Archived Story

Do pop musicians even know Delta blues?

Published 9:34am Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

It’s time for a little music lesson.

So much of the popular music these days seems so manufactured, so unreal. Voices are toned by Auto-Tune and melodies crammed through audio processors. And what’s worse, kids actually listen to it. And no one seems to know the history of American music anymore.

Perhaps that is why Mumford & Sons have sold so many records and did so well at the Grammy Awards. There are adults out there who like music just as much as the kids do, and they are seeking artists with depth and meaning. I’ve read news stories online where writers wonder how Mumford & Sons just came out of left field, with a sound unlike that of Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Adele. They scratch their heads for answers.

It makes me think these music journalists aren’t paying attention to our big country. There is a rising folk and bluegrass scene in London — where Mumford & Sons came from — and in many pockets across America: Minnesota, Colorado, New England, Tennessee, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. It just so happens that these places aren’t Hollywood or New York. OK, sure, Tennessee has Nashville, but the country music recording industry is so focused on sounding like 20-year-old rock music with twang that those executives are missing the trend.

Mumford & Sons and the folk scene in London happen to be based where the British recording industry is based, allowing them to gain notice. In fact, London radio is far more apt to play contemporary folk and bluegrass than American radio. Look at how Charlie Parr, a Duluth resident, is quite popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

I get the feeling that if American record executives and influential radio stations would throw a few American folk and contemporary bluegrass bands on the mainstream scene — ahem, Trampled by Turtles and Yonder Mountain String Band — they would sell well, too. After all, Mumford & Sons’ sound is merely a reflection of the folk they hear from America, the true home of folk and bluegrass. It’s like how people cannot sing the blues without knowing what it means to have the blues. Shouldn’t our country’s folk singers be American?

Back in the glory days of rock ’n’ roll, members of bands would cite the musicians who influenced them. I recall Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin citing Muddy Waters. Many of my friends had no idea who the blues singer was. At least the musicians knew where their music sound originated. I get the feeling that many of the mainstream artists lack that depth. Do kids even know what Delta blues means? Do their pop musicians know?

So here is the lesson for today:

Delta blues refers to a region in northwestern Mississippi called the Mississippi Delta. It’s not actually a delta like in Louisiana. It’s an alluvial plain; however, everyone calls it the Mississippi Delta. If you ever see a topographical map or satellite image of Mississippi, you can spot it plainly.

The alluvial plain stretches from Memphis, Tenn., to Vicksburg, Miss, and is bordered to the east by the Yazoo River. It is an especially fertile region for growing cotton, so in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the agrarian economy resulted in extreme class differences between wealthy white landowners and black sharecroppers and tenant farmers who worked the fields. The Delta is nicknamed “The Most Southern Place on Earth.”

Most likely due to black illiteracy and white prejudices, not much is documented on how blues came to be, but Delta blues is among the earliest known forms of blues, and the impoverished blacks there more or less took spirituals, work songs and the impromptu nature of jazz and created the blues. These people had hard lives, hard times, little money and knew the blues. Music was an outlet.

In fact, the black preachers called the music “the devil’s music,” and in response many musicians put references to the devil into their songs. That’s why you hear blues songs refer to things like “selling my soul to the devil” and calls for sinful behavior. The ministers and musicians clashed. When blacks left during the Great Migration, they spread blues to northern cities like Chicago.

The origin of rock ’n’ roll is hotly debated, but there is agreement it grew out of the blues and the South. The Delta can claim to be one of the places that was making rock music before other places, and some say it originated there.

Rock, pop, country — much of what we listen to today can be traced to blues and, on the other hand, to the peasant tunes that immigrants brought over from Europe. The blending of the two styles continues to this day.

OK, who wants to go to Clarksdale, Miss.? If the radio selections are no better than most places, at least there will be great live music.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.