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The six strings and fixed frets of the guitar enabled the guitarist to play a much richer variety of harmonies than even the most skilled banjo player. The guitar had a wider range than other string instruments and was especially effective underneath the human voice. A true Delta master like Robert Johnson could juggle all of these elements simultaneously, while singing. One or two musicians could take the place of four or five without sacrificing sound or versatility, thereby lowering costs and expanding opportunities.
The first Sears, Roebuck catalog was published in 1888. It would go on to transform America. Farmers were no longer subject to the variable quality and arbitrary pricing of local general stores. The catalog brought things like washing machines and the latest fashions to the most far-flung outposts. Guitars first appeared in the catalog in 1894 for $4.50 (around $112 in today’s money). By 1908 Sears was offering a guitar, outfitted for steel strings, for $1.89 ($45 today), making it the cheapest harmony-generating instrument available.
Throughout the 1910s Delta blacks routinely ordered a wide assortment of goods from Sears, Roebuck, including the instrument that would define them. In an interview with Alan Lomax, Gospel songwriter Charles Haffner recalled the switch from the reels of the past to the new blues sound: “Back around that time the guitar came into style, and the first blues I remember originated.…Yessir, we were entering into a jazz age, and the old world was being transformed.”
Traveling bluesmen took to the back roads of the American South. Whether through showmanship, technical wizardry, or lyrical wordplay, bluesmen were engaged in a constant battle for supremacy. Musicians would travel north to absorb new sounds in hopes of getting ahead of the competition, all the while pushing the new music in fresh, more creative directions.
Guitar quality kept improving while the price kept going down. Soon sharecroppers throughout the Delta were ordering guitars from Sears in hopes of supplementing their income on weekends. The catalog is frequently mentioned in the biographies of Delta bluesmen. In 1930 Muddy Waters purchased a used Stella, most likely originally purchased from the catalog, and began playing gigs. He quickly earned enough money to order a brand new guitar from Sears. B.B. King learned the rudiments of the instrument through an instructional book he ordered from the catalog. And of course, blues musicians weren’t the only ones to profit from the availability of cheap guitars: White country artists such as Roy Clark would get their first instrument from the same catalog that black bluesmen like Son Thomas would.
The momentary convergence of new black economic freedom, new mass-market technology, and a new musical form created a sound and style that will last forever. That musical moment, however, proved fleeting.
Even as the blues was attaining nationwide prominence through the first Delta artists being recorded in the late 1920s, the Delta itself was in turmoil. Scholars looking back have found a depressed region decimated by cotton crop failures, boll weevil infestations, and the great flood of 1927. Racial tensions boiled over as more whites moved into the area. The revived KKK gained popularity in the region, terrorizing blacks. Once-numerous black-owned businesses were squeezed out of existence by institutionalized racism. Many descendants of Delta pioneers pulled up their stakes and moved north, to places like Chicago and Detroit, once again determined to find a better life.
It was during this time that the Delta bluesmen began to be seen as naive folk artists: trapped in the worst of situations, resentful of the modern world, using music as a coping mechanism and almost stumbling onto brilliance. But a closer study of musical biography and commercial history reveal a very different picture. Bluesmen were clever, ambitious, and quick to adapt to changing conditions. And their conditions were changed forever by a mail-order catalog.
Chris Kjorness teaches music at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.