The Sunflower River School of Blues | Midwood Guitar Studio
Posted by Robinson Earle on Oct 16th 2019
The roots of the blues run wide and deep, but there was something special in the soil along the Sunflower River a tributary of the Yazoo that runs through Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Sunflower River School, as I’ve dubbed it, included such luminous figures as Charley Patton, Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Pops Staples, and Robert Johnson. If these names are unfamiliar to you, suffice it to say that they greatly influenced the course of American popular music, and laid the foundations for the world wide phenomena that is Rock & Roll.
The story begins when a man named Will Dockery established a cotton plantation in 1895. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he earned a reputation for fair treatment and wages. Farmers and laborers from all over the south came to live and work on his land and brought their love of music with them.
Many of the tunes and hollers that evolved into the blues were born of hard labor; a sonic tapestry of blood, sweat, and song. In the evenings, beside the Sunflower River, aspiring musicians took advantage of their leisure time to compose new verses and master their instruments. A casual, yet thriving music scene emerged, partially prompted by the arrival of a mysterious figure named Henry Sloan.
Sloan brought with him a strange, powerful repertoire that entranced a young Charley Patton, who many regard as the “father of the delta blues”. Patton cultivated a style that emphasized theatrics, rhythmic, driving guitar, and his ferocious, gravelly voice, which became even more dramatic after a failed assassination attempt left him with a slit throat. Patton’s ambiguous heritage (he is now thought to be of African, European, and Native American descent) allowed him glimpses into many walks of life in the early 20th century rural south. He became a consummate songster, playing a wide range of popular music for white and black audiences alike. It has even been theorized that he owed his “four-on-the-floor” intensity to the Choctaw and Cherokee musical traditions (in his “Down the Dirt Road Blues”, he alludes to trying to join, but ultimately being rejected by the Cherokee Nation). Despite his versatility, it was the novel, new style that he’d learned from Sloan that proved most popular amongst his peers, a style that would one to be known as the blues.
It wasn’t long before Patton was inundated with imitators and apprentices.A young man named Chester Burnett, who later rose to fame on the Chicago electric blues scene as Howlin’ Wolf, shadowed him and embraced his coarse, expressive vocal style (although the genesis of “The Wolf’s” signature howl was a failed attempt to yodel like the singing brakeman, Jimmie Rodgers).Patton also befriended and performed with the convicted murderer and itinerant preacher, Son House, who carried the flame of Patton’s six-string style into the folk-revival of 1960. House influenced artists such as Bob Dylan, Canned Heat, Bonnie Raitt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Rolling Stones. The Stones especially, were champions of the Sunflower River School, and even invited Howlin’ Wolf to open for them on live TV in 1965.
Two more residents who rose in popularity during the cultural revolution of the 60s were Bukka White and Pops Staples. White was a charismatic slide guitar player who was “rediscovered” by the guitarist and record collector, John Fahey*. White’s uncanny virtuosity with a bottleneck proved hugely influential on the “vocal” quality of many lead guitarists, including his young cousin, BB King. Roebuck “Pops” Staples founded a gospel group with his family that created powerful anthems for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and propelled his daughter, Mavis Staples to stardom.
Perhaps the most mythologized figure to ever wander the banks of the Sunflower river was Robert Johnson. At first ridiculed by Son House and his sideman Willie Brown, Johnson supposedly then met the devil at a crossroads and traded his soul for mastery of the guitar. In reality, he mostly likely spent a significant amount of time in the “woodshed”, and may or may not have refined his proto-electric lead style while jamming with musicians in Chicago. Another better-substantiated account suggests that he lived with and apprenticed under a masterful, mysterious guitarist named Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman for a year. It was from Zimmerman that he picked up the habit of practicing late at night in graveyards, which both honed his skills and contributed to his diabolical reputation. Regardless of the provenance of his abilities, the 29 songs that Johnson recorded between 1936 and 1937 (he was murdered in 1938) made him one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Led Zeppelin all owe a great debt to this brilliant artist. As Robert Plant puts it, "Robert Johnson, to whom we all owed our existence, in some way."
It’s always interesting when a specific location becomes an epicenter of creative expression, even more so when it’s significance is only fully appreciated retroactively. If it’s importance was acknowledged at the time, the curriculum at Sunflower River School may have included guitar acrobatics with Charley Patton, sound imitation with Bukka White, songwriting with Pops Staples, Sermonizing with Son House, Vocals with Howlin’ Wolf, and of course, late night graveyard picking sessions with Robert Johnson. Sadly, this fantasy can only be partially realized by immersing oneself in the recordings that they left behind. Happily, the seeds that were planted along the Sunflower river took root, and we’re still enjoying the fruit. For further, better annotated information on this fascinating slice of American history, check out The Land Where the Blues Was Born by Alan Lomax and Deep Blues by Robert Palmer.
Considering that this is primarily a gear blog, it’s worth mentioning the instruments that these rural musicians were accustomed to. Budget brands like Kalamazoo (via Gibson) and Stella (via Oscar Schmidt) were the most common, owing to their affordability and durable builds. Cases were not included, and air-conditioning was non-existent, so these instruments needed to stand up to the elements. Smaller flat-tops were also preferred for portability. Robert Johnson was famously pictured with a Gibson L-1, but usually performed with a Kalamazoo KG-14.
Volume was another huge consideration for these artists. When you’re playing to large audiences in un-electrified shacks, the louder the better. Ry Cooder speculated that Robert Johnson intentionally gravitated to the corners of rooms to achieve a natural compression, but he was also known to use Kalamazoo arch-top guitars such as the KG-21, which had the advantage of really cutting through when played forcefully. National resophonic guitars were popular for the same reason. Bukka White’s 1933 National Duolian sold for $92,280 at auction in March, 2019, and was described by BB King as a “holy relic”.
Gibson has offered some commemorative Robert Johnson guitars over the years, but the most accurate and reverent re-imaginings of these “blues-boxes” come from Waterloo (via Collings) out of Austin, Texas. Of course, it’s pretty obvious that these guitarists would have played something “better” if it was practical and they could afford it, thus many boutique builders have used these historic designs as a starting point for world class instruments.
*Fahey has a wonderful instrumental composition called “The Sunflower River Blues”.