This article is not for delta blues aficionados. I mean, I’m a white guy who did not grow up swimming in the blues. This post is for the rest of us musicians and music lovers who aren’t as familiar with the genre but, well, we really should be.
No matter how interested you are in blues history, most musicians should already know about the legends of the genre: Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters, among others. We won’t be talking about them here, as amazing as they were. This is a so-called “Discovery” list, so we’re going to be exploring the limited amount of information about and recorded music in existence by a handful of delta blues musicians who are not as widely known — not legendary. But they are incredible and while you may have possibly heard their names, you might not really be familiar with their stories.
If this really is a topic you’d like to learn more about, head over to Soundfly’s free online course, AConversation with the Blues, to explore how the blues musically influenced every American genre of music to come after it!
Just like the more famous Robert Johnson, there are only two known photographs of Barbecue Bob (born Robert Hicks) in existence. One photo where he’s dressed in a pinstripe suit and fedora, and another where he’s dressed in a cook’s white apron and hat. You can see one reproduced by R. Crumb above, and the other featured below in the following YouTube clip.
As for how his name originated? Well you see, he worked as a cook in a barbecue restaurant; hence the outfit and the nickname.
Upon moving to Atlanta in the early ’20s, Bob quickly became a well-known blues performer while working his day job as a cook. Pretty soon, a talent scout from Columbia Records connected with Hicks and recorded him playing his original “Barbecue Blues.” It sold 15,000 copies, making Hicks a best-selling artist for the record label.
He ended up recording 68 songs (on 78 RPM single records) before he died of pneumonia at the very young age 29.
You may not realize the musical influence of Lizzie Douglas (better known as Memphis Minnie). She earned a spot in the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and recorded around 200 songs, one of which you might recognize from Jefferson Airplane’s version (“Me and My Chauffeur Blues”). Steve LaVere, a blues music historian and businessman who had a controversial relationship with Robert Johnson and his family, called Memphis Minnie “the most popular female country blues singer of all time.”
By the age of 11, she knew how to play the banjo and the guitar, and entertained people at local parties. At age 13, she ran away from home to play music on Beale Street in Memphis. Even though she eventually moved back home because she ran out of money, her street performances landed her a spot as a touring musician with the Ringling Brothers’ Circus for about four years.
When she returned to Memphis, the blues scene was kicking and she jumped right in. She got the attention of a talent scout from Columbia Records while performing with her second husband, Joe McCoy. Someone in A&R at Columbia gave her the name Memphis Minnie.
Minnie passed away in 1973 while living in a Memphis nursing home. Until her last day, people saw her as a legend and her fans continued to show their admiration, even sending her money in her later years when her Social Security income wasn’t enough.
Even though there’s only one known photograph of Peetie Wheatstraw (born William Bunch), he was one of the most popular blues artists in St. Louis in the 1930s. In fact, there’s not much evidence that he performed outside of that city too much, except to record the 161 songs he got on record throughout his career.
He liked to paint himself with a somewhat demonic or domineering brush, using lyrics like “I am Peetie Wheatstraw, the High Sheriff from Hell” (in his song “Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp”) and songs with titles like “Devil’s Son-In-Law.” This would later influence Robert Johnson’s persona, and Johnson even drew heavily from Wheatstraw’s library of songs. But it wasn’t just Johnson whom he influenced — his persona touched artists like R.L. Burnside and made lyrical Satanism “cool” for artists in the ’50s and ’60s to dabble in later.
Sadly, Wheatstraw and two of his friends died after the car they were driving struck a parked freight train on his birthday. He had just turned 39 years old.
Bo Weavil Jackson
Bo Weavil Jackson may also have just as much mystery surrounding him as Robert Johnson (a common theme on this list it seems). Where and when he was born and died are not known, and historians think his birth name was James Jackson, although he has sometimes been credited as Sam Butler.
We do know he was one of the first blues artists to record his songs. It seems he was pretty active in Birmingham, Alabama, often citing the city in his lyrics. However, blues musician and music critic Eugene Chadbourne says Jackson’s record label mentioned he had “come down from the Carolinas.”
And that’s about all we know about Bo Weavil Jackson.
Walter E. Lewis, aka “Furry” Lewis, a childhood nickname, was born in the 1890s, but we’re not totally certain of the exact year. We do know he was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, and he and his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he was just a child.
By 1908, he was frequently hired as the musical entertainment at parties, and he’d also play his guitar on the street and in local bars, donning both a slide and playing fingerstyle. But after years of touring, he got tired of it and got a day job in 1922 as a street sweeper in Memphis. All the while, he performed on the side before officially retiring in 1966.
Lewis had a bit of a career resurgence in the ’60s and ’70s when different record label reps recorded him playing solo and with other musicians, including Bukka White. He then opened for the Rolling Stones and appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Joni Mitchell even wrote a song about a time she visited Lewis’s apartment called “Furry Sings the Blues.” Lewis reportedly hated the song, saying he should get royalties for it.
Lewis passed away from pneumonia in 1981.
Whistler & His Jug Band
In the ’20s and ’30s, Whistler and His Jug Band was actually a pretty popular group. But they’re on this list because not many people think of them when they think of the delta blues period today. They were a band featuring several jugs and whistling after all.
Guitarist, singer, and nose-whistler Buford Threlkeld started the band in Louisville, Kentucky. Although the group had many members who came and went, Threlkeld, banjo player Willie Black, and fiddler Jess Ferguson were the most consistent members.
Threlkeld died of tuberculosis in 1935. The Jug Band Hall of Fame posthumously inducted him as a member. (Raise your hands if you knew there was a Jug Band Hall of Fame.)
Ed Bell, whose other stage names include Sluefoot Joe and Barefoot Bill from Alabama, was born in 1905 on the Davis Plantation outside of Fort Deposit, Alabama. He later moved to Greenville, Alabama.
After learning the blues, Bell started playing out in the early ’20s while working a day job in agriculture. His first two recorded songs were “The Hambone Blues” and “Mamlish Blues.” It’s not totally clear what “mamlish” means, but other blues musicians of that time also used the word in their lyrics.
After years of playing and touring, Bell found that way of life tiring, so he retired, got married, and became a Baptist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama. He passed away in the 1960s, but the exact year and cause of death remain unclear.
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