Delta Blues: The Birth of American Music

15 September, 2017

"I look at blues as the way of life... it's a story, a story told with music."

That voice belongs to Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, a blues musician. He is sitting on an old chair in a dark corner of the Blue Front Cafe playing his guitar. Holmes's parents owned the restaurant and now it belongs to him.

Photographs, vinyl records, and guitars cover its walls. The objects all speak to the 70-year-old artist's life and music. The smell of beer and sounds coming from the jukebox in the corner help create the perfect atmosphere for his history with the blues.

Blues music itself tells a story -- a story about America.

The Blue Front Cafe, in Bentonia, Mississippi. The Blue Front is owned by local blues musician Jimmy
The Blue Front Cafe, in Bentonia, Mississippi. The Blue Front is owned by local blues musician Jimmy "Duck" Holmes. It has hosted many blues musicians over the years.

History of Blues

When people think of American music, they probably think of rap or rock-and-roll or jazz. What many may not realize is that these "American" sounds are all tied to a common place.

That place is blues music.

The blues was born in the Mississippi Delta area sometime in the late 1800s. The music is rooted in African American slave spiritual and work songs.

Life was hard for black people in the U.S. Slavery technically had ended, but poverty and unjust laws kept people from full freedom. Some former slaves stayed in the South and continued to work on farms, often for their former owners. Much of the work was outside in the fields, in the unforgiving heat of the Mississippi sun.

Roger Stolle is a Mississippi blues historian. He says a culture of singing helped people deal with the hardships. People sang spirituals at church and work songs in the fields to make the days go by. Over time, this music developed into what people now call "the blues."

As the blues grew in popularity, musicians began to perform around the Delta. Some, like B.B. King or John Lee Hooker, would travel to the city of Memphis, Tennessee, to establish professional music careers.

What makes it the blues?

Blues is both American and foreign. Blues historian Scott Barretta says many elements of the blues -- including singing styles, rhythm, instrument playing, and pentatonic scale -- are African and were brought to the U.S. by those who had been enslaved.

Baretta also notes the patterns to the lyrics.

"The blues follows an "A, A, B lyrical style...What we mean by that, is that when you perform the blues, you're often singing a verse, repeating the verse, and then there's an answer line. That's a style of music which we didn't really see before around 1900."

When it comes to the words, many musicians sing about difficulties from their own life stories. Holmes is among them.

Blues musician Jimmy
Blues musician Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, from Bentonia, Mississippi. Holmes plays a style of blues called the "Bentonia Blues."

"I don't sing about lies, I tell the truth!...True blues, the lyrics are absolutely true. They sing about life experience. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but they didn't lie."

Eighty-five-year-old blues musician Leo "Bud" Welch agrees.

"Well the blues ain't nothing but some good man or woman feeling bad. It's about life."

Life of a Blues Musician

Many blues musicians never gained fame. Often they were farmworkers by day and would play at ‘juke joints' by night. Juke joints were unofficial businesses where black people could gather to socialize. They would drink, dance and play music at night.

Leo Bud Welch was one of these musicians. He has played the blues since he was 13, about 65 years ago. He only performed music for families and friends. It was not until 2013, when Welch was 81, that he recorded his first album.

For most his life, he earned a living as a farm worker and tree cutter.

"My daddy used to always say, it takes the money to make the mouth right. You ain't got no money you couldn't get nothin' done."

85 year-old blues musician Leo
85 year-old blues musician Leo "Bud" Welch. Welch has played almost 65 years, and is from Sabougla, Mississippi.

The devil's music

"Most guys who started doing what I'm doing, got killed for they was doing."

With a voice both playful and serious, Bobby Rush speaks as a blues musician as well as a historian. He grew up playing with famous blues musicians like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin' Wolf. At 83, he is still performing. He just won his first Grammy award in February for his newest album, Porcupine Meat.

Rush's story, like the story of blues music, parallels the story of civil rights in the U.S.

Rush, whose great-grandmother was a slave, often experienced racism early in his career.

"In the past, blues had been something that, it wasn't good until the white guys did it. When I came along, this was the devil's music."

When Rush started performing professionally, he was sometimes forced to play behind curtains because he is black and the audience was mostly white.

Over time, that changed. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders organized to bring about change through nonviolent resistance. Blacks and whites began protesting racist laws together in the south. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed, barring discrimination based on race.

Over time these actions affected the blues world.

Now, Rush says he feels blessed for his popularity with a racially mixed audience. But he adds that he will always be proud of his roots and the struggles he went through on his road to success.

"I'm a blues singer, I'm a black blues singer, and I love what I do, I love who I am... love all people because they are all part of me."

The blues legacy

Blues music had a critical influence in the expansion of the American musical tradition.

Over time, as blues musicians left Mississippi, the sound changed. In the north, Chicago and other cities became famous for the electric guitar style of blues, which helped create rock and roll. In the south, blues music was a building block for jazz, country, and bluegrass. Rhythm and blues and rap music also developed from the Mississippi blues.

Historian Roger Stolle says, today, young people are more interested in learning musical styles like rap than traditional blues. However, there are efforts to document the life of the genre and keep it healthy for the future.

The Mississippi Blue Commission has created The Blues Music Trail, a path of historic places throughout Mississippi that informs and entertains visitors about blues music.

The history of the music is also on display at the Delta Blues Museum. And it has programs that connect young musicians with established blues artists.

Highway 49, which runs through the Mississippi Delta, is known as the
Highway 49, which runs through the Mississippi Delta, is known as the "Blues Music Trail."

Also, record labels are trying to preserve the traditional style of Delta blues by recording older musicians like Welch and Holmes.

But no matter what happens to the genre, almost every form of popular American music today has been touched by the blues.

And it is almost impossible not to like it, says Bobby Rush.

"The blues itself is the mother of all music ...because if you don't like the blues, you don't like your mama. Because that's the root of music, man!"

I'm Phil Dierking.

And I'm Dorothy Gundy

Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

Are the blues popular where you are from? How have the blues influenced music in your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

beer- n. an alcoholic drink made from malt and flavored with hops

jukebox - n. a machine that plays music when money is put into it

lyric - n. the words of a song

verse - n. writing in which words are arranged in a rhythmic pattern

pentatonic scale - n. a musical scale of five tones in which the octave is reached at the sixth tone

ain't - contraction. am not; are not; is not.

parallel - adj. very similar and often happening at the same time

blessed - adj. very welcome, pleasant, or appreciated

genre - n. a particular type or category of literature or art

preserve - v. to keep something in its original state or in good condition