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Off The Beaten Track: How the American Delta South got the blues

It is not the case that every great blues musician is from the Delta; however, just about every player who heralds from there is great. Why is that the case? Well, the last people in the world you want to be asking is blues players themselves. They are an enigmatic bunch out of necessity, and by nature, they prefer metaphysics over exact sciences. Those that come from the delta are even more candidly cryptic than most. 

Thus, you have to venture to the state of Texas to find Lightnin’ Hopkins getting as close as any blues player ever has to summing up what it’s all about. In the life-affirming Les Blank movie, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins, there is one scene where he is perched on a raised bench, sporting a golden shirt and a cream woollen cardigan, clearly prised from a sheep that took enormous pride in itself. He has his guitar tucked under his arm and an attitude so sanguine that he was probably giving off a light spring breeze. Sat alongside him is his trusted Centerville, Texas companion Billy Bizor. Bizor is dressed all in orange and staring down dotingly at his monolithic mouth organ. 

Before bursting into song, Hopkins tells the tale of a young boy whose stuttering ways force him away from home and define his harsh existence. The kid can’t talk, and he’s battered from pillar to post for it. When a fire breaks out one day and the need to talk becomes a pressing issue, he is forced to sing to reveal the state of play. While it still may be allegorical, this is, in short, is the tale of the blues. When a slave’s every passing utterance was run through a filter of condemnation, the need for cathartic communication swelled under the surface until it burst out in song, providing cognizance of a cruelly cursed reality and vital exultation from it. As Wynton Marsalis once said, “Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”

In all the joyous modifications that followed the blues, soul music allowed it to be a little blunter. Sam Cooke’s soul song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ begins with the opening line: “I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since.” The river in question is the Mississippi, which makes it perhaps the most profoundly multifaceted motif in music history. 

It can be argued that the Mississippi Delta is where modern music benevolently flowed out from into the world. Still, likewise, it was one of the most violently racially divided regions in modern history, setting a fluid current of fear in motion amongst the black denizens. Aside from those two notable brushstrokes in the motif, there are myriad more pertaining to the tides of change, the unburdened flow of the soul and so on until the infinities of personal corroborations are all but dried up. 

The Mississippi River was how the slaves were shipped south to get to the plantations of the delta. This was the despairing seeding ground where modern music crawled out of the mire and misery of one of humanity’s great atrocities and etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history.

But it wasn’t just slavery and the need to escape it, at least in a spiritual sense, that seeded the blues. Aside from the nebulous fact that the land itself, with its crooked tupelo trees, serpentine dust roads and the giant clay ball moon that seems to be a few miles closer to the delta than the rest of the world, is befitting of the sound that it helps craft, there are myriad more factors at play that will forever escape the underpinning of any musicologist. One of which is that for many, even when freedom came, money was too tight to mention.

When the great depression hit as blues began to bubble, preacher’s collection boxes felt the pinch and blues players open guitar cases provided a genuine threat. Thus, with the pastor’s funds being redirected to soul searching of a different kind, the art of the blues was condemned as the devil’s music. Along with the undertone of voodoo that came over from West Africa and the Caribbean, this mystic hoodoo imbued the genre with a pariah status, which fit the already hexed propagators of it like a glass slipper.

From then on, the blues blossomed like some underground separatist cult that couldn’t hide from the mainstream for much longer. Juke joints sprouted up all over the shop, and folks revelled in the balm to drudgery that they were serving up. As is the case with any music scene, pivotal figures rose to prominence and inspired future generations. If the blues had forever been in the soul of the delta, it was now proudly sported on the surface. 

The blues is testimony to the unconquerable spirit of those that suffered in the Delta, and those that continue to do so, that the torment that spawned it was, and is, transfigured into something beautiful. It is this mark left by Delta blues players that will stand amidst the breakers of histories cruel tides as a monolith to the insurmountable souls that bore the hands of oppression and were left, bloody but unbowed.

From doggedly desperate times of despair came the gilded magic of modern music that will play on for eternity whilst needless suffering will hopefully one day recede down to a relic of the past, but for now, the blues and all of its endless permutations bring comfort and joy to those who listen and show that even in darkness there is a defiant light of harnessed exultation. As Nina Simone said, “funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow.”