Delta Blues Guitarists
Delta blues guitar is one of the oldest and most foundational styles of blues music. It was born in the Mississippi delta region south of Memphis, Tennessee and north of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The region is well known for rich soil and poor people and original delta blues guitarists, who also sang and often played harmonica, created this music as an expression of the lives they led. Slide guitar is a major part of the style, although fretted playing is also found, and vocal styles range from fierce to plaintive.
HISTORY OF DELTA BLUES GUITAR
Delta blues guitar evolved as a regional variation of country blues somewhere around the turn of the Twentieth Century but wasn’t recorded until the 1920s, when Freddie Spruell recorded “Milk Cow Blues” in 1926 in Chicago, Illinois. Many other performers were recorded in that era to cash in on the African American market for what were then called “race records.”
Delta blues guitarists wrote songs about the lives they were living and dealt with ideas like love, sex, the harsh nature of their rambling lifestyle, sin, salvation, and death. The music was personal, deep, and gave those hearing it a first-person view into the world of the performer.
SIGNIFICANT DELTA BLUES GUITARISTS
David “Honeyboy” Edwards (1915-2011)
Honeyboy Edwards was one of the primordial delta blues guitarists. He was born in Shaw, Mississippi and left home at age fourteen to begin living the life of a traveling bluesman. He spent much time performing and developing a close friendship with legendary delta blues player Robert Johnson, who wrote classic songs like “Crossroads” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” He was present on the night Johnson died from drinking poison whiskey served by a jealous husband and was one of the last direct links to him. Edwards was also one of the last original delta blues guitarists and became a living legend, himself, representing the style he helped to create all around the world.
Big Jack Johnson 1940-2011
Big Jack Johnson was a modern-day bluesman who played an electrified version of the original raw delta sound. He played mandolin as well as guitar, which is somewhat rare in blues circles, and took home a W.C. Handy Award for Best Acoustic Blues Album in 2003. He was born in Lambert, Mississippi, one of eighteen children, and his father was a professional musician who played mandolin and fiddle and led bands in his local area. Big Jack began his blues journey playing with his father but was influenced by the electric sounds of B.B. King as a teenager. He earned the nickname “The Oil Man” for driving a Shell Oil truck during the day and had thirteen children of his own. His first solo effort, The Oil Man, was released by Earwig Music in 1987.
Homesick James 1910-2006
Not much is known about the early days of Homesick James, other than that he was born in Somerville, Tennessee. The exact year of his birth is unclear, having been given as 1905, 1910, 1914, and 1924 at various times. He was a self-taught slide guitarist who claimed an association with Robert Johnson, Blind Boy Fuller, Big Joe Williams, and others. He also worked with his cousin Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson II. Elmore James died on Homesick’s couch while Homesick scrambled to find the heart pills Elmore needed. His guitar style was more ragged than Elmore’s playing and had more in common with Robert Johnson’s sound. One of his original songs, “Gotta Move,” was recorded by Fleetwood Mac.