Dockery Farms and the Birth of the Blues
Dockery Farms began as a cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta. Although cotton was king in the post-Civil War South, it has been the music from the fields and cabins of Dockery Farms that make it famous as a birthplace of the blues. From its beginnings in the late 19th century through the rise of such unforgettable Delta bluesmen as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Howlin' Wolf, to the many legendary blues musicians today, Dockery Farms has provided fertile ground for the blues. The vivid poetry, powerful songs, and intense performing styles of the blues have touched people of all ages around the world. The music that was created, at least in part, by Dockery farm workers a century ago continues to influence popular culture to this day. It was a welcome diversion from their hard lives and a form of personal expression that spoke of woes and joys alike in a musical language all its own.
Will Dockery, the son of a Confederate general that died at the battle of Bull Run, founded the plantation. Young Will Dockery had graduated from the University of Mississippi and in 1885, with a gift of $1,000 from his grandmother, purchased forest and swampland in the Mississippi Delta near the Yazoo and Sunflower Rivers. Recognizing the richness of the soil, he cleared the woods and drained the swamps opening the land for cotton. Word went out for workers and before long African-American families began to flock to Dockery Farms in search of work in the fields and, as tenant farmers (sharecroppers,) they cultivated cotton on the rich farmland.
Throughout the South, large landowners opened their fields to sharecroppers who would lease plots of land to tend themselves. In return they had to share part of their harvested crops as rent for the use of the land. Contracts for sharecroppers were often harsh and many lived on the verge of starvation. Will Dockery had earned a good reputation for treating his African-American workers and sharecroppers fairly and thus attracted ambitious workers from throughout the South.
The Dockery plantation by its peak in the mid 1930s consisted of 18,000 acres and extended over 28 square miles of rich fertile lowland along the Sunflower River. Will Dockery managed the land until the 1930s when his son, Joe Rice Dockery, took over and maintained the plantation through the Great Depression until his death in 1982. His widow, Keith Dockery McLean then ran the farm, which diversified to produce corn, rice and soybeans. In 1994, she turned the farm over to hired managers. It was Ms. McLean that realized that Dockery Farms was a hotbed of the blues and later in her life came to take pride in the farm's significance as a source of this music. Since her death in 2006, her daughters and grandchildren have owned Dockery and have established a foundation in hopes of funding research into its extensive historic archives of the Delta Blues.
In the early 20th century, Dockery Farms was nearly self-sufficient, more so than its neighboring plantations. It had its own currency and general store, a physician, a railroad depot, a dairy, a seed house, cotton gin, sawmill, and three churches. There was also a school for the 1,000 to 3,000 men, women, and children who worked during the farm's busiest times as either day laborers or as sharecroppers. Farm workers often sang while working the fields and their music became their basic entertainment. The music from the fields and cabins of the farms in the Mississippi Delta became famous as the blues.
African-American men, accompanying themselves on guitars, banjos, harmonicas, quills and jugs, would sing versions of popular songs and variations of "field hollers" as they planted, weeded, and picked cotton. The first reported sighting of the blues, however, was recorded in 1903 at the Tutwiler railroad depot near Dockery. Here, composer W. C. Handy noticed a "lean, loose-jointed Negro" playing a guitar and pressing the flat of a knife blade against the strings down its neck. The player created a "bluesy" effect while singing "going where the southern cross' the dog," a reference to a locally famous juncture of train lines.
In 1900, Bill and Annie Patton and their 12 children took up residence at Dockery Farms. Their nine-year-old, Charlie, took to following guitarist Henry Sloan to his performances at picnics, fish-fries, and social gatherings at boarding houses where the day laborers lived. By 1910, Patton was himself a professional musician, playing songs such as his own "Pony Blues," often with fellow guitarist Willie Brown. Within the next five years Patton had come to influence Tommy Johnson, considered one of the best ragtime-blues guitarists of the day, who had traveled to Dockery. He had also joined the Chatmon brothers who recorded using the name the "Mississippi Sheiks" at their musical jobs throughout the area.
Even though there were no juke joints on the farm, Charlie Patton and other bluesmen, drawn to Dockery by its fame, used the plantation as their base. They would travel the network of state roads around Dockery Farms to communities large enough to support audiences that loved the blues. One of these roads, Highway 61, from Memphis to Vicksburg, was immortalized by 1960s folk/rock icon Bob Dylan. This was "blues country." The plantation was located between the towns of Cleveland and Ruleville, just south of the state prison at Parchman and north of Indianola, the birthplace of the blues guitar great B.B. King. Shops in the area sold "race records." These were typically blues sung by women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and produced presumably for African-American buyers. In 1929 Charlie Patton recorded 14 songs for Paramount Records, featuring his gruff voice and rhythmic, percussive plucking. They immediately became top sellers, and resulted eventually in his second recording sessions, producing 26 titles, for the ARC company in New York in 1934.
But it was Patton's live performances that inspired and influenced fans such as Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Ed "Son" House, Chester Burnett (also known as "Howlin' Wolf), and Roebuck "Pop" Staples. These important artists in blues history either lived at or passed through Dockery Farms. Bluesmen Sonnyboy Williamson and Leadbelly were among "guests of the state" at nearby Parchman Prison during the same era. Besides his blues guitar playing and singing, Patton was well known for his stage moves. He danced while playing and swinging his guitar around, often playing it behind his back. These crowd-pleasing antics imitated by rock stars including Jimi Hendrix have survived today in the acts of bluesmen such as Buddy Guy. Patton's uninhibited physical activity while performing must have been exciting to the farmers and other workers who observed him at close quarters. His growly vocals and his dancing beat surely energized his audiences.
Patton and the other bluesmen based around Dockery Farms in the 1920s could make about $25 for a performance at a party. Although not much by current standards, this was about five or ten times what they earned picking crops in the field! In addition to the freedom from backbreaking work, the bluesmen won celebrity and the attention of women. They could travel from place to place and had leisure time to spend as they pleased. Like Patton, they may have all been avoiding the hard work in the fields, the so- called "honest day's labor," that was the source of Dockery Farms' agricultural success. But by playing their Delta blues they created an art form that gave comfort and support to countless numbers of contemporary listeners. The bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta produced invaluable musical dividends to everyone who has learned their stories and heard their enduring songs.
Questions to consider:
- Why did Dockery Farms draw workers to the plantation?
- What place did music have in the daily lives of workers in the cotton fields?
- How much time did residents of Dockery Farms and nearby settlements have for listening to the blues?
- What were the earlier sources of the songs Charlie Patton, the Mississippi Sheiks, and others performed in and around Dockery Farms?
- How were the Delta bluesmen discovered beyond the areas they could reach from their home bases at or near Dockery Farms?
- What role did "race records" play in popularizing the blues?
- What does contemporary popular music owe to the blues?
The Blues in American Culture
The blues with its pulsing rhythms, melodic hooks, aching harmonies, vivid images, timeless stories, and exciting performance practices is America's basic musical language. Our most popular musicians today have their roots in the blues. Just think of Prince at the Superbowl in 2007. Prince danced freely in the rain with his guitar, like a "blues man" overcoming sorrows by turning them into song, leaning on the beat to make the whole thing shake, and stirring strangers to feel the same, maybe to move and sing along.
American blues represents the spirit of America. For a hundred years, at least since the sheet music publication of W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," it has swept through the nation and encircled the globe inspiring popular music throughout the world. The story of how it came to be, and what the blues signifies in American culture, goes back further than a century. By examining the history of the blues it is apparent that it is a clear reflection of our nation's story, both its highs and lows. It has become a foundation for many forms of popular art and entertainment besides music, in the United States and abroad.
Music, throughout the history of the United States, has been one of the primary methods by which people of our nation, representing so many diverse ethnic and ancestral backgrounds, have built a common culture. Music derived from African traditions - drumming, chanting, five-tone (pentatonic) scales, vocal and tonal effects, and instruments such as the banjo and the diddley bo - have been every bit as influential as music of classical European origin. We can see in jazz, America's original art form, a blending of the musical traditions of Africa and Europe.
But the blues is unique to the way African-Americans arrived, survived, and finally thrived in the U.S. While the music remains a special link to Africa, all Americans value it. The blues originally evolved in the southern states out of slaves' work songs, field hollers, and plantation dances. As it became popular with the paying public, the blues was quickly recognized and transformed from a back porch and picnic pastime to an income-producing profession. "Crazy Blues," Mamie Smith's hit record of 1920 that was reported to have sold 75,000 copies in the first month of its release, is proof of its popularity. Blueswomen like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith who sang the classic blues of the '20s, and bluesmen like Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, traveling singing guitarists in the Mississippi Delta and American southwest, became popular throughout the nation. Specialty record labels, music venues, and tour circuits were the result of Americans' appetite for the blues.
Records and radio afforded blues musicians a much broader notoriety than otherwise possible and established a pattern embraced by all subsequent folk-rooted American music. Jazz improvisation, gospel vocalizing, country and western favorites, R&B, and rock 'n' roll for sock hops, street-corner soul serenades, deejay mixing, and poetry slams have followed the blues' model of starting as homegrown crafts and becoming extremely popular commercial forms. Audiences today enjoy the specific musical and lyrical bits, chorus formations, and stage styles that were born of the blues. It's not farfetched to propose that the blues is the keynote of the American soundtrack, the dominant pitch of our country's popular music history.
Certain distinct characteristics of the blues are easily identified in other types of music. There's the strong beat that is exciting at very slow and very fast tempos and can anchor complex interactions with other beats. There are the well-defined, cyclical chord patterns that allow for almost infinite variations and adaptations. There are the standard rhyme schemes and repetitions of lyrics that tell a story, reflecting common occurrences of daily life and the ways we truly talk. There is the blues' representation of the performer's extreme emotional states from sad and mournful to excited and cheerful. And there's the audiences' preference for artists whose expression seems real to their our personal experiences.
The goal of the blues entertainer is to interact with the audience so that everyone can be involved and take part in the party. This goes far beyond commercial pop music and has its influence in theater (August Wilson's plays), religious music (gospel founder Thomas "Precious Lord" Dorsey began as a blues pianist recording as "Georgia Tom"), film and TV themes (such as the opening music for "The Sopranos"), and classical composition (William Russo wrote a blues symphony, recorded by conductor Seiji Ozawa). The blues also shows up in comedy when the Blues Brothers discover America by visiting Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown; and, Dave Chappelle opens his cable TV show with a guitar and harmonic riff reminiscent of the great Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry's blues guitar and harmonica duo of the 1940s and '50s. The blues has even become valuable in advertising, as when a highly regarded, earthy blues elder like B.B. King testified about the merits of a blood sugar meter for diabetics.
Pop music stars have continually drawn from the basic approach of early blues artists. Stars including Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Cassandra Wilson, Macy Gray, Missy Elliott, Mos Def, and Nas have all come to convey the blues' values. They have used approaches devised by the earliest practitioners of the blues as a way of appealing to different audiences in different circumstances and at different times.
It should be no surprise that the blues has spread around the globe. There are blues bands in Scandinavia, Japan, and Australia. Brazilian musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso know the blues. Ali Farka Toure of Mali in West Africa played the blues as if he'd learned them from John Lee Hooker. There's something about the blues that's recognizably honest and enduring. The blues arose from the struggles of people trying to find themselves, and perhaps make their fortunes in America. That struggle is the American story, told wherever Americans and American culture go. No wonder it's most convincingly, compellingly told to the strong beat, the straightforward tunes, and the dynamic chords of the blues.
Questions for consideration:
- What are some of the current representations of the blues, the music, the musicians or the musical contexts, in advertisements, on television, or in other mass media? What does mass media use the blues to signify?
- In what ways are your favorite rap, hip-hop, country and/or rock songs like the blues? In what ways are they different?
- How do the electric bands of the urban blues and the solo or duo performers of the rural blues demonstrate differences between the cultures of big cities and agricultural regions?
- Can you hear the emotions sung of in the blues in music from Eastern or Western Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and Central America, Africa or the Middle East? Is the emotional "story" told in those musical examples similar or different than in the blues?
The Influence of the Blues on Jazz
The blues and jazz have much in common, from their origins in the African-American communities of the southern United States at the beginning of the 20th century to their spread, through the then-developing media of sound recordings and radio broadcasts, to national and international art forms. Both the blues and jazz have multiple definitions that sometimes go beyond music and speak to the processes and viewpoints that give these revered musical art forms relevance today.
From the perspective of musical structure, jazz as we know it would not exist without the blues. The twelve-bar blues chorus, with its familiar harmonic structure and narrative form, was the single most popular template for early jazz improvisation, as compact yet profound in its way as the sonnet proved to be in the realm of poetry. Early jazz giants including Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong used blues songs as the foundation for many of their most important creations, while Duke Ellington, despite a half-century of composing that led him to write extended suites and programs of sacred music, continued to employ the blues as the primary template in his arsenal. As jazz evolved and jazz musicians applied more sophisticated ideas of rhythm and harmony, the blues remained a constant, the basis for such influential recordings as Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump" in the '30s, Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" in the '40s, Miles Davis' "Walkin'" in the '50s and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" in the '60s.
From the outset, the blues frequently deviated from its twelve-bar form, and jazz musicians have similarly displayed a willingness to bend the blues to their own devices. Sometimes this means an adjustment of structure, as when Ellington elaborates the form in such compositions as "The Mooche" or "Mood Indigo," or when Miles Davis substitutes scales for chords in "All Blues." Even more frequently, what is involved is the application of blue notes in a scale or blues phrasing to non-blues material. Billie Holiday rarely sang traditional blues songs but performed every ballad with blues feeling. Charlie Parker, whose performance of "Lady, Be Good" with Jazz at the Philharmonic, is a textbook example of turning a pop song blue. These may be the ultimate examples of improvisers steeped in an aura of the blues. Yet, the same could be said regarding such supposed radicals as Ornette Coleman, who retains the raw authenticity of a Robert Johnson in all of his alto saxophone solos, or John Coltrane, who built his masterpiece "A Love Supreme" on a basic blues riff not that far removed from the one underpinning Willie Dixon's "Seventh Son."
The interaction between those considered blues and jazz musicians, respectively, has also been a constant. Mamie Smith, the first blues vocalist to attain popularity through recordings, employed jazz tenor sax pioneer Coleman Hawkins in her group. Bessie Smith, the greatest of the early blues artists, featured a young Louis Armstrong on some of her finest recordings. Count Basie, who once defined jazz as nothing more than swinging the blues, featured blues shouter Jimmy Rushing in his first band, and received a major boost in his comeback 20 years later from the more contemporary blues stylings of Joe Williams. Lionel Hampton's big band of the 1940s introduced blues great Dinah Washington and made hit records including "Hamp's Boogie Woogie" and "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop" that helped launch rhythm and blues. R&B then begat rock and roll, which ultimately fed the fusion movement in jazz, just as the "soulful" jazz of modernists such as Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons had its impact via funk on more contemporary blues.
With the passing of time, and as both the blues and jazz continue to evolve, the connection remains unbroken. Two of today's leading jazz ensembles, the World Saxophone Quartet and the Mingus Big Band, have linked the blues and politics in recent album titles. Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson and other musicians associated in the M-Base Collective of the 1980s and early 1990s have retained a blues-based focus while incorporating other elements in their personal concepts. Diana Krall, Joshua Redman and other young jazz stars of the day still play the blues, as does every young musician who studies jazz in high school and college courses throughout the world. The bond between the blues and jazz has only been strengthened by the many connotations beyond the musical definitions of these two art forms. When we view the blues as an attitude of facing the uncertainties of existence with a clear vision, a sense of humor and a spirit of resilience, and when we view jazz as a process for ensuring meaningful and spontaneous collective creation, it becomes even clearer that the blues and jazz only reinforce each other.