As recently as 1900, much of the Mississippi Delta remained an impenetrable wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and bears and plagued with mosquitoes. In 1903, W.C. Handy, often rather spuriously credited as “the Father of the Blues”, but at that time the leader of a vaudeville orchestra, found himself waiting for a train in Tutwiler, fifteen miles southeast of Clarksdale. At some point in the night, a ragged black man carrying a guitar sat down next to him and began to play what Handy called “the weirdest music I had ever heard”. Using a pocketknife pressed against the guitar strings to accentuate his mournful vocal style, the man sang that he was “Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog”. This was the Delta blues, characterized by the interplay between words and music, with the guitar aiming to parallel and complement the singing rather than simply provide a backing.
The blues started out as young people’s music; the old folk liked the banjo, fife and drum, but the younger generation were crazy for the wild showmanship of bluesmen such as Charley Patton. Born in April 1891, Patton was the classic itinerant bluesman, moving from plantation to plantation and wife to wife, and playing Saturday-night dances with a repertoire that extended from rollicking dance pieces to documentary songs such as High Water Everywhere, about the bursting of the Mississippi levees in April 1927. Another seminal artist, the enigmatic Robert Johnson was rumoured to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for a few brief years of writing songs such as Love in Vain and Stop Breakin’ Down. His Crossroads Blues spoke of being stranded at night in the chilling emptiness of the Delta; themes carried to metaphysical extremes in Hellhound on My Trail and Me and the Devil Blues – “you may bury my body down by the highway side/So my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.”