“If you had to pick one single spot as the birthplace of the blues, you might say it all started right here,”
said the late and great B.B. King standing at the Dockery
The Blues: Blues music is rooted in several musical genres and then it spins off as the roots of rock and roll. Blues Music originated in the Deep South of the United States around the 1860s by African-Americans from roots in African-American work songs and religious spirituals. The first appearance of the blues is often dated to the end of slavery and, later, the development of juke joints. It is often associated with the acquired freedom of the former slaves and their challenges. Chroniclers began to report about blues music at the dawn of the 20th century. The first publication of blues sheet music was in 1908.
The main features of blues include: specific chord progressions, a walking bass, call and response, dissonant harmonies, syncopation, melisma and flattened ‘blue’ notes. Blues is known for being microtonal, using pitches between the semitones defined by a piano keyboard. This is often achieved on electric guitar using a metal slide for a whining effect. As a result, blues can be heavily chromatic. Originally the lyrics utilized a call and response component.
Dockery Farms: The Dockery plantation at 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. 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. The workers’ quarters included boarding-houses, where they lived, socialized and played music. Farm workers often sang while working the fields and their music became their basic entertainment.
In the 1900s a young Charlie Patton’s parents took up residence at the Dockery Farms. Charlie took to following around guitarist Henry Sloan to musicals performances. Charlie would become his own musician, and considered the father of the Delta Blues.
Charlie Patton and other bluesmen, drawn to Dockery by its central location and sizable population, used the plantation as their home base. When at the Dockery they often played on the porch of the commissary and at all-night picnics hosted by Will Dockery for residents. He and the others also traveled the network of state roads around Dockery Farms to communities large enough to support audiences that loved the blues. In the 1920s he could make about $25 for a performance at a party.
It was Patton’s live performances in the area that inspired and influenced fans such as Robert Johnson (who sold his soul to the devil to play blues), Bukka White, Ed “Son” House, Chester Burnett (also known as “Howlin’ Wolf), and Roebuck “Pop” Staples (as in the father and inspiration behind the Staples Singers). These important artists in blues history either lived at or passed through Dockery Farms.