Milestone Recordings in American Music

3/9/09

Delta Blues (1928)

Today, the Mississippi Delta region is widely acknowledged as the spiritual epicenter of the blues. Not only did the region produce some of the biggest names in blues history (Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, just to name a few), but the specific style of blues that originated there has become all-pervasive. It proved a major influence not only on modern electric blues, but also on rock and roll. It may be somewhat surprising to learn, then, that this was one of the last regional blues styles to be captured on record.

Delta blues is a somewhat amorphous style that encompasses a wide range of variations. It tends to feature solo, self-accompanied guitarists, but there are occasionally other instruments as well, including some of the best harmonica blues. It also tends to feature incredible bottleneck guitar playing, but again this is not the only guitar style used. In fact, there is so much variation to what is called “Delta blues” that it is sometimes hard to distinguish it from any of the other regional “country blues” styles. If there is one overarching feature, however, it is the emphasis on strong, impassioned and often starkly haunting vocals.

The Mississippi Delta itself is an alluvial plain east of the Mississippi River and west of the Yazoo, which stretches across northwestern Mississippi from Vicksburg in the south to Memphis in the north. But even from the beginning, the Delta blues style was not limited to this area, just as not every blues musician from the area played in this style. (Mississippi John Hurt, for example, did not.) Two of the first big Delta blues musicians hailed from the Jackson, Mississippi area a little further to the south: Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey. (Coincidentally, both frequently worked with a second musician – actually the same musician, guitar and mandolin player Charlie McCoy.)

Tommy Johnson
Big Road Blues (Victor 21279, 1928)

Tommy Johnson
Cool Drink of Water Blues (Victor 21279, 1928)

The one thing that can be said for certain about Tommy Johnson’s life was that he lived close to the edge. There are stories upon stories of his exploits with women and alcohol and all forms of rowdiness. It is here that the story originated about the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for ungodly talent with the guitar, a story which Johnson himself promoted. And given his lifestyle and his level of talent, the stories seem entirely believable.

“Big Road Blues” was his first big hit and one of his best. Johnson’s characteristic high, eerie voice, which would influence a great number of the area’s later bluesmen, is on display on this record. It is a pleading, crying voice that lays bare his very soul. He frequently stretches notes out, and the tremolo in his voice packs a tremendous punch. He also gets a lot of mileage out of the phrase, “Don’t you hear me talkin’, pretty mama?” which he repeats in part or in whole at several points throughout the song, with increasing emotional impact. Behind those rich vocals, Charlie McCoy picks out a complex melody on guitar, even making it imitate a mandolin in places.

~ You may also like: Tommy Johnson, “Maggie Campbell Blues” (Victor 21409, 1928)

Johnson uses his masterful falsetto voice briefly at the very end of “Big Road Blues,” but it is on the B-side of that single that he really puts this talent on display. “Cool Drink of Water Blues” features some tremendous lyrics (“I asked for water and she gave me gasoline”) that would crop up in many future blues songs. And Johnson’s delivery of them is spellbinding. He modulates his voice from the lowest registers to a vibrato-filled falsetto with ease, in a style that bears no small resemblance to Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodeling. The song has an unpredictable structure, as the first verse has three sung lines, the second verse has two, and the third and fourth have four lines each. Each verse then closes with a heartfelt refrain of “Lord, lordy lord.” As with “Big Road Blues,” Charlie McCoy’s excellent guitar work accompanies, and again he imitates a mandolin in places for effect, with some fast picking in the treble strings.

~ You may also like: Tommy Johnson, “Bye-Bye Blues” (Victor 21409, 1928)

Ishman Bracey
Trouble Hearted Blues (Victor 21691, 1928)

Like many early bluesmen, Ishman Bracey did not record very many songs, and with so many other great Delta blues artists to choose from, he often gets overlooked. That is a shame, because while he may not quite qualify for the top echelon, his material is consistently strong. “Trouble Hearted Blues” is a great example. It begins with a classic blues line: “I’ve been down so long, down don’t worry me.” Bracey’s voice is much more nasal than most of his Delta blues contemporaries, and he uses it here to great effect, sustaining a lot of notes until they end in a quivering, nasal moan.

Instead of making his guitar sound like a mandolin here, Charlie McCoy uses an actual mandolin throughout, which only serves further to make this record stand out from what anyone else was doing at the time. McCoy also contributes a few spoken one-liners (“Lord have mercy!”), which add a little extra character.

~ You may also like: Ishman Bracey, “Left Alone Blues” (Victor 21349, 1928)

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