recorded all of his classic sides in 1931 (including Cypress Grove Blues and Hard Luck Child), before being forgotten like all the great players of the era. Like many of them who were still alive, however, he was rediscovered by the college students-motivated folk and blues boom of the 1960s, when he joined the festival circuit and recorded again. An insecure, unhappy man, he died of ill health in 1969.

The Stones may not have been much influenced directly by James, but it would be hard not to think that Keith discovered his work among with that of others in his 1968 blues-rediscovery period. More importantly, James was a tremendous influence on Robert Johnson, who reworked and rewrote some of his songs (the women-hating Devil Got My Woman became Hellhound on My Trail, and the similar-toned 22-20 Blues became 32-20 Blues).

TOMMY JOHNSON  (1896-1956)

There were many excellent Delta blues players in the 1920s and 30s. Tommy Johnson was simply one of the best, recording his sides between 1928 and 1930. A drinking buddy of Charley Patton, he had a severe alcohol problem and troublesome behaviors but continued performing at house parties when the record boom busted. He died of a heart attack entertaining at a house party.


McDowell is apart from his contemporaries because unlike them he remained obscure throughout his prime years, although he performed at house parties in the 1920s and 30s in addition to being a farmer. Born in Tennessee, he played in Memphis, before moving to Mississippi. It's been said that McDowell's early obscurity was unfortunate because he had all the skills of a Patton or a Son House.

However, in 1959, McDowell was one of the first blues artists to be "re-discovered" (in his case plain discovered) by a section of the population - educated, white - who were getting into folk and "authentic" music. This led to McDowell's career in the 60s, finally recording some of his best pieces as well as performing concerts. When the Stones started really delving into acoustic blues in 1968, McDowell was one of the artists they enjoyed. They recorded his classic You Gotta Move for their Sticky Fingers album, and performed it onstage (it appears on 1977's Love You Live album). McDowell died of cancer.

And one day, I met Jagger again... (I was) playing guitar like all the other cats, folk, a little blues. But can't get the sounds from the States. Maybe once every 6 months some'll come through with an album, an Arhoolie album of Fred McDowell. And you'd say: There's another cat! That's another one. Just blowin' my mind, like one album every six months.

                                                   - Keith Richards, 1971


CHARLEY PATTON  (1887-1934)

Though he had equally talented contemporaries, Charley Patton is really looked upon as the father of Delta blues, and sometimes the father of acoustic blues plain and simple. Patton, who was part White, part Black and part American Indian, was flashy, liked to live and play hard, and was famous and in demand all across the Delta. Though he was short, he had a gravely voice (made worse by a throat slashing) and played in a high-energy, highly rythmic style. His complex syncopated rhythms laid out the blueprint for Delta blues, and what Robert Johnson, among others, elaborated on. He influenced his contemporary Son House, and young Robert Johnson who also saw him play, and through his records many later performers such as Bukka White, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. He started recording in 1927 until his death in 1934. His songs include Pony Blues, High Water Everywhere, A Spoonful Blues and many others.

ROBERT WILKINS  (1896-1987)

Born in Mississippi, Robert Wilkins was a country blues player who became a reverend and was strong on gospel blues. Not a "pure" blues artist in the manner of Son House or Charley Patton, he spent his career in Memphis as an acoustic gospel blues singer. Like many of the country blues artists, he enjoyed some success in the 1920s and 1930s, before stopping making records and then being rediscovered by the college crowd of the 1960s and launching a new career on the folk festival circuit. Like many of his fellow bluesmen, the Stones, and Keith in particular, got into him around 1967-1968, when they finally had time off the road and the chance to explore music again. Wilkins' song That's No Way To Get Along was covered by the Stones and appeared on Beggars Banquet as Prodigal Son.

Written by Ian McPherson, 2000.
Like all files on Time Is On Our Side, it is the exclusive intellectual property
of Ian McPherson and cannot be duplicated, in any form, without his authorization.

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