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Ch. 06: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Charlie Patton

Before W. C. Handy wrote down those notes on a piece of paper in a train station in 1903, blue did exist. But there was no name, no face, no voice to record and recognize as an authentic bluesman.

America was given its first blues name, face and voice with the arrival of Charlie Patton, a delta blues guitar player who would play his instrument behind his back and over his head. By 1929 Charlie (sometimes spelled Charley) Patton had recorded several singles, paving the way for Son House and Tommy Johnson, two other delta bluesmen, to find their way into the studio by the early ‘30s. Patton, House and Johnson were typical bluesmen—hard-drinking, womanizing, passionate players of the blues.

Robert Johnson – “Father of the Delta Blues”

But no early artist personified the icon of the delta bluesman like Robert Johnson. While in his late teens, Johnson worked with Son House and other blues artists in the delta, but was considered merely a common guitarist and singer. The story goes that after he disappeared for a few days, he returned with an unusual virtuosity on the guitar and a passionate vocal delivery. The skill, he told his brother and others, came from the deal that he made with the devil at the crossroads a few miles from town.

Although the story was conveniently manufactured, Johnson was immediately recognized by other bluesmen for his skill and songwriting ability, shown in songs like “Terraplane Blues” and “Crossroads Blues.” Like many great legends, it most likely started with some truths and then, like a good blues solo, was embellished.

While in his late teens, he was heavily influenced by a mysterious blues artist named Ike Zinneman. Zinneman had a habit of wandering into the local graveyard late at night to practice. Johnson would follow him, find a comfortable spot on a nearby gravestone and copy Zinneman’s guitar licks. The image of Johnson getting guitar lessons in a graveyard was most likely the starting point for the more popular (and definitely more salacious) legend.

Robert Johnson

At the age of 25 he recorded the first of 45 singles which were done in two sessions, neither in a studio. The first set was recorded in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas, with the second captured a year later in the backroom of a Dallas office building. Only 11 of the songs were released during his lifetime.

While playing a roadhouse in Three Forks, Mississippi in 1938, Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband. His modest popularity had only lasted the final five years of his life, but his legend lives on in the music of three generations of blues and rock ‘n roll guitarists. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cream, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones all covered Johnson classics including “Crossroads Blues” and “Stop Breakin’ Down”.

Four months after Johnson’s death, a concert promoter from New York City attempted to contact him to perform as part of a concert celebrating African-American music in America. Upon learning of his death, he arranged for a recording of Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)” to be played at the end of the concert. The audience heard the singer deliver that chilling, devil’s line from beyond the grave: “Give me your right hand.”

The renaissance of Robert Johnson began with the English blues-rock bands in the ‘60s, and was recognized with an album entitled King of the Delta Blues Singers. Along with a select group which included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Robert Johnson into membership in 1986, the first year of its existence.

In 1990, Columbia Records released The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson. They had hoped for sales of 10,000, but were shocked when the box set of 41 songs sold over a half-million and won a Grammy award.

No less a figure than Eric Clapton, who released a tribute CD, Me and Mr. Johnson in 2004, said of his blues idol:

“Up until I heard his music, everything I had ever heard seemed as if it was dressed up for a shop window somewhere, so that when I heard him for the first time, it was like he was singing only for himself, and now and then, maybe God…At first it scared me in its intensity, and I could only take it in small doses. Then I would build up strength and take a little more, but I could never really get away from it, and in the end, it spoiled me for everything else…”

No figure more accurately embodied the rich and dark heritage of delta blues like Robert Johnson. While some of his life was fictional, the recordings remain as the most important body of work from the authentic delta blues genre. In the end, it has been the primitive, intense recordings of his voice and guitar, not the stories, which have earned him the title of “King of the Delta Blues.”

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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