View Full Version : Is the Delta Blues the most authentic form of the Blues?


Fifty
Mar 26, 2010, 06:50 PM
I live in the birthplace of the blues... pretty much every week in the summer I can go see a blues festival that is 1000x better than the retarded noise pollution that most of you people listen to. Unlike Chicago and New Orleans, the Delta blues is still quite authentic because everything else here is so crappy that no major tourist industry has developed.

Plotinus
Mar 28, 2010, 08:12 AM
I live in the birthplace of the blues... pretty much every week in the summer I can go see a blues festival that is 1000x better than the retarded noise pollution that most of you people listen to. Unlike Chicago and New Orleans, the Delta blues is still quite authentic because everything else here is so crappy that no major tourist industry has developed.

Wait, where is that?

(Hope you're not claiming that the Delta is the birthplace of the blues. You wouldn't say that, would you?)

(And were you just channelling the spirit of Sam Charters?)

Fifty
Mar 29, 2010, 08:36 PM
(Hope you're not claiming that the Delta is the birthplace of the blues. You wouldn't say that, would you?)

Well I guess it depends a lot on what you consider the birthplace... I mean do we go all the way back to the African origins? Do we go to the slave chants in the deep south?

At any rate, if not the birthplace, I'd have a hard time believing there is any more authentic blues land in the world today.

Plotinus
Mar 30, 2010, 02:21 AM
Well I guess it depends a lot on what you consider the birthplace... I mean do we go all the way back to the African origins? Do we go to the slave chants in the deep south?

No. I don't hold with the idea that the blues is basically African - it developed in America. But no-one knows where in America. There is no good evidence even that it was a rural development or that it first appeared in the South, although it was in these regions that it became popular.

People often erroneously believe that it comes originally from the Delta. But this is merely because one particular blues tradition - the Delta blues - became especially important. That was for two reasons: first, it was the Delta blues that, more than any other, got transplanted to Chicago when people moved there in the 1940s, and turned into the electrified Chicago blues of people like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, which itself was a huge influence on early rock. Second, early white enthusiasts for the country blues fixed upon the Delta blues in particular - and especially artists such as Charley Patton and Robert Johnson - as artistically superior to other kinds of blues. But neither of these reasons justifies the assumption that Delta blues is older than other kinds of blues. It certainly doesn't predate other kinds of blues on record. I don't think you'll find Delta blues records from earlier than about 1927, more probably 1928 - and even then they would be outnumbered by Piedmont blues and Memphis blues recordings. Blind Lemon Jefferson, who played Texas blues, not Delta blues, was recording prolifically earlier than that, from 1926 onwards. And even he was preceded by the female "classic blues" singers, who were massively popular from 1920 onwards, and who were nothing like the Delta blues in any way.

At any rate, if not the birthplace, I'd have a hard time believing there is any more authentic blues land in the world today.

I don't see why. Blues developed all over the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, and it's still there in much of it. I don't see why the Delta has a claim to greater authenticity than Texas, say, where there are plenty of people still playing like Blind Lemon Jefferson (even a few who remember him). One of the best blues singers working today, Taj Mahal, grew up listening to Massachusetts blues. Just because the Delta blues is the most well known, and all earthy and rural, doesn't make it more authentic than other kinds.

Fifty
Mar 30, 2010, 06:45 AM
I don't see why. Blues developed all over the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, and it's still there in much of it. I don't see why the Delta has a claim to greater authenticity than Texas, say, where there are plenty of people still playing like Blind Lemon Jefferson (even a few who remember him). One of the best blues singers working today, Taj Mahal, grew up listening to Massachusetts blues. Just because the Delta blues is the most well known, and all earthy and rural, doesn't make it more authentic than other kinds.

Just because the whole area here is so poverty-stricken that no serious tourist industry has developed. There is no large scale blues culture in Texas today, at least the parts I've been in. People report that the blues they've heard in New Orleans are largely gimicky and not that good. Memphis blues bars are the same way in my experience.

I wouldn't describe it as "earthy and rural" here at all. Its certainly rural but "earthy" is about the last thing that comes to mind. The Delta is just so poor that there isn't much else here other than the blues. It just feels qualitatively much different to go into a shack on a plantation and listen to blues in a room where most of the other people there are old blues men, then to go to a blues bar in, say, Memphis, where is just a band in a normal bar full of college kids. Ok, maybe there's no real hard scholarly evidence that a bunch of old black folks on a plantation playing the blues and drinking together is more authentic then fishermen in hawaii or sled-driving eskimos in alaska or whatever you want to come up with, but it certainly feels that way to I and everyone else I know who's come from somewhere else and experienced the blues culture down here.

I just think... and maybe I can't convincingly argue for 10 pages about this... but I think that there is something to be said for historical preservation, and I have a decent amount of anecdotal evidence (no scholarly studies sorry) that suggests that the delta is more preserved with regard to its blues culture than elsewhere in the country.

Plotinus
Mar 30, 2010, 07:15 AM
Just because the whole area here is so poverty-stricken that no serious tourist industry has developed. There is no large scale blues culture in Texas today, at least the parts I've been in. People report that the blues they've heard in New Orleans are largely gimicky and not that good. Memphis blues bars are the same way in my experience.

Well, I don't have the on-the-ground experience that you do. But I did recently review this book (http://www.amazon.com/Texas-Blues-Contemporary-Dickson-sponsored/dp/158544605X) which makes it pretty clear that there's a hell of a lot of stuff, mostly little-known, going on in Texas today, and not just in Austin. Admittedly that book does slightly over-egg the pudding by including entries on "Texans" as dubious as B.B. King or Albert King but the real interest is in the vast number of featured artists who are very minor, some never recorded, keeping alive a distinctively Texan style of blues (or, more accurately, styles, since Texan blues has always been pretty varied).

I wouldn't describe it as "earthy and rural" here at all. Its certainly rural but "earthy" is about the last thing that comes to mind. The Delta is just so poor that there isn't much else here other than the blues. It just feels qualitatively much different to go into a shack on a plantation and listen to blues in a room where most of the other people there are old blues men, then to go to a blues bar in, say, Memphis, where is just a band in a normal bar full of college kids. Ok, maybe there's no real hard scholarly evidence that a bunch of old black folks on a plantation playing the blues and drinking together is more authentic then fishermen in hawaii or sled-driving eskimos in alaska or whatever you want to come up with, but it certainly feels that way to I and everyone else I know who's come from somewhere else and experienced the blues culture down here.

But don't you think that is is, partly, because people expect the blues to be played by poverty-stricken sharecroppers with dodgy teeth in little shacks? It's just a replaying of the assumptions of the early white blues enthusiasts I mentioned, who all thought that the blues should be primitive and somehow "old" and speak with an unsophisticated, rural authenticity. In part this was because of assumptions about black people in general as somehow channelling uncorrupted artistic vision direct from Africa, unaffected by civilisation. (I don't mean to attribute that view to you, of course, but it was part of that earlier mindset.) They found evidence for this in the old recordings they listened to by selecting it, and completely ignoring cosmopolitan, jazzy blues artists such as Lonnie Johnson, hokum artists such as Georgia Tom, forward-thinking, urban, polished electric pioneers such as Tampa Red, white blues artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, and (the biggest oversight of all) anyone female, especially the enormously successful and cosmopolitan "classic" artists of the 1920s such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. To those early collectors "the blues" meant poor men from the deep South playing solo acoustic guitars and complaining a lot, and despite the fact that most blues didn't fit this category, they considered only this kind of thing the true, authentic blues. In search of the blues by MaryBeth Hamilton is a fantastic account of how this happened, and how it resulted in the myth of "the Delta blues" that people today take for granted.

So the point is that poor old black men strumming guitars in shacks on the Delta were never more blues than all the other ways in which the music existed. It's just that this aspect of the blues was later seized upon and exalted as the pinnacle of authenticity.

I just think... and maybe I can't convincingly argue for 10 pages about this... but I think that there is something to be said for historical preservation, and I have a decent amount of anecdotal evidence (no scholarly studies sorry) that suggests that the delta is more preserved with regard to its blues culture than elsewhere in the country.

Now this is a completely different argument - the Delta blues today is more authentic than other kinds of blues or blues found elsewhere, because it has changed less. I don't know if it is true that it has changed less so I can't evaluate that part of the claim. I think you're right that it is a good thing to preserve the art forms of the past, but that doesn't make them better than what has developed later. If you think that then you do risk getting close to the views of Sam Charters, who in the 1960s lambasted those blues singers who dared to live in big cities, use electric instruments, and think about making a bit of money instead of living in little shacks twanging broken guitar strings like they ought to do.

Whether authenticity is a matter simply of unchangeability, I don't know. If it is then you get the odd conclusion that, say, Corey Harris is more authentic than Son House, because Harris is playing today the exact same stuff that House originally developed in the 1920s. So Harris is more authentic because he is less of an innovator than House was. But that seems a bit weird. Surely authenticity in music has less to do with how good you are at copying the styles of the people who came before you, and more to do with how your style reflects your own personality and experience of the world.

warpus
Mar 30, 2010, 08:24 AM
Muddy Waters is the best blues ever, not sure about authentic.

downtown
Mar 30, 2010, 10:45 AM
For what its worth (I'll get a chance to respond to everything else later), but I wouldn't really put New Orleans has a "blues" hub...certainly not like Chicago, Kansas City, Memphis or the Delta. New Orleans was more of a hub for Jazz music (and now has become a bastion of overhyped and oversold touristy crap. The current music scene in NOLA is much more Lil' Wayne than Jazz

bigdog5994
Mar 30, 2010, 12:16 PM
Plot already said everything that needed to be said nobody knows where the blues came from sadly the origin of the Blues has been lost to history due to rampant racism

but some of the first recorded Blues music was more like Jazz
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Edit: found this on Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_the_blues
African American composer W. C. Handy wrote in his autobiography of the experience of sleeping on a train traveling through (or stopping at the station of) Tutwiler, Mississippi around 1903, and being awakened by:

... a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. ... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly... The singer repeated the line ("Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

Handy had mixed feelings about this music, which he regarded as rather primitive and monotonous, [12] but he used the "Southern cross' the Dog" line in his 1914 "Yellow Dog Rag", which he retitled "Yellow Dog Blues" after the term blues became popular.[13] "Yellow Dog" was the nickname of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad.

1903 in Mississippi with a slide guitar that sounds like Delta blues to me

Fifty
Mar 30, 2010, 07:30 PM
Well, I don't have the on-the-ground experience that you do. But I did recently review this book (http://www.amazon.com/Texas-Blues-Contemporary-Dickson-sponsored/dp/158544605X) which makes it pretty clear that there's a hell of a lot of stuff, mostly little-known, going on in Texas today, and not just in Austin.

Well it must be quite little-known, because all my friends from Texas (incl Austin) say that its basically non-existent save a couple average bars.

But don't you think that is is, partly, because people expect the blues to be played by poverty-stricken sharecroppers with dodgy teeth in little shacks? It's just a replaying of the assumptions of the early white blues enthusiasts I mentioned, who all thought that the blues should be primitive and somehow "old" and speak with an unsophisticated, rural authenticity. In part this was because of assumptions about black people in general as somehow channelling uncorrupted artistic vision direct from Africa, unaffected by civilisation. (I don't mean to attribute that view to you, of course, but it was part of that earlier mindset.) They found evidence for this in the old recordings they listened to by selecting it, and completely ignoring cosmopolitan, jazzy blues artists such as Lonnie Johnson, hokum artists such as Georgia Tom, forward-thinking, urban, polished electric pioneers such as Tampa Red, white blues artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, and (the biggest oversight of all) anyone female, especially the enormously successful and cosmopolitan "classic" artists of the 1920s such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. To those early collectors "the blues" meant poor men from the deep South playing solo acoustic guitars and complaining a lot, and despite the fact that most blues didn't fit this category, they considered only this kind of thing the true, authentic blues. In search of the blues by MaryBeth Hamilton is a fantastic account of how this happened, and how it resulted in the myth of "the Delta blues" that people today take for granted.

I really never got that impression about the delta blues... its really quite tough to describe it. A lot of it is indeed old black dudes on guitar, but the lyrics and whatnot of it don't necessarily fit the old stereotypes.

A lot of it is showmanship too... I was at the blues club about a 10min walk from my house (one of the original clubs BB King got his start at... its indeed a run down shack that serves little else but catfish and beer), and a lot of hte old guys take a lot of showmanship-style pride in their original songs... thsi guy kept bragging about how he got second place in a guitar-song-writing contest with the song he had just played, with the winner being BB King. A lot of it is quite upbeat and feelgood in a weird bluesy sort of way. The crowd gets into it a lot and so on. Its not like they sit up on a crookety old chair in a dim room singing about the toils of picking cotton or whatever.

I guess I should say, instead of "the delta blues is the most authentic form of blues", that the delta has the most rich and alive blues culture today of any place I know.

Sure, there are probably more blues musicians in Chicago than the Delta today, but thats just a function of population. It also just feels less prepackaged here because this community is still so repressed and so poor. I mean, the nearest town to Dockery Plantation has a per capita yearly income of $7000 a year.

Maybe the idea that the blues has something to do with poor black people is a misconception, but it doesn't feel that way when you drive down 3 dirt roads to go see some blues here:

http://miltlong.com/Po_Monkeys_Lounge.jpg

and walk in and get greeted by this guy:

http://img4.southernliving.com/i/2009/10/delta-blues-highway/po-monkeys-l.jpg

Its simply a different, and in my view (and the view of everyone I know whose experienced it) better experience to see bleus that way vs at a bar full of college kids in memphis.

Muddy Waters is the best blues ever, not sure about authentic.

I've spent a decent amount of time in the house he grew up in in Clarksdale when I've been at Blues festivals there (he didn't grow up in Clarksdale but they transplanted his house to the blues school up there)... its the most run down shack I've ever seen. Like, it was significantly mroe run down then the early 19th century pioneer cabins that the fur traders hung out in in the Pacific Northwest... its about 3.5 meters across and wide, the walls are just huge thick boards cut from trees, with giant gaps about 4 inches between the boards.

holy king
Mar 31, 2010, 01:46 AM
Its simply a different, and in my view (and the view of everyone I know whose experienced it) better experience to see bleus that way vs at a bar full of college kids in memphis.

might be, fifty, but your white college kid presence also destroys that flair immediately.
it's that heisenberg thing!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Plotinus
Mar 31, 2010, 02:59 AM
Plot already said everything that needed to be said nobody knows where the blues came from sadly the origin of the Blues has been lost to history due to rampant racism

I don't know if it was racism so much as a different attitude to (a) folk music and (b) recorded music. There were researchers in black American folk music in the very early years of the twentieth century, but they were interested in what could be written down and didn't regard the singers themselves as significant. Some of them recorded what could have been the earliest blues blues recordings ever made, transcribed the lyrics, and chucked the recordings away.

Our knowledge of early blues is inevitably distorted because it relies mainly upon commercial recordings, and what the record companies recorded wasn't necessarily what people were playing live. Later folk recordists such as John Lomax supplemented this in important ways, but they too were very biased in what they expected to hear, which is why all the people Lomax recorded tend to play the same songs for him. The notorious recording he did of Blind Willie McTell illustrates this very well.

1903 in Mississippi with a slide guitar that sounds like Delta blues to me

Again, though, it's impossible to tell. Delta blues isn't just blues that's played in the Delta; Mississippi John Hurt lived in the Delta but he didn't play Delta blues. For all we know the singer Handy describes wasn't playing blues at all, let alone Delta blues. From the description it sounds like a sort of proto-blues of the kind that Henry Thomas would later record, but there's no way to know - even assuming that Handy's account, written many years later with the (partial) aim of presenting himself as custodian of the blues, is reliable.

I guess I should say, instead of "the delta blues is the most authentic form of blues", that the delta has the most rich and alive blues culture today of any place I know.

That may be true. Sounds like you live in an amazing place - I'd love to visit some day...

JEELEN
Mar 31, 2010, 01:45 PM
@Fifty & Plotinus: Interesting discussion, gentlemen. Didn't know you were both that much into music... Most enlightening! :thumbsup:

Fifty
Apr 01, 2010, 07:04 PM
That may be true. Sounds like you live in an amazing place - I'd love to visit some day...

If you ever do let me know, I'll tell you all the places to go! The plane ticket is by far the biggest expense... everything here is CHEAP. (for example, there was recently a concert down the road from my house where you could see Honeyboy Edwards (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honeyboy_Edwards) live, eat free dinner and drink free beer for $10)