Delta blues is as much legend as it is music. In the popular telling, blues articulated the hopelessness and poverty of an isolated, oppressed people through music that was disconnected from popular trends and technological advances. Delta blues giants like Robert Johnson were victims, buffeted by the winds of racism, singing out mostly for personal solace. The story is undoubtedly romantic, but it just isn't true. "It angers me how scholars associate the blues strictly with tragedy," B.B. King complained in his 1999 autobiography Blues All Around Me. "As a little kid, blues meant hope, excitement, pure emotion."
The tragic image of the blues that originated in the Mississippi Delta ignores the competitive and entrepreneurial spirit of the bluesman himself. While it is certainly true that the music was forged in part by the legacy of slavery and the insults of Jim Crow, the iconic image of the lone bluesman traveling the road with a guitar strapped to his back is also a story about innovators seizing on expanded opportunities brought about by the commercial and technological advances of the early 1900s. There was no Delta blues before there were cheap, readily available steel-string guitars. And those guitars, which transformed American culture, were brought to the boondocks by Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Music has always been an instrument of upward mobility in the black community. During slavery, performers were afforded higher status than field workers. As the entertainment for plantation soirees, musicians were expected to be well versed in the social dance styles demanded by white audiences. But when performing in slave quarters, they played roughly the same repertoire. Former slaves' narratives reveal that the slave musical ensemble closely resembled later minstrel-show string bands: fiddles and banjos, accompanied by various percussion instruments, usually the tambourine and two bones being struck together as claves. While the image of slaves dancing waltzes seems odd now, it was common in rural black communities well into the 20th century.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, freed black men were suddenly looking for employment. Musicianers, as they were called, could earn more money than the typical day laborer. With newfound freedom of movement, and cultural norms that had established entertainment as one of the few widely accepted jobs for blacks, Reconstruction became a time of great opportunity for black musicians. In an 1882 article in The Century Magazine a white onlooker at a 19th-century Georgia corn shucking described the elite status of the musicianer like this: "The fiddler is the man of most importance. He always comes late, must have an extra share of whiskey, is the best-dressed man in the crowd, and unless every honor is shown him he will not play."
The music played by these 19th-century musicians was not blues, and their plucked string instrument was not the guitar; it was the banjo. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote about the instrument slaves played at his plantation, the banjar, "which they brought with them from the hinterlands of Africa." These simple instruments usually had four strings and no frets.
It may seem odd that an instrument with African roots, originally played by plantation slaves, would become popular among the white masses, but the banjo was portable, melodic, and relatively easy to play. Banjo proselytizers, seeking to overcome anxieties about embracing a product of slave culture, would go so far in trying to whitewash the instrument's ancestry as to claim that it had "reached its apogee through the contribution of whites" who had added frets and a fifth string to the original banjar.
A few early "classic blues" recordings featured the banjo, often fit with a guitar neck to provide a wider range. But these vaudevillian sides, cut by people like "Papa" Charlie Jackson, sound only distantly related to the Delta blues of Tommy Johnson or Skip James. The sound of the Delta is the sound of the steel-string guitar. The guitars of the 19th century used gut strings and were expensive and difficult to play. So despite having superior range and flexibility compared to banjos, guitars were still a rare sight in the black community. That all began to change in the 20th century.
The Mississippi Delta was a unique place in the American South. While the rich, alluvial soil appealed to antebellum planters, the dense, malaria-infested swamp that sat on top of it was barely hospitable, prompting many plantation owners to operate as absentee landlords. This led to blacks outnumbering whites by ratios as high as 10 to 1.
With the end of the Civil War, entrepreneurs rushed to cultivate this rich land. But the demographic makeup of the population did not change. Recruited by labor agents promising higher wages and greater opportunity, thousands of freedmen migrated to the region. While the work was taxing and the living conditions dreadful, there was a new kind of autonomy for the black man to sing about: the possibility of walking away from the mistreatment of an employer. This new sense of self-determination became a staple of later blues songs like "Key to the Highway" and "Dust My Broom." The range of workplace alternatives was growing wider every day, as the railroad began to connect more and more of rural America with the outside world.
Charlie Patton, long considered the godfather of the Delta blues, was an early beneficiary of these new opportunities. Sometime around 1900, Charlie's father, Bill, moved his family to Cleveland, Mississippi, to work on the farm of a man named Will Dockery. Dockery had arrived in Cleveland in 1888 fresh out of college and used a $1,000 gift from his grandmother to purchase a small plot of swampy timberland and open a mill. By the early 1900s, Dockery Farms had grown into a self-sufficient community, boasting a post office, general store, and a rail terminal. Dockery developed a reputation for paying good wages and treating his workers well. But wages weren't all that drew Bill Patton to Dockery's place. He also hoped to pry his adolescent son Charlie from the influence of the most prominent musical family in central Mississippi: the Chatmons. A God-fearing man, Bill Patton was determined not to let his son fall sway to the evils of secular music and the Chatmons' decadent lifestyle.
Henderson Chatmon had been a slave musician and was father to between 12 and 24 children, allegedly even Charlie Patton himself. His sons, along with Charlie, performed in an unending series of plantation-style string bands throughout the middle of the state. As Sam Chatmon recounted to folklorist Alan Lomax in 1978, "Every Saturday night we would divide up—let four or five go play at this place, and four or five go to the other, and four or five go to the other." While the Chatmons played for both white and black audiences, they made no apologies for preferring to play traditional social dance music for white patrons, who paid better and were less demanding.
Charlie Patton's fascination with music continued at Dockery Farms. While the Chatmons had derided his lack of sophistication, Patton had no trouble finding parties that would welcome his raucous guitar style in the predominantly black Delta. He grew to be a legendary performer in the area, known for his ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy, both with his snowballing rhythmic drive and over-the-top stage show, complete with Jimi Hendrix-style theatrics.
Dockery Farms soon became the incubator for Delta blues, with foundational talents such as Tommy Johnson, Son House, Robert Johnson, and Howlin' Wolf all spending significant time there and Patton serving as godfather to the young guns. The high concentration of blacks with disposable incomes formed a new core audience for a new musical genre. As the 20th century blossomed and railways, then steamboats, then cars began to link previously isolated pockets of the country, a new type of musicianer emerged: the bluesman.
The bluesman traveled and performed alone or with a single companion. Audiences expected him to perform everything from traditional European social dances to blues and ragtime. He had to be able to provide enough rhythmic propulsion to move a dance floor one night and enough sensitivity to accompany storytelling ballads the next morning while busking on the street corner. A number of bluesmen even doubled as journeyman preachers, a topic pointedly addressed in Son House's "Preachin' Blues." To survive, a bluesman had to be versatile, mobile, and cheap. And so did his instrument.
The new breed of Delta musicians needed an instrument that was affordable, portable, and capable of producing a wide variety of musical timbres. The guitar could provide harmonic support, rhythmic propulsion, and enough sustain to draw out the long melismatic lines of African-American field hollers. A guitar played with a slide could reproduce the characteristic whine of the single-string didley-bow—a homemade instrument, cobbled together from boards, wire, and nails, that served as the first instrument for many Delta musicians. Creative use of tuning allowed bluesmen like Charlie Patton and Booker White to produce raucous rhythmic accompaniments.
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.