dockery and stovall

It is not an exaggeration to state that the blues came straight out of the cotton fields, as many blues singers claim. That would include cotton-growing plantations in both Mississippi (beside the great Mississippi river) and Texas (along the smaller Brazos river). Two of the most famous of these post-Civil War “farms” are the Dockery Plantation in western Mississippi and the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. The former produced a bumper crop of famous blues singers from Charlie Patton to Eddie “Son” House, true pioneers of the traditional Delta Blues sound. By the mid-1920s, this original group of blues singers widened to include a younger generation of musicians, including Robert Johnson, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Some of these were itinerant workers, while others like the young Muddy Waters from the Stovall Plantation, who once said that the blues was nothing more than the back end of a mule, lived more permanently on the farms. So how did these geographical hotbeds of blues generation get started in the first place?

Wikipedia explains: “The [Dockery] plantation was started in 1895 by Will Dockery (1865–1936), a graduate of the University of Mississippi who originally bought the land for its timber but soon recognized the richness of its soil. At the time, much of the Delta area was still a wilderness of cypress and gum trees, roamed by panthers and wolves and plagued with mosquitoes. The land was gradually cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of black laborers. Some became settled sharecroppers, who would work a portion of the land in return for a share of the crop, while others were itinerant workers. Dockery earned a good reputation for treating his workers and sharecroppers fairly and thus attracted workers from throughout the South.” Dockery himself didn’t give a whit about the blues, but he allowed his workers to spend their free time as they pleased, thus producing an incubator of the music his black workers loved to perform and listen to.

On the other hand, the Stovall Plantation became well known after its most famous tenant, Muddy Waters, skyrocketed to fame after leaving Mississippi for Chicago, where he eventually became known as the “king of the electric blues.” Two of Waters’ recordings, “Burr Clover Farm Blues” and “Burr Clover Blues,” paid tribute to plantation owner Colonel William Howard Stovall (1895-1970), who had invented the burr clover seed harvester in 1935. 

Neither Dockery Farms nor the Stovall Plantation would have become widely known, however, had it not been for the efforts of a father-son team of roots music recorders named John A. and Alan Lomax who were traveling the deep South on contract for the Library of Congress. In effect, they were giving a voice to the voiceless. Alan first recorded Muddy on the porch of his shack on the Stovall plantation in 1941. “I really heard myself for the first time. I’d never heard my voice. I used to sing; used to sing just how I felt, ‘cause that’s the way we always sang in Mississippi,” Waters told one journalist. “But when Mr. Lomax played me the record I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues.”

The down-home, plantation blues style of Muddy Waters influenced a great many singers. His authenticity was never in doubt, especially to a white female blues performer like Bonnie Raitt. 

“What always struck me as remarkable was his lack of resentment toward people like Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and myself. Muddy just accepted everything. He was real good-hearted and didn’t have a competitive edge,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. “I think they should put up a statue like the ones in Thailand of the Buddha. You know, the ones that are fifty feet high, and he’s sitting there with a beatific smile on his face and his eyes closed? I think they should do one of those of Muddy in Chicago.”

Bonnie Raitt and John Lee Hooker play “I’m in the Mood”