Delta Blues and Memphis Blues

There are two different schools of blues music explored in Trail of the Hellhound. While they are not formal schools in the sense of classes and instructors, each has a distinct form that distinguishes it from the other. The two schools identified in Trail of the Hellhound are the Delta school and the Memphis school. Delta Blues is distinguished by its chord structure, relying heavily on a "flattened" E string or note when the musician is playing. Slurred vocals are typical of Delta musicians unlike the better-enunciating Memphis musicians. Memphis Blues generally followed then-current trends in popular music; the jug band craze took hold of the Memphis music scene during the late 1920s. Memphis musicians were generally familiar with "hit" songs, and it is no accident that Memphis musician Jim Jackson waxed one of the most popular blues records of the day, "Kansas City Blues."

Delta School

Geographically, the Delta encompasses the fertile bottomland between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers. It also includes alluvial land across the Mississippi near Helena, Arkansas.
Culturally, the Delta has been home to large cotton plantations worked by black slaves and later, sharecroppers. Much of the Delta was cleared after the Civil War when large levees were built on either side of the Mississippi River. Life in the levee and sawmill camps had a frontier aspect, with men working in gangs, protecting themselves with weapons, and spending their hard-earned money on gambling, women, and itinerant musicians. By the turn of the twentieth century, railroad gangs began laying track to connect the Delta with larger cities. The river promoted trade with New Orleans by providing a means of transporting cotton to market.

If, as David Cohn writes, the Delta begins in Memphis, its heart lies in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Venerable Memphis bluesman Gus Cannon, who lived in Clarksdale at the turn of the century, claimed to have first heard a musician playing in a blues style circa 1900. In 1903, bandleader W.C. Handy moved to Clarksdale. Two years later, while waiting for the train in Tutwiler, Handy heard a man playing a guitar and singing along with the low, mournful sound made by sliding a knife along the strings. This prompted Handy to start writing blues music, marking the beginning its popularity.

As Robert Palmer describes the music in his book Deep Blues, "The Mississippi Delta's blues musicians sang with unmatched intensity in a gritty, melodically circumscribed, highly ornamented style that was closer to field hollers than it was to other styles of blues. Guitar and piano accompaniments were percussive and hypnotic, and many Delta guitarists mastered the art of fretting the instrument with a slide or bottleneck that made the instrument 'talk' in strikingly speechlike inflections."

Most Delta blues musicians were itinerant loners who occasionally teamed with other musicians to play parties, sawmill camps, train stations, and anywhere people with spare change congregated. Often the lumber and levee camps had pianists who played a two-fisted, eight-to-the-bar style called barrelhouse, the name given to a camp's barroom. Three of the most famous Delta pianists were Roosevelt Sykes of Helena, Clarksdale native Sunnyland Slim, and Little Brother Montgomery of Kentwood, Louisiana. All were masters of the barrelhouse style and played extensively in the lumber camps of the Delta. Good pianists like these could make better money with fewer occupational hazards in larger cities, and these three moved to cities like New Orleans, St. Louis, and even Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s.

Many of the great recorded Delta blues guitarists, including Tommy Johnson, Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf, learned from guitarist Charley Patton, who lived on Dockery's Plantation. It's been speculated that blues music was born in the vicinity of this large, self-sustaining cotton plantation near the Sunflower River. Patton's records sold well, unlike those of many of his contemporaries, and provided him with fame and ready cash that were widely envied by his peers. The records of many of the Delta's greatest bluesmen failed to sell in large quantities, leaving a recorded legacy that is splintered at best. Skip James and Son House in particular were hampered by working with Paramount Records, a label that went bankrupt during the 1930s.

In 1927, the National String Instrument Company attempted to increase the guitar's volume by creating a resonating aluminum-bodied instrument. The National Resonating Guitar was perfect for cutting through the noise in juke joints, creating a stir on street corners, or defending oneself from assailants. Delta bluesmen Bukka White, Son House, and Shreveport, Louisiana, bluesman Oscar "Buddy" Woods used these booming guitars to create devastating slide guitar effects with knives or bottlenecks.

Slide guitar is easily the hallmark of this period of Delta blues, and its acknowledged master was Robert Johnson. Unlike slide guitarists Patton and House, Johnson crafted his songs to fit the three-minute format of 78 rpm records. His songs were conceived as concise stories rather than rambling narratives or free verse associations. Even as Johnson was recording his classic records in the late 1930s, Delta blues had started changing. During this period, solo blues performers were edged in popularity by rhythm-driven combos that would define Delta blues in the 1940s and 1950s.

The blues bands of the 1930s were as different from the solo performers who preceded them as they were from Handy's brass bands. These groups relied upon drummers and bassists to provide rhythm in the small juke joints where bluesmen increasingly made their money. The introduction of vocal microphones and amplified guitar pick-ups allowed bluesmen to create a new vocabulary of sounds to fit their music.

Helena bluesman Robert Nighthawk recorded his blues in Chicago during the late 1930s for the Bluebird label, setting a high standard with his sweet, liquid, amplified guitar tone. Harmonica genius Sonny Boy Williamson and jazz-influenced guitarist Robert Jr. Lockwood started broadcasting a radio show touting King Biscuit flour from Helena in 1941. Williamson's amplified harmonica and vocal effects, together with Lockwood's single-string electric guitar leads, influenced a large audience of younger Delta musicians, including Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Joe Willie Wilkins, and B.B. King. Upon his discharge from the Navy in 1945, a young guitarist named Elmore James returned to the Delta and played an amplified slide guitar with a slashing style that became his hallmark.

The Illinois Central Railroad played an important part in the migration of blacks to higher paying jobs in northern factories and stockyards. The Great Depression had effectively ended the record companies' practice of sending field recording teams to Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, and other southern cities to record local talent. During the depression, Delta bluesmen took the train to Chicago to record for major labels like Bluebird. Many of the Delta's best musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Elmore James, and Sonny Boy Williamson, moved to Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s to be near the recording studios. The Chicago blues sound that has become world famous came whole cloth from the Mississippi Delta.

Memphis School

In his book Where I Was Born and Raised, author David L. Cohn writes, "The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis." In the 1890s Beale Street became the center of fashionable nightlife among blacks in Memphis. Vaudeville theaters such as the Lincoln opened on and behind Beale Street, drawing crowds to the attractions. During the 1920s, these theaters hosted the renowned "classic blues" singers, women who sang the blues backed by orchestras, sometimes made up of classically trained locals. Because of Memphis's large, relatively affluent black population, the great classic blues singers - including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and local legend Alberta Hunter - frequently played Beale Street. These visiting stars introduced the songs of Tin Pan Alley to the Deep South and in turn learned regional favorites.

Prior to the onset of the Great Depression, Memphis was visited by nine different recording units between 1927 and 1930. These field units of northern recording companies scouted regional talent in an attempt to develop new stars. Victor, Okeh, Vocalion, Columbia, Paramount, and many others realized a greater profit from self-accompanied musicians than from female singers backed by expensive musicians' union orchestras. Memphis was the hub of the Midsouth, and advertisements in local papers, on radio, and by word-of-mouth among musicians drew performers trying to get record deals to recording sessions in public venues like the Peabody Hotel and the Memphis Auditorium. Twenty years would pass before blues musicians could record in a permanent studio in Memphis. Sun Studio at 706 Union Avenue was built by Memphis sound engineer Sam Phillips, whose Sun Records label became home to B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Ike Turner, and many other blues artists who would become famous during the 1950s and 1960s.

As the largest city on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans, Memphis enjoyed an extensive local blues scene. When W.C. Handy moved there in 1909, he made it the base of his orchestra and publishing company. During the 1920s and early 1930s, the jug band craze that perhaps started in Louisville, Kentucky, captured the imagination of Memphis's musicians and prompted the formation of several talented jug bands. The size and instrumentation differed from group to group, but most included a lead harmonica or kazoo, a guitar, fiddle or banjo for rhythm, and a jug blown for bass. The most popular of these bands, the Memphis Jug Band, made dozens of records in a recording career that spanned nearly a decade. Many well-known Memphis bluesmen, including Sleepy John Estes, Robert Wilkins, and Furry Lewis, played or recorded with jug bands. Many equally talented Memphis bluesmen performed and recorded solo or in a duo, frequently with great success. Frank Stokes, Memphis Minnie, and the phenomenally popular Jim Jackson all recorded and released records without a backup band. During the 1920s and 1930s, blues records by Memphis musicians routinely outsold records by their Delta contemporaries.

In the 1940s, the popularity of AM radio presaged a new outlet for blues musicians in the Memphis area. In 1949, WDIA in West Memphis, Arkansas, became the nation's first radio station with an all-black format. With a combination of jump blues records and live music by B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin' Wolf, the station became a blues tastemaker. King's first hit was "Three O'Clock Blues" in 1951, and it suggested a change of taste in the blues record-buying public. On record King was backed by horns and a band, further enhancing King's rich guitar tones and crying vocals. His sound was embraced by Memphis contemporaries Johnny Ace, Little Junior Parker, Roscoe Gordon, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. These bluesmen created a new Memphis blues sound that combined jump blues swing and a driving Tennessee rhythm. The city's blues roots became the bedrock of the soul music created there in the 1960s, because many of Memphis's greatest soul musicians learned their chops from musicians they heard on Beale Street.

Last updated: October 26, 2017