The Sound of the Delta
Being raised in New Orleans, I actually had little experience with the blues. Traditionally, my heart lies in country music.
When my husband and I moved to Mississippi, however, our new acquaintances and fellow singers were heavily into the blues. I soon discovered that country and blues closely resemble each other, in that both genres speak of real life experiences. I soon became as enamored with the blues as I am with country music. During my public performances I began singing both, in my own way. This literally means I “blues-ify” some country songs and “country-ify” some blues arrangements. Knowing some about the swamp pop, country and jazz I grew up with, I decided to delve into the history of the blues.
You might want to share what I discovered with your children, so they can get a lesson in what their local music means.
What Shaped the Music?
The Delta is said to be the epitome of the American south because of its racial, cultural and economic history, as told in its songs.
According to Mississippiriverdelta.org, the Delta covers approximately 7,000 square miles. Originally covered in hardwood forests across the bottomlands, the area where you live became rich in cotton growing fields prior to the Civil War.
Cotton plantations were developed along the riverfronts, and rich planters depended upon slave and indentured labor. Long before 1861, history shows that there were twice as many blacks than whites in the Delta counties.
Even after the war was over, the hard times continued. Both black and white struggling farmers turned to sharecropping and tenant farming. Then, big machines came to farming in the 1920s and 1930s, reducing the need for labor. Displaced people left the land and moved into southern cities. Others of this group migrated north.
The mostly black sharecroppers and tenant farmers lived in poverty and hardship, so they expressed these conditions in their music.
From the creative composing of life expressed through musical strains, the Mississippi Delta acquired the title “Birthplace of the Blues.” It gave us such beloved and successful musicians as B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Albert King, Tammy Wynette and John Lee Hooker and influenced other major Mississippi musicians, such as Elvis Presley. Each created soulful melodies that opened listeners to the struggles and successful endurances of humankind.
The music of the Mississippi Delta opened the door to the southern heart of America.
One of Delta State University’s newer programs is the Blues Studies minor. The curriculum, according to Deltastate.org, offers certificates in “Advanced Study of Blues Music” with courses in Blues Culture, Literature and Psychology.
Blues music is the grandfather to jazz, R&B, gospel, soul, funk, rock & roll, and even today’s rap and hip-hop.
“While rap music is a unique African-American art form from the 1970s,” explained Dr. M. Inaba of Austin Peay State University, “some core musical, lyrical and philosophical elements that constitute rap, such as rapped verses, looping, and sampling, are already observed in the blues and other traditional African-American musical performances.”
Dr. David Whillock, of Texas Christian University, gives John Lee Hooker as a good example of Delta influence on the genre I am personally most familiar with.
“There has been much debate over the authenticity and designation of the blues as a genre and cultural artifact of society,” he said. “However, John Lee Hooker, American Blues singer, song writer, and guitarist, migrated out of Mississippi as a country blues artist and his “boogie” never wavered.” The music had been bred into his artistry.
Though the roots of the blues are nestled in the poverty of the late 19th century Mississippi, its relevance to American southern history has endured and reaches out to all aspects of today’s diverse, integrated American public throughout the United States and indeed the world.
As described on NPR.org, “It’s powerful music that is also, by turns, stark, poetic, eerie, humorous, topical, and beautiful.”
Lynne Adams Barze was born in the Faubourg Treme’ of New Orleans. She moved with her husband to Picayune in 1999 and loves the state of Mississippi. Barze’ has penned five novels, freelances for magazines, owns an antique mall, and is a “proud cat parent.” She’s a member of GPAC and the Picayune Writers Group.