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The Delta blues is one of the earliest styles of blues music. It originated in the Mississippi Delta, a region of the United States that stretches from Memphis, Tennessee in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the south, the Mississippi River on the west to the Yazoo River on the east. The Mississippi Delta area is famous both for its fertile soil and its poverty. Guitar, harmonica and cigar box guitar are the dominant instruments used, with slide guitar (usually on the steel guitar) being a hallmark of the style. The vocal styles range from introspective and soulful to passionate and fiery.
Although Delta blues certainly existed in some form or another at the turn of the 20th century, it was first recorded in the late 1920s, when record companies realized the potential African American market in Race records. The earliest recordings were by the major labels and consist mostly of one person singing and playing an instrument, though the use of a band was more common during live performances. Some of these recordings were made on field trips to the South by record company talent scouts, but some Delta blues performers were invited to travel to northern cities to record. According to Dixon & Godrich , Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey were recorded by Victor on that company's second field trip to Memphis, in 1928. Robert Wilkins was first recorded by Victor in Memphis in 1928, and Big Joe Williams and Garfield Akers also in Memphis (1929) by Brunswick/Vocalion.
Son House first recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin (1930) by Paramount. Charley Patton also recorded for Paramount in Grafton, in June 1929 (and again, at the same location in May 1930). In January and February 1934 Patton visited New York City for further recording sessions. Robert Johnson travelled to San Antonio (1936) and Dallas (1937) for his ARC, and only, sessions.
Subsequently, the early Delta blues (as well as other genres) were extensively recorded by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, who criss-crossed the Southern US recording music played and sung by ordinary people helping establish the canon of genres we know today as American folk music. Their recordings number in the thousands, and now reside in the Smithsonian Institution. According to Dixon & Godrich (1981) and Leadbitter & Slaven (1968), Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress researchers did not record any Delta bluesmen (or women) prior to 1941, when he recorded Son House & Willie Brown near Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, and Muddy Waters at Stovall, Mississippi, however this claim is disputed as John and Alan Lomax did record Bukka White in 1939, Lead Belly in 1933 and most likely others.
Scholars in general disagree as to whether there is a substantial, musicological difference between blues that originated in this region and in other parts of the country. The defining characteristic of Delta blues is instrumentation and an emphasis on rhythm and "bottleneck" slide; the basic harmonic structure is not substantially different from that of blues performed elsewhere. "Delta blues" is also a style as much as a geographical appellation: Skip James and Elmore James, who were not born in the Delta, were considered Delta blues musicians. Performers traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. Eventually, Delta blues spread out across the country, giving rise to a host of regional variations, including Chicago and Detroit blues.
The Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm was an important influence on several blues musicians who were imprisoned there, and was referenced in songs such as Bukka White's 'Parchman Farm Blues' and the folk song 'Midnight Special'. Delta Bluesmen also typically sang songs in the first person about sexuality, the travelling lifestyle and the tribulations resulting from leading this lifestyle.
Women performers in Delta Blues
In big city blues women dominated the musical landscape; i.e. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. However, in Delta Blues and other rural or folk style blues women rarely recorded the blues. In Delta Blues often female performers had some romantic connection to more notable male delta blues performers; such as Geeshie Wiley attached to Papa Charlie McCoy, McCoy's brother kansas Joe McCoy was attached to the arguably more notable Memphis Minnie and the seminal Charlie Patton sometimes played and recorded with his wife Bertha Lee. It was not until late in the 1960s that women began to be heard in recorded performances at the level they had previously enjoyed. It was then that Janis Joplin arrived as both the first female performer to achieve both accolades from her peers as a blues performer and a "crossover" commercial success who reached diverse audiences with a powerful and emotive vocal delivery. Other women to followed later (among many) were both influenced by Delta blues, and who learned from some of the most notable of the original artists alive include Bonnie Raitt, and Susan Tedeschi.
Many Delta Blues artists moved to Detroit and Chicago such as Big Joe Williams creating a pop influenced city blues style, however, this was displaced by the new Chicago blues sound in the early 1950s pioneered by Delta Bluesmen, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Little Walter, harking back to a more delta influenced, yet electrified sound. This Delta style blues folk music also inspired the creation of British Skiffle music, from which eventually came the persons and bands of the British Invasion, while simultaneously influencing British Blues which led to the birth of early hard rock and heavy metal.