“The Best-Known Tune Humans Have Ever Sung”

Today’s audio update: Tim Cahill picks cotton.

NATCHEZ, MISS.—I was joking earlier, quoting the Blues Brothers movie, of course, when I said this journey to the heart of the land where the blues was born is a mission from God. But right now, entering the Mississippi Delta country, there is a certain overwhelming feeling of sanctity, of pilgrimage realized. The blues style—moody or rollicking or boastful or bashful—developed in the Delta around 1900 and was, for a time, exclusively African-American. That isn’t the case anymore. The white folklorist Alan Lomax, who traveled through the Delta in the 1930s and ‘40s recording music for the Library of Congress, said, in 1992, “Nowadays everyone sings and dances to bluesy music, and the mighty river of the blues uncoils in the ear of the planet. Indeed the blues may have become the best-known tune humans have ever sung.”

A 14-foot alligator mimes a log in bayou country

Christian and I left New Orleans and made for the place where that tune was first sung. We drove north, toward Mississippi, on roads that wound through swamps alive with swimming logs that turned out to be alligators. We arrived in Natchez, on the Mississippi River, and contemplated history in our limited way. One hundred years ago, cotton grown in the Delta area was shipped out of Natchez, making it one of the wealthiest cities in America at that time. Nowadays, it retains a good deal of its former grandeur, but Christian and I chose to hang out “under the hill.” One hundred years ago, this riverfront area was full of rough bars, which were, in turn, full of rough river men. Today, you can get a good catfish dinner in the Magnolia diner and gamble in one of the paddlewheel riverboats anchored off near the bridge over the river.

Christian and I discussed the blues over a beer. Or three.

In the early 1960s, a couple of decades after Lomax recorded many of the classic blues songs, I was hearing them in certain smoky nightclubs in Chicago, a white college student, out of context but tolerated in a place where black people played black music for other black people. A fellow white student, a very good musician himself, spent most of his weekends doing the same thing. A few years later, Steve Miller and his band were selling records by the millions. Steve has always acknowledged his debt to the musicians we listened to at the time and to those that came before. I would assert that any one of today’s successful popular musicians owes a debt to the Delta.

The classic Delta blues songs gave direct rise to rock ’n’ roll, to rhythm and blues, and to soul, and blues riffs are routinely heard in jazz. The blues was first sung by men (and some women) working cotton plantations in the fertile river bottom in an area along the Mississippi that runs about 200 miles south from Memphis. This is the Delta, one of the largest cotton-growing areas on earth at the turn of the 20th century. Blacks were no longer enslaved, but life was anything but easy. Most lived in tumbledown sharecroppers’ shacks, they were forever in debt to the system designed to keep them that way, and there was no such thing as basic human rights, not for black folks anyhow.

A paddlewheel gaming boat floats off Natchez, Miss.

Some men moved from plantation to plantation playing music on the streets of small towns near the railroad stations, or wailing away all night in small drinking establishments or private homes. They carried guitars, these early blues men, and were generally dapper dressers, if we can judge by some of the surviving photos.

It is hard now to understand just how revolutionary the style was. The great black composer W.C. Handy first heard a man playing the blues in a Delta train station in 1903 and declared it “the weirdest music I ever heard.” Today, it is the most familiar music on earth. A listener doesn’t have to know the terminology: the classic 12 bars, the tonics and subtonics, back beats, turnarounds, and shuffles. Most of the popular music any of us hears today is a variation on the sound created by a handful of people who lived in the Delta just over 100 years ago.

The lyrics were relevant to life at the time: It was about poverty and alcohol and cheating spouses. It was all laments and love songs and boasts and a certain achieved catharsis. In other words, people were singing about pretty much the same stuff people still sing about today.

The structure of early blues lyrics, some music scholars say, derived from “field hollers,” that is, work songs, words sung while picking cotton. And the “field hollers” may have derived from various types of African polyphonic music. In any case, the first blues lyrics were arrayed along a set structure of call and response. There is a line which is repeated with a slight variation, which is then answered and resolved in the third and the last line of the verse. The music does a turnaround, and the structure is repeated.

Generally, in the early blues I’ve been listening to lately, the first verse has the singer waking up “this morning,” after which something happens. Whatever it is that happens makes the singer feel so “mean and lowdown” that he does something. The comedian Martin Mull laid out this content and structure for blues-challenged white folks in a song he called “Suburban Blues,” which I quote from memory:

Woke up this morning, baby, both the cars was gone
Yeah, I woke up this morning, babe, and both the cars was gone
I felt so mean and lowdown
Threw my drink across the lawn 

In the Delta, in 1900, the lyric, as sung by men like Charlie Patton, mirrored the hypnotic intensity of the gospel as preached at the time. Singers woke up “this morning with a pistol in my hand,” and they sometimes felt so mean and lowdown they consorted with the devil. That, anyway, is the legend of both Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson, who were not related by anything other than music and the Delta and the devil.

And tomorrow, that is where we will be, in the Delta, looking for the origin of the best-known tune humans have ever sung.