Blues Styles: Mississippi Delta Blues

Strong Rhythm and Vocals Define This Seminal Style

Muddy Waters in Toronto, Canada, 1971
Muddy Waters in Toronto in 1971. jlacpo/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

Perhaps the most influential of the many styles of blues music, Mississippi Delta blues, also called Delta blues, rose out of the fertile agricultural triangle located between Vicksburg, Mississippi, to the south and Memphis, Tennessee, to the north, and bordered by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east. In this region, where cotton was the primary cash crop, much of the property was owned by white plantation owners and worked by Black sharecroppers. Poverty was rife throughout the Delta, and working conditions were harsh.

Delta Blues Tradition

Traditional blues songs were handed down by word-of-mouth from one performer to another, and artists would often add new lyrics to an old song and make it their own. The guitar and the harmonica were the primary tools of the Delta bluesman, mostly because of the ease of carrying them around. Many of the musicians of the early blues era (1910-1950) were sharecroppers or worked on one of the many plantations that dotted the Mississippi Delta.

The Delta blues are typically identified by the music's highly rhythmic structure, sometimes featuring clashing rhythms, accompanied by strong vocals. Although the lyrics of Delta blues are often simple, with repeated lines a trademark of the style, they also tend to be highly personal and reflective of the hard life of the African-American farmer in the South.

An acoustic guitar is the instrument of choice for playing Delta blues, although several artists adopted the National resonator guitar for its louder sound. The National company eventually merged with Dobro, maker of a well-known resonator, and many of these resonators are also called Dobros. The harmonica is also widely used, albeit as a secondary instrument. Delta blues is one of the many forms of what is called "country blues."

Mississippi Delta Blues Artists

Charley Patton is generally considered to be the first Delta blues star, and he traveled widely throughout the Delta region, often with fellow bluesman Son House. Ishman Bracey, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Tommy McClennan and Skip James are generally considered to be the most creative and influential of the Delta blues artists.

Although best-known for their work in Chicago or Detroit, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and John Lee Hooker all came out of the Mississippi Delta.

Delta blues enjoyed a brief commercial run during the 1920s but came to an abrupt end when the Depression derailed many artists' opportunities to record. Robert Johnson, who recorded during the 1930s, is widely considered to be the last of the original Delta blues artists. Mississippi Delta blues artists would prove to be a major influence on the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s, especially on The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, including his bands The Yardbirds and Cream.

Recommended Albums

 Although Charley Patton's currently available recordings were copied from inferior-quality 78s, "King of the Delta Blues" offers beginners a solid collection of two-dozen tracks of varying sound quality.​