Delta Blues Synergy

I confess that I have never really been a great blues music fan. I first heard blues music in interpretations like Led Zeppelin’s version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby” on their debut 1969 album. I had never heard of the Willie Dixon original first recorded by Otis Rush in 1956.

As I learned more about the music, I was struck by the synergy that occurred in Chicago in the 1950s which made Delta Blues music popular world-wide.

The Great Migration brought many southern black people to northern cities. For folks leaving the Mississippi Delta the Illinois Central Railroad provided a direct route to Chicago. The Delta is a relatively small area: 200 miles long by 50 miles wide, Memphis to Vicksburg, between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. From 1940 through 1960 many people left share-cropping behind to work in Chicago industry. They took their music with them. One of these people was McKinley Morganfield (stage name Muddy Waters) who rode the Illinois Central north to Chicago in 1943 and the beginning of a stellar career.

In the early days, musicians played Delta Blues on street corners, in churches, market places and private parties. Steady wages fueled demand for evening entertainment. Nightclubs opened, providing a place for musicians to play for pay. Musicians listened to each other, competed with each other, and copied each other. Delta Blues evolved.

The way of making music also changed. A few blues musicians had been playing custom-made electric guitars since the 1930s. For example, Memphis Minnie (birth name Lizzie Douglas) played a custom-made New Yorker electric Spanish guitar in the 1930s.

But it was the advent of inexpensive mass-produced electric guitars, along with inexpensive 45 RPM records and record players in the early 1950s that propelled the music to a much wider audience.

Record companies had been recording blues music before 1950, but it was  Chicago’s Chess Records that began promoting blues musicians in the early 1950s as this video illustrates: Chess Records – A Brief History

Records spread electric blues to a wider audience. Some of those records made their way across the Atlantic to London, others to San Francisco, and covers of Delta blues songs became commonplace.  Musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry became favorites of rock audiences.

Even relatively obscure Delta Blues players, like Memphis Minnie, had their moment in the sun as rock bands reached back to the past to find inspiration. Led Zeppelin covered her song, “When the Levee Breaks” on their debut 1969 album.

And Jefferson Airplane (with Signe Anderson singing lead in the days before Grace Slick) covered another of Memphis Minnie’s tunes, “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” on their debut 1966 album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.

Delta blues had synergized. 

Mike Trial
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