Delta Bluesmen: Discerning Truth From Legend

As long as there have been bluesmen in the south, they have been surrounded with legends though.  For Robert Johnson, there was the infamous story of his deal with the devil to become a famous performer.  However, contemporary romanticisation of the Delta Blues is often shrouded in myth and misconception.  Below I’ve listed some of the pros and cons of working as a blues musician in first third of the 20th century.



Able to travel much more than the average black southerner

Spent life on the road in a constant state of flux and uncertainty

Played very high-energy Juke joint parties, where they were treated like stars

Forced to live within the Jim Crow laws of the south

Enjoyed many afterhours pleasures

Played for tips and scraps and many had to put in additional work on plantations

Polished their craft by playing for hours on end, each with his own unique style

Seen as sinners, which cause some, namely Son House, great personal and spiritual anguish.

Eventually, appreciated enough to get recorded by Alan Lomax

Most did not live long enough to see their recordings and contributions appreciate.  Son House became one of the few that was “rediscovered” in the 1960s.



The Rise of the Chess Brothers

Photo of Leonard ChessPhoto of Phil Chess

Leonard and Phil Chess (pictured above) were two poor, Polish immigrant brothers who lived in Chicago in the 1940s.  They learned how to run a business while they worked in their father’s junkyard.  Though they were of a low class they had the ambition, drive, and work ethic to work their way to the top.

Cut Rate Liquor2

After Phil and Leonard got out of the junkyard business they opened up a liquor shop called “Cut Rate Liquor”.  People would congregate in the store and discuss the gigs they were playing at and the night clubs that they were going to.  Furthermore, the store was located in a black neighborhood, which got them acquainted with a new type of music called the blues.  While working at this store, the brothers heard a about a club going up for sale called the Macomba Lounge.


The Macomba Lounge was the start of the music business for the Chess brothers.  It was located in the same neighborhood as their liquor store had been and, because it stayed open so late, it tended to attract all sorts of shady people.  Phil was in the armed forces at this time, but when he returned he joined Leonard in running the club.  Unfortunately, in 1950 the club mysteriously burnt down.


While Phil and Leonard were running the Macomba Lounge they also became involved with work for a record company called Aristocrat Records, owned by Evelyn and Charles Aron.  Leonard steadily bought up the company, and when the couple got a divorce he was finally able to gain possession of the whole organization.  The brand released records until 1951,  when it turned into Chess Records.


Willie Dixon and the “Hoochie Coochie Man”

Sorry for the late post, dear readers! Times have been busy as of late, and schedules have not been kind to this weary, earthly frame. That said, now that we’re here, let’s talk about one of the more popular licks in Blues history, and the man behind the man who who gave the world that now famous and unmistakably iconic riff: Willie Dixon. Here’s a clip from Cadillac Records where Willie Dixon gave McKinley Morganfield, now Muddy Waters, his most iconic song of his career called (I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.

Willie Dixon was one smooth operator in the music business, keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each and every musician on the Chess company payroll, using his wide array of musical knowledge and intuition to tailor-fit certain tunes, lyrics, songs and even entire personas to his fellow music makers. As portrayed in the movie, Dixon gave the hook to Muddy Waters to make his own. However, in real life, Dixon gave him the tune in the bathroom of Club Zanzibar where Muddy Waters was performing in 1953. Dixon said that the moment he knew that song, he took off with it:

He went right up on stage that first night and taught the band the little riff I showed him. He did it first shot and, sure enough, the people went wild over it. He was doing that song until the day he died (Inaba 80).

However, as savvy as Dixon was with the people he worked with, he didn’t just write the song for him: “Shirli Dixon[, Wille Dixon’s daughter,] gives this account: “I don’t know if he wrote it for [Muddy Waters], but I think when he wrote it, he wanted somebody like Muddy. He wanted somebody…that could deliver that type of message, because they had the whole look, total package” (Inaba 81). Beneath that mean little riff and the now instantly-recognizable song, Dixon also packed a whole lot of symbolism and mythology, taking from both the African-American folk tradition of the “black badman tales” and the Caribbean and Central American symbols of the hoodoo and voodoo tradition, giving Muddy Waters that air of mysteriousness and promiscuity (Inaba 81). Muddy Waters was already a bit of a heartbreaker in his own right, but the persona Dixon gave him through this song, coupled with Waters’ powerful stage persona and rough singing voice, boosted the effect the music and lyrics created. And his audience knew it too; the majority of the Blues listeners knew what Dixon’s lyrics were alluding to, and the power of what both singer and songwriter was tapping into.

Waters enjoyed that song, and the fame that it gave him, until the day he stopped performing, quickly becoming his favorite, his most recognized and his most brilliant song in his entire career. He may have had hits, but none hit so hard as being the Hoochie Coochie Man of that same song.

– Inaba, Mitsutoshi. Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, May 2011. eBook.

Paving the Way to Blues

Before blues music was accepted into the mainstream society other genres had to pave the way.  In the 1920s and 1930s the other main genres of popular music were jazz, “tin pan alley” or American standards, and big band music.

lSinatra, Frank_01


“Tin Pan Alley” music was the music that eventually became known as the American standards.  This music was the most mainstream during the mid-century.  In this genre artists would constantly cover each others songs, eventually creating the American songbook, a collection of original American songs recorded and rerecorded over and over again by singers of the early 20th century, such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.



Big Bands were, appropriately, huge ensembles.  They were comprised of both a horns section and a rhythm section.  The rhythm section included an upright bass, a guitar, a piano, and drums.  The backbone of the horn section was trumpets, trombones, and saxophones, however other brass, such as tubas, would occasionally be included also.  All together a Big Band included an average of about 16 people.  Because of their large numbers, Big Bands did very little improvisation, sticking to known songs and sheet music and playing primarily swing music.



Jazz music was similar to big band music in instrumentation, however the numbers of the band were drastically cut down.  Additionally, this genre relied heavily on spontaneous improvisation on the part of both the instruments and the vocalist.  Singers would frequently mimic the sound of the saxophone with their voice.  While doing this singers would say nonsense words, a technique known as scatting.

Music culture is intricately intertwined, with different types of music gaining inspiration across the borders of genre, race, and class, therefore blues music contains elements of all of the above genres, and it would have been impossible for blues to break into the music industry without these genres coming first.

Muddy Waters and the Electric Sound

Here’s one of the more important yet somewhat subtle scene in the 2008 movie Cadillac Records: the day Muddy Waters met Electricity. Now, I would have embedded the video right here and now, but the format of the blog is keeping me from doin’ it. So do us all a favor: click the link an’ watch that video.

Done? Let’s continue…

The guitar was one of the easiest instruments to play on the fields. With a little tuning, a little plucking, and a little time and skill, any ole’ share cropping farmer could create a little music to ease their weary soul. It was portable, so it could be hauled out of the shack and into a juke joint with ease. It was cheap, so most anyone could afford it. And, most important of all, it was versatile, so one could be singing the Lord’s praises one minute and your woes with women without skipping a beat. Many man who sang the Delta Blues used the guitar to make their way into the national ear, like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, and many others. So in a way, McKinley Morganfield of Issaquena County was joining a long proud tradition. But it wasn’t until he took the country-fried Delta Blues and electrified it did he really grow into Muddy Waters: the day Muddy “would leave the Delta for Chicago” (Gordon 35).

Living in the Delta meant living without. Electricity was pretty common in the early part of the century, but in the more impoverished parts of the United States, as modern as it touted itself to be then and now, even that was considered a bit of a luxury. As much hustling as Waters did in this formative years, the life he lived was as poor as the dirt the cotton grew from. It wasn’t until after he heard himself sing and play, courtesy of Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress, that he realized that he could actually land himself a bigger career than playing in the juke joints around Clarksdale. In 1943, he moved to Chicago to break into the business, learning more than he ever could in that country farm. But, it wasn’t until 1945, years after cutting his teeth on the hard heart of the Windy City, did Muddy Waters’ uncle, Joe Grant, gave him an electric guitar to be heard over the din of the crowded clubs.

His blues suddenly gained a power all of its own. Coupled with his voice, run ragged by years of the labor but fortified with years of practice, it rang with the truth. It was the sound of the hard country life coupled with the more modern elements of the city. It was as if he suddenly had a way to let all of Chicago know exactly how hard he had it working the fields and hustling the town to get where he was today. He’d been through the school of hard knocks, and his electric sound was a hell of a diploma to show for it. He became something the public couldn’t ignore, and if Leo Chess was worth his salt as a producer, he made sure that the public didn’t. He signed Waters on soon after he went electric, and the rest is history.

To modern ears, the sound itself may not be entirely new, but boy howdy did it ever impress. I’ll end this blog post with another scene from Cadillac Records: this time, it’s Muddy meeting Little Walter, impressing him with his newfound electric sound. Remember it, as its electric touch runs throughout the movie, and throughout the history of popular American music.

– Gordon, Robert. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2002. Print.

The Mississippi Delta: A Quick & Dirty Geography Lesson

I’m not from this country, first of all, so my own introduction to the Blues, or what I thought was the Blues, didn’t come from the area most associated with the Blues. In fact, the first time I encountered any sort of music that even vaguely associated with the Blues was in Ray Charles’s cover of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in the 2001 animated Metropolis film.

But I digress. Have a map of Mississippi:


I don’t know much about the geography of the US, so my first stop was an obvious one: Mississippi Delta Tourism Association’s official tourist site. It sells the place as an adventure for the types who like to take the backroads instead of the interstates, where every stop has something fun and unique, taking particular interest in the music found there. The site quotes a famous author about the region, saying that it “begins in the lobby of The Peabody Hotel and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg” (Cohn).

In actuality, the area known as the Mississippi Delta is a large, northwest part of the state, where the Mississippi and the Yazoo rivers run parallel, bordering the place in a large flood plain, which, according to historian and author Ted Gioia, is “shaped like the leaf of a pecan tree hanging lazily over the state” (1). It used to be an inhospitable wilderness, until it was deemed fertile ground for then-prospective, soon-successful cotton plantation owners before the U.S. Civil War. Here, fields of white were dotted by the slaves sent out to pick them from sun up to sun down while plantation owners sipped on their tea. Out of the thick, unyielding soil, however, something else took root. From the combined musical traditions of the slaves, the church and the country, the Blues grew.

Have another, more detailed and modern road map:

It may seem small, but this little floodplain became the roots of some of the most popular musical styles ever, and the backbone of music as we know it. It always helps to know a little geography.

– Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. NY: W.W. Norton, 2008. Print.
– Cohn, David L. Where I Was Born and Raised. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1948. Print.

Why Write About Music? Why Write About the Blues?

This is a blog created for the course Race, Chess Records, and the Blues. The posts are written by students in the course. Here, you will find their thoughts about Chess Records, the Chess Records and the many musicians who made records for the label. You will find commentary and criticism about the music of major Chicago Blues figures Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, and others. These are the musicians who not only transformed the Delta Blues into the Chicago Blues, but they also revolutionized the world of popular music. From the blues grew rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll, Soul, and rock. Muddy Waters especially influenced such British musicians as John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Jeff Beck, and countless others.

So, come on in. . . .