It is difficult to pinpoint the precise origins of the blues, as they have been lost to time. But by all accounts, the Mississippi Delta is considered the birthplace of the blues.
What Is The Mississippi Delta?
The Mississippi Delta, a.k.a., the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta or simply the Delta, is a distinctive flat plain section between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers in the northwestern part of the state. Here, in the late 1800s, is where the story of the blues began.
What Is Delta Blues?
Delta blues, or Mississippi blues is one of the earliest known styles of the blues. Delta blues is considered a regional variant of country blues. Guitar and harmonica are the dominant instruments, and slide guitar in particular is a hallmark of the style. The vocal styles range from soulful and introspective, to passionate and fierce.
Origin Of The Blues
The blues was originally a type of folk music popular with slaves living in the area. It began to spread throughout the south and the rest of the United States in the early 1900s, during the Great Migration. This migration was the movement of millions of African American workers from the rural south to more urban cities in the northeast, midwest, and western states.
Who Is The “Father Of The Blues?”
It is impossible to cite any particular individual that created the blues, but we do know the person credited with discovering and popularizing it: W.C. Handy. William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. Around 1892, he left his position there as a music teacher and spent a decade making his way through the midwest as a working musician. By 1903, he was conducting his own orchestra – the Knights of Pythias – in Clarksdale, Mississippi. One day, while waiting for a train on tour, W.C. heard a man playing guitar and singing outside the station. The man was pressing his knife on the strings of the guitar, producing chromatic notes and a “slide” type of sound, played against a three-chord progression. The singing style was equally as intriguing to Handy and he later described the performance as “haunting.”
Why Is W.C. Handy The “Father Of The Blues?”
Soon thereafter, he put his musical education and talents to use and copied down this twelve-bar song structure: three chords, including those flattened “blue notes,” and a repeating four-bar vocal part that was answered by a third line. This discovery resulted in the growth of the blues as we know it today.
Handy also holds the distinction of writing and publishing the first example of this music with his song “Memphis Blues,” which he was commissioned to write for the campaigning mayor-to-be in his new home of Memphis, Tennessee. He also formed a music publishing company in New York City and continued working as a bandleader. All of these contributions earned him the title “Father of the Blues.”
Clarksdale, Mississippi: The Birthplace Of The Blues
The small town of Clarksdale, Mississippi has been extremely significant in the history of the blues. Even more specifically than the Delta, Clarksdale is usually cited at the birthplace of the blues. One of the many reasons is that this is where “The Crossroads” are. As legend has it, Robert Johnson – Mississippi Delta native, and arguably the most influential blues artist of all time – sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for guitar skills far greater than his prior abilities. Like most things related to the blues, there is debate over the actual location of the crossroads. Some say it’s in Rosedale, where Higways 8 and 1 intersect. But most, including the city of Clarksdale itself, claim it to be at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49. And there’s even a giant guitar sign right there to prove it.
Famous Blues Artists Of Clarksdale
Clarksdale has been home to countless blues greats, including Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, John Lee Hooker, Ma Rainey, Elmore James, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, just to name a few. Bessie Smith, the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 30s – tragically died at the Riverside Motel in Clarksdale, following a car crash nearby on Highway 61. Though the “Empress of the blues” wasn’t from the Delta, her legacy is forever connected to Clarksdale because of this. Many placards and commemorative signs dot the town, indicating so many more of Clarksdale’s notable residents, further supporting its “birthplace of the blues” claim.
Famous Blues Venues In Clarksdale
Equal to the amount of blues artists stemming from Clarksdale and the Delta, is the amount of blues venues. Juke joints are most widely known to have originated in Mississippi, and Clarksdale in particular has been home to countless jukes and blues clubs alike. Considering how small the town is, the amount of blues venues it boasts is remarkable. The list is simply too long to mention here. But, there are a few must-visits we should mention. Red’s Lounge is where the locals go for their blues music and is arguably one of the longest standing and most “legit.” Pete’s Grille and River’s Edge also get a nod from many a live music fan. Ground Zero Blues Club is one of the more internationally known and is part-owned by Morgan Freeman. You’ll find live blues music seven days a week all over Clarksdale, and there is no shortage of annual festivals either. The Juke Joint Festival, The Sunflower River and Blues and Gospel Festival, and the Deep Blues Fest all consistently draw substantial crowds.
Why You Should Visit Clarksdale, Mississippi
We personally cannot recommend a visit to Clarksdale enough. While it may appear a bit rough around the edges in its appearance, beneath the surface is a wonderful community full of the most friendly people we’ve ever met. No joke! In just a couple of days, we met so many locals that we had actual genuine conversations with. And then we kept running into those same people again in other spots around town! The community’s support of their young people with regard to the arts is incredible. It can be seen all over town in various displays of photos, paintings, and such. Creative businesses thrive in storefronts and structures that at a glance, may appear as “run down” on the outside, but are absolutely lovely on the inside. Despite being famous for being the birthplace of the blues, Clarksdale is gloriously not gentrified and we fell in love with it before we even checked into our airbnb. Which, btw, we also recommend: Blues Hound Flat. Tell Graham we sent ya, and use our airbnb link for a discount!
Influence Of The Blues
Since the origin of the Delta blues, many other forms and styles have taken shape. Most notably, are Chicago and Texas blues. There’s also rhythm and blues, jump blues, boogie-woogie, and depending how much you want to drill down, much more. Many other genres of popular music have roots in the blues as well: soul, jazz, and country, to name a few. And of course, we wouldn’t have rock & roll if not for the blues. As a matter of fact, to quote a famous blues song, “the blues had a baby and they called it rock & roll.”
The story of the blues is deep and layered like an onion. Surrounded in legend, folklore, debate, mystery, speculation and rumor, we’ve only peeled back a few layers here. But what is most remarkable is that it began with the most basic of instruments – the human voice – and evolved into a genre that will continue to grow and spawn sub-genres, and ultimately, last forever. Thanks to the Mississippi Delta.
If you’re as big a music fan as we are, you might be interested our post on Nina Simone. The blues can definitely be heard in her music, too!