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American Music from A to Z in the NLS Music Collection: D–Delta Blues

Blues is one of the only truly American art forms—a musical folk idiom, developing out of the work songs, spirituals, and folk music of African Americans. It’s hard to pinpoint just when the blues “began,” although the late nineteenth century seems to be a good demarcation as any. Like many other folk idioms, Blues contains a number of subgenres, many of which are defined by the region that the style originated from. In this blog post, we’ll look at one regional style of blues, Delta Blues, named after the Mississippi Delta region where this style originated.

Delta Blues is a style of country blues, a style which features acoustic guitar and solo vocals. Delta Blues sometimes also incorporates harmonica along with guitar and vocals. As the genre evolved over time, Delta Blues musicians began using electric guitars, and, with the evolution of the recording industry, musicians from the Delta region spread their unique Blues sound throughout the United States, and the world. It is safe to say that genres such as Jazz and Rock and Roll owe much of their development to the influence of Delta Blues.

Even before the emergence of the electric guitar, a number of Delta Blues musicians gained prominence in the early years of sound recording. Delta Blues musicians such as Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, and Charley Patton were some of the first blues musicians to be recorded by labels in the 1920s and 1930s, and these recordings were influential in the spread of Blues music throughout the United States.

A photograph of the "Gateway to the Blues" sign at the visitor center in Tunica, one of the first towns along the Mississippi Delta's "Blues Highway," U.S. Highway 61, after entering Misssissippi from the north.

“Gateway to the Blues” sign at the visitor center in Tunica, one of the first towns along the Mississippi Delta’s “Blues Highway” — U.S. Highway 61 — after entering Misssissippi from the north.

As Blues evolved through the 1930s and 1940s, many musicians from the Delta region flocked to cities such as Memphis, Detroit, and Chicago, where they incorporated the popular, electrified city Blues style with their Delta-influenced sound, and swapped their acoustic guitars for electric ones. Musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King, who were all were born in the Mississippi Delta region, helped develop and popularize the Blues genre in the 1950s, and were all influential in the emergence of Rock and Roll and popular music in the second half of the century.

Below are materials from the NLS Music and general collections about Delta Blues, and other Blues genres. Please note that all materials listed below are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. To borrow talking books on digital cartridge from the Music collection, or to borrow hard copies of braille music, call us at 1-800-424-8567, or e-mail us at [email protected]

If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.

A Listener’s Guide to the Blues (hosted by B.B. King)
Son Seals (DBM01230)
Koko Taylor (DBM01231)
Johnny Copeland (DBM01232)
Lowell Fulson (DBM01233)

Block, Rory
Classics of Country Blues Guitar (DBM02193)
Rory Block Teaches the Guitar of Robert Johnson (DBM03634)

Booth, Stanley.  Rythm Oil: A Journey through the Music of the American South (DB 35487)

Brozman, Bob. Learn to Play Bottleneck Blues Guitar (DBM03635)

Gioia, Ted. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music (DB 68628)

Gordon, Robert. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (DB 55484)

A portrait photograph of Muddy Waters facing forwards.

Muddy Waters and his orchestra. Photographic print, 1964.

Grossman, Stefan
Country Blues Guitar (DBM00485)
Country Blues Guitar: Ten Radio Broadcasts (DBM01495)
Country Blues Guitar Styles and Techniques: Ten Radio Broadcasts (DBM01478)

Guitar by Ear (Bill Brown)
Acoustic Delta Blues (DBM02230)
Acoustic Delta Blues 2 (DBM02928)
Acoustic Delta Blues 3 (DBM02938)
Acoustic Delta Blues 4 (DBM02930)
EZ Blues Solos I: For Guitar (DBM02469)

King, B. B. Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B.B. King (DB 56350)

Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began (DB 38149)

Primich, Gary. Blues Harmonica (DBM01280)

Robertson, David. W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues (DB 69060)

Roth, Arlen. Bottleneck/Slide Guitar (DBM00444)

Sires, Dean. Country Blues Gospel Guitar (DBM01480)

Smithsonian Folkways
Classic Appalachian Blues (DBM03991)
Memphis Slim (DBM03668)

Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (DB 74297)

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