The Mississippi Delta and the Blues (Blues Stories, 6)

Geographers define a “delta” as the triangular-shaped fertile area created by siltation at the mouth of a river.  But, when Blues fans refer to “the Delta,” “the land where the Blues began,” we mean “the fertile alluvial plain shared by the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers,” rather than the area farther south at New Orleans. That Delta is about 160 miles long and 50 miles wide at its widest, encompassing all of 10 Mississippi counties and parts of 8 others. (Encyc. Of S. Culture, p.571)  Greenville, Miss., native and journalist David Cohn once wrote:  “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” (Cohn, Mississippi Delta and The World, p.x)

Mississippi Delta

Both extremely flat and incredibly fertile, the Delta was sparsely settled when the Civil War began and was little better than a frontier region in 1880, mostly devoted to timberland. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, an extensive network of levees and a modern railway system “opened the plantation South’s last frontier for full scale settlement and development.” (Encyc. Of S. Culture, p.571) Naturally, the Delta attracted ambitious, hard-bitten whites who developed vast cotton plantations, established the business and professional infrastructures in Delta towns, and supervised work on the levees and the railroads. For our purposes, though, the most important thing about the opening of the Delta was that it attracted throngs of young African American males in search of economic opportunity. As one woman told an interviewer in the early 1940s, “The cause of my father and my relatives coming here was the talk of people who came down here and returned with big money.” (Wald, Escaping the Delta, p.87)

What these newcomers found was hard labor and some economic opportunity at first, but as the whites tightened their grip on the region’s economic and social systems, the reality of life for Delta Blacks changed for the worst, as Elijah Wald explains:

What Mississippi was to the rest of the country, the Delta was to Mississippi.  Though it makes up less than a sixth of the state’s area, the Delta accounted for over a third of the lynchings reported between 1900 and 1930, and was legendary for towns with signposts warning black people not to be caught within their borders after sundown.  By the 1920s, the region was ruled by a sharecropping system that tied black farmers to the land in a form of economic bondage that at times seemed little different from slavery. (Wald, Escaping The Delta, p.84)

A constant factor in Delta life was the Mississippi River.  As David Cohn noted, “The People of the Delta fear God and the Mississippi River, for God and the river are immortal and immemorial.”  (Cohn, Mississippi Delta and The World, p.92) Planter William Alexander Percy added that, “With us when you speak of ‘the river,’ though there are many, you mean always the same one, the great river, the shifting unappeasable god of the country, feared and lovely, the Mississippi.”  (Percy, Lanterns on the Levee, p.4)  The great river and its weather shaped life in the cotton fields and along the levees and railroad lines. David Cohn remembered:

The earth of the Delta in which I lived is a violent earth.  Its fields are fecund to the touch of the plow.  They seem to cry out for fulfillment of life under the blazing suns of summer.  Heat then stands upon the Delta during long days and nights.  It stings the flesh.  It opens cracks in the fields.  It drains men’s minds and wearies their bodies.  A clear sky suddenly blackens with cloud, rolls with thunder, crackles with lightning, and tumultuous rains flood the steaming earth.  Then they are gone.  Now the trees shine richly green, the dust-gray mules gleam black, the ditches gurgle with water.  Soon the soil is dry again, white clouds float high in the sky, jaybirds shriek from thorn trees, buzzards circle loftily against the blue, and men once more walk the endless cotton rows of the Delta.  (Cohn, The Mississippi Delta and The World, p.5)

David Cohn

The Delta also had a significant impact on the music we know as the Blues.  A lot of Blues songs concern hard work, weather, and other challenges posed by life there.  Listen, for example, to Son House, “Dry Spell Blues,” or to Charley Patton, “Mississippi Boll Weavil Blues.”  According to historian James C. Cobb,

In many ways the image of the bluesman was comparable to that of the boll weevil, a destructive little bug who brought ruin to many cotton-growing areas of the South and set off near-panic among planters in the Delta.  The popularity of songs such as Charley Patton’s “Mississippi Bo Weavil [sic] Blues” suggested that, despite its potential for destroying them along with whites, the boll weevil’s capacity to bring ruin to the white man won it the admiration of blacks, while its endless wandering in search of a home struck a familiar chord as well.  (Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth, p. 291)

Boll Weevil

Blues man Son House’s “Levee Camp Moan” graphically describes life in one of the levee camps, whose workers were charged with limiting the power of the Mississippi to flood the countryside.

Levee Camp

Yet, despite the levee system, flooding often wreaked havoc on the lives and livelihoods of Delta residents.  This was especially true of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.  William Alexander Percy, who lived through that flood and helped direct efforts in Greenville to contain it, remembered it this way:

The 1927 flood was a torrent ten feet deep the size of Rhode Island; it was thirty-six hours coming and four months going; it was deep enough to drown a man, swift enough to upset a boat, and lasting enough to cancel a crop year.  The only islands in it were eight or ten tiny Indian mounds and the narrow spoil-banks of a few drainage canals.  Between the torrent and the river ran the levee, dry on the land side and on the top.  The south Delta became seventy-five hundred square miles of mill-race in which one hundred and twenty thousand human beings and one hundred thousand animals squirmed and bobbed.  (Percy, Lanterns on the Levee, p.249)

Another person who survived the Great Flood was Blues man Charley Patton, who sang about it in “High Water Everywhere.”

Great Flood of 1927

Life for black residents of the Delta also presented a host of other challenges, which can be grouped under the general heading of “Dealing with The Man.”  As Blues historian Elijah Wald described it:

Once in debt, [Blacks] could be bound to work off the money owed, and the legal system often functioned as an adjunct to the labor system. . . .  And that is not to mention all the labor done by convicts, who built much of the levee and railroad system, and were also sometimes leased out to plantations as unpaid farmhands.  It is often suggested that it was this vicious oppression, and the misery that went along with it, that fueled the deep emotional power of the area’s great blues singers.  (Wald, Escaping The Delta, pp.84-85)

Once again, Blues singers were ahead of modern scholars, writing and performing songs about law enforcement officials and prisons in the Delta.  Consider, for example, Charley Patton, “High Sheriff Blues”; and Bukka White, “District Attorney Blues” and “Parchman Farm Blues.” White had done time in the Delta’s Parchman Farm, a 20,000 acre prison complex opened in 1905.  It was created as a “reform” during the administration of Governor James K. Vardaman, a notorious racist whose nickname was the “White Chief.”  Parchman Farm earned a profit for the state—the convicts were provided with a bare subsistence; they raised cotton for sale; and the guards cost practically nothing—they were “trusties,” or armed convicts put in charge of the other convicts. By the early twentieth century, the corruption and brutality of the convict-leasing system had become too much even for hardened Mississippi whites to stomach.   (This description of Parchman is based on David Oshinsky’s fine book, “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.)

Parchman Farm

Blues singers were the chief entertainers for African Americans in the Delta.  Some of these performers possessed ferocious talent that they and their fans attributed to a bargain made with the Devil, while “standin’ at the crossroads.”  According to Delta Blues man Tommy Johnson:

If you want to learn how to play anything you want to play and learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to . . . where the crossroad is. . . . Be sure to get there, just a little ‘fore twelve o’clock that night. . . .  You have to go by yourself and be sitting there playing a piece.  A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he’ll tune it.  And then he’ll play a piece and hand it back to you.  That’s the way I learned how to play everything I want.  (Quoted in Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth, p.288)

Blues man Robert Johnson sang about his encounter with the Devil in his most famous song, “Cross Road Blues.”  And, speaking of roads, there were two very important ones in the Delta, Highways 49 and 61, for they, along with the railroads, led out of the Delta to Chicago, where many Blues performers would eventually find the opportunities that had eluded them in Mississippi.  Mississippi Fred McDowell recorded an homage to one of these escape routes, “61 Highway,” while Howlin’ Wolf immortalized the other in “Highway 49.”

Delta Highways

The stereotypical venue for a Blues performer in the Delta was a roadside “juke joint,” a very primitive black club where anything could happen and usually did.  As Son House recalled:

“Them country balls were rough!.  . .  They were critical, man!  They’d start off good, you know.  Everybody happy, dancing, and then they’d start to getting louder and louder.  The women would be dipping that snuff and swallowing that snuff spit along with that corn whiskey; and they’d start to mixing fast, and oh, brother!  They’d start something then.”  (Quoted in Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth, p.282)

Juke Joint

And just what did the music sound like in such a setting?  Well, use your imagination, and Son House’s description, while listening to “Ramblin’ Kid Blues,” by a group called the Son Simms Four, featuring Muddy Waters on guitar, recorded by John Lomax at the Stovall Plantation in the Delta in late July 1942.

In addition to these specific references to how life in the Delta shaped the Blues, an occasional performer waxed philosophical, trying to capture the nature of existence in the worst area of the Jim Crow South.  One such performer was Willie Brown.  In his song, “Future Blues,” Brown suggests, according to Blues historian Robert Palmer, “the atmosphere of existential extremity and free-floating dread that seems so prevalent in Delta blues.”  (Booklet accompanying Blues Masters, Vol.8:  Mississippi Delta Blues, pp.1-2)  Listen especially for the chilling lines “Can’t tell my future, I can’t tell my past/Lord, it seems like every minute sure gonna be my last.”

DISCOGRAHY

Son House, “Dry Spell Blues, Part 2,” Masters of the Delta Blues:  The Friends of Charlie Patton. (Yazoo 2002)

Charley Patton,  “Mississippi Boll Weavil Blues”; “High Water Everywhere”; “High Sheriff Blues,” Charlie Patton: Father of the Delta Blues.  (Yazoo 2010) 

Son House, “Levee Camp Moan,” Son House, Father of the Delta Blues:  The Complete 1966 Sessions.  (Columbia C2K 48867)

Bukka White, “District Attorney Blues”; “Parchman Farm Blues,” The Complete Bukka White. (Columbia CK 52782)

Robert Johnson, “Cross Road Blues,” Blues Masters, Vol. 8:  Mississippi Delta Blues.  (Rhino R2 71130)

Mississippi Fred McDowell, “61 Highway,” I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll.  (Fuel 2000:  302 061 158 2)

Howlin’ Wolf, “Highway 49,” The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions.  (Chess/MCA CHD-9297)

Son Simms Four, “Rambling Kid Blues,” Muddy Waters:  The Complete Plantation Recordings.  (Chess  CHD-9344)

Willie Brown, “Future Blues,” Blues Masters, Vol. 8:  Mississippi Delta Blues.  (Rhino  R2 71130)

RECOMMENDED READING

Barry, John M.  Rising Tide:  The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America.  (Touchstone, 1998)

Cobb, James C., editor.  The Mississippi Delta and the World:  The Memoirs of David C. Cohn.  (LSU Press, 1995)

Cobb, James CThe Most Southern Place on Earth:  The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity.  (Oxford UP, 1994)

Lomax, AlanThe Land Where the Blues Began.  (Pantheon, 1993)

Oshinsky, David M.  Worse Than Slavery”:  Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.  (Free Press, 1997)

Percy, William AlexanderLanterns on the Levee:  Recollections of a Planter’s Son.  (LSU Press, 1998)

Wald, Elijah.  Escaping the Delta:  Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.  (Amistad, 2004)

Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferriss, coeditorsEncyclopedia of Southern Culture.  (University of North Carolina Press, 1989)

Woodruff, Nan ElizabethAmerican Congo:  The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta.  (Harvard UP, 2003)

* * * * * *

For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

POTP Cover

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

          

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About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in "Charley Patton", Alan Lomax, American History, Delta Blues, History, Muddy Waters, Research, Robert Johnson, Son House, Southern (Georgia) History, Southern History, The Blues. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Mississippi Delta and the Blues (Blues Stories, 6)

  1. admiral17 says:

    Boss,
    “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son. . . . Abe said where you want this killin’ done?’ God said, ‘Out on Highway 61!'”

    Hope you had a good trip. I’m at the Bay on a rainy day.

  2. Sharon Christian Whelan says:

    Great info! Even tho I was born in MS, I never really understood the Delta. Thanks.

  3. Sean Kelleher says:

    Just a Question: did Rev Gary Davis live in the NE Bronx in 1960s? I believe he was a neighbor of mine when I was a child.

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