Liberal Arts Blog — The Blues (Part II) Dockery Plantation, Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf

Liberal Arts Blog — Thursday is Joy of Music Day

Today’s Topic: The Blues (Part Two) Dockery Plantation (1900–1936), Robert Johnson (1911–1938), Howlin Wolf (1910–1976)

Last time, a note on the deep roots of the blues in West African traditions, plantation work songs, and Christian hymns. Today, we enter the 20th century and start with the Delta Blues and Dockery Plantation in Mississippi. Next week, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. A big thank you to Earle Pughe for igniting my interest in this fascinating story. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

DOCKERY PLANTATION — The birthplace of “Delta Blues” (1900–1936)

1. A cotton plantation and sawmill on the Sunflower River between Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi. It employed about 2000 workers and had its own railroad terminal, general store, post office. doctor, and churches.

2. The plantation was a magnet for sharecroppers and itinerant workers because the owner, Will Dockery was known for treating his workers well.

3. Centrally located in Sunflower County (whose black population tripled between 1900 and 1920 to about 35,000), Dockery plantation became the hub of a musical scene that included the likes of Charley Patton (1891–1934), sometimes called “the father of the Delta blues,” Henry Sloan (1870–1948), who taught Patton but about whom little is known and of whom there are no recordings, and Robert Johnson (1911–1938) whom Eric Clapton has called “the greatest blues singer who has ever lived.” Another resident was Howlin Wolf (1910–1976).

ROBERT JOHNSON (1911–1938) — few recordings, many legends, early death

1. How did a mediocre guitar player become a master? He met the devil at the crossroads and sold his soul. Or, so the story goes.

2. “He participated in only two recording sessions, one in San Antonio in 1936, and one in Dallas in 1937, that produced 29 distinct songs (with 13 surviving alternate takes) recorded by famed Country Music Hall of Fame producer Don Law.” (Wikipedia)

3. He was an itinerant musician whose body was found on the side of the road near a farm and no cause of death was recorded. Attempts to reconstruct his life in book and film have raised more questions than they have answered. Inconsistencies are legion. Was he tall or short? Does anyone really know?

NB: Almost unknown in his own time and a minor influence on black music, he had an absolutely massive influence on rock and roll long after his death. And it wasn’t just on Eric Clapton. Other admirers and emulators included: Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.

Robert Johnson- Crossroad

Robert Johnson — Me and the Devil Blues

Robert Johnson — Kind Hearted Woman Blues (1936)

Robert Johnson — Love In Vain Blues (Takes 1&2) (1937)

Sweet Home Chicago

Hellhound on my trail by Robert Johnson

HOWLIN WOLF (1910–1976) — “Smokestack Lightning”

1. His idol was yodeler Jimmy Rodgers (1897–1933), sometimes called the “father of country music.”

2. “I couldn’t do no yodelin, so I turned to howlin, and it’s done me just fine.” (Howlin Wolf)

3. Sam Phillips (1923–2003), the founder of Sun Records, the company that launched Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash, would say of Howlin Wolf: “When I heard Howlin Wolf, I said this is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.”

NB: Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnett, was a big guy — 6 foot 3 inches and about 300 pounds. “No one could match Howlin’ Wolf for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.” (Cub Koda) Howlin Wolf would later move to Chicago and become the big rival of Muddy Waters (1913–1983) who has been called “the Father of modern Chicago Blues.” The blues in all its iterations had countless “fathers.”

Dockery Plantation

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

Howlin’ Wolf

Henry Sloan

Charley Patton

Jimmie Rodgers (country singer)

Sam Phillips

Johnny Cash


PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Time to share the coolest thing you learned in the last week

related to music.

Or the coolest thing you learned in your life related to music. Say your favorite song or songs. Or your favorite tips for breathing, posture, or relaxation. Or some insight into the history of music….Or just something random about music… like a joke about drummers. jazz, rock….or share an episode or chapter in your musical autobiography.

This is your chance to make some one else’s day. And perhaps to cement in your memory something important you would otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than you otherwise would about something that matters to you.



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