Where the Blues Was Born
At Dockery Farms, the original bluesmen created a sound that would become legendary
"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 while standing in front of the Dockery seed house in the 1970s Mississippi Public Television documentary, “Good Morning Blues.”
King, who grew up in Mississippi, knew all too well that the sprawling plantation, which at one time covered 40 square miles and was home to 3,000 people, was the home base for blues pioneers over the course of three decades. The legendary musicians who called Dockery home included Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Eddie "Son" House, and Chester Burnett, who later would be known as Howlin' Wolf. Roebuck "Pops" Staples of The Staple Singers lived there in the later years and blues legend Robert Johnson joined in what were sometimes all-night performances on the plantation.
"All of these guys fed off each other and created this country blues that came out of that part of the Delta," says Luther Brown, the recently retired director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University. "They traveled around. They weren't at Dockery all of the time. But it was pretty much their headquarters.”
The front porch of the commissary, where they often started playing on Saturday afternoons, is still standing at Dockery although the building burned down 50 years ago.
People would begin gathering on the porch on Saturday afternoons where the blues men would play for free before the party moved across the one-lane bridge to what they called the Frolicking House, a sharecropper's home emptied of furniture. With no electricity on the plantation, the musicians would put big mirrors along the walls of two rooms with a coal oil lantern in front of each for illumination and the music would start. They'd play all night, charging 25 cents a head. A musician could earn as much as $250 cash on a good night, far better than making 50 cents a day in the cotton fields.
Today, the farms are a collection of six buildings and a feeling, a destination for blues pilgrims who come from all over the world.
At the center of the Dockery Farms story is Charley Patton, considered the father of the Delta Blues. His father, Bill, and mother, Annie, moved to Dockery with their 12 children when he was about ten years old. By the time he was a teen, he was taking lessons from Henry Sloan, another transplant to Dockery who had started playing a different kind of music some were calling the blues.
By 1910, Patton turned from student to teacher, schooling bluesmen like Brown and Johnson. Later, he would share his style with Howlin' Wolf and Staples, who lived for 12 years on the plantation.
The plantation was founded on the vision of Will Dockery, a graduate of the University of Mississippi, who took a $1,000 gift from his grandmother and purchased tracts of Delta wilderness in 1885. Over a decade, the transformed the land into a cotton plantation. Eventually, the company town had an elementary school, churches, post and telegraph offices, a resident doctor, a ferry, a blacksmith shop, a cotton gin, cemeteries, picnic grounds for the workers, its own currency, and a commissary that sold dry goods, furniture, and groceries. To ship out the cotton, Dockery built a railroad depot and a spur route, named the Pea Vine for its twisted path, was laid from the main station in nearby Boyle (Patton’s “Pea Vine Blues” pays tribute to the line). At one time, roughly 3,000 people lived on the plantation’s 40 square miles.
That concentration of people — a big consumer base — made Dockery an incubator for blues musicians. Howlin' Wolf moved there, Brown notes. Robert Johnson moved there. "Part of the draw was that they could go to the commissary on a Saturday or hang out at the railroad station or street corner and they could draw a crowd and make enough money to make a living," Brown says.
Patton was a flamboyant performer who played guitar with his teeth and behind his head and considered himself a professional musician, not a sharecropper. He and the others were the rock stars of their day. "Honeyboy Edwards played with Robert Johnson and he said if you saw a black man walking down the street in a suit he was either a preacher or he was a bluesman," Brown adds. "They were the only ones who would have enough money."
In 1934, shortly before he died, Patton was in a New York studio cutting what would be his final recordings. Months earlier, he'd been thrown out of Dockery Farms, a consequence of his womanizing. It stung. Like all great blues musicians, he chronicled his pain in song. This one was called “34 Blues:”
They run me from Will Dockery’s, Willie Brown, I want your job
Buddy, what’s the matter?
Ah, one of them told papa Charley
I don’t want you hanging around my job no more
Well, look down the country, it almost make you cry
After the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker in 1944, the Great Migration saw 6 million African Americans emigrate to the industrial urban centers of the Midwest and the Northeast, and the bluesman followed suit. Dockery continued as a mechanized farm, eventually diversifying into corn, soybeans, and rice as the price of cotton fell.
William Lester, the executive director of the Dockery Farms Foundation, is the last man living on the plantation. Forty years ago, he convinced Joe Rice Dockery, Bill’s son, to sell him some land so he could build a home there when he got a job teaching art at nearby Delta State University. During his early years on the farm, he befriended Tom Cannon, Patton’s nephew who told him stories – “All the good stories and all the bad stories,” Lester says – about his uncle’s years on the farm.
Six key buildings remain standing, including three that have been restored – the seed house with the iconic sign listing the farm’s owners, the gas station, and the platform where cotton bales were stored awaiting pickup by the train. Three more buildings -- the original seed house, which became a hay barn, the supply house, and the cotton gin – still need repair. The Dockery family heirs lease the land to farmers who grow soybeans, rice, corn, and cotton.
As the farm buildings fell into disrepair, the plantation's blues legacy became largely forgotten. In the transcript of a 1979 oral history with Joe Rice Dockery, who worked on the plantation starting in 1926 and took over after his father died in 1936, the blues are mentioned only in passing. In the 1990s, when Mississippi sought to widen the two-lane road running by the plantation to four lanes, the original plans would have destroyed several of the historic buildings on the site, Brown says.
Lester organized a protest on the site with more than 300 people. After they’d finished, a Swedish motorcycle group -- European blues fans have long made the Dockery pilgrimage – rode up and he asked them to sign a petition and pose for a picture. They happily agreed. The shot made the front page of the local Boliver Commercial newspaper the next day. Blues fans and history buffs, as well as politicians, inundated the Mississippi Department of Transportation with calls and letters. The department surrendered. “They said, ‘Tell people to quit calling us,’” Lester recalls. “’We will not tear down Dockery.’”
About a decade ago, the Dockery Farms Foundation formed with Lester as head. In 2006, the farm was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Those buildings that have been restored used 12x12 cypress planks, milled just as they were more than a century ago. Three years ago, the nonprofit foundation added an advisory board of heavy hitters, musicians and other celebrities including the legendary music producer T Bone Burnett, jazz star Herbie Hancock, producer and writer Quincy Jones, and native son Hodding Carter III.
Smithsonian American Ingenuity award winner Rosanne Cash, who chronicled her exploration of her Southern roots on her Grammy-winning album, "The River and the Thread," will play a benefit on June 6. Why get involved? “Because it's so incredibly important to American music history and American history, period,” she says. “What came out of the Delta, the blues, Southern gospel, has culturally seeded us as Americans.”
She visited Dockery during a series of trips that led to the writing of the album. While there, her husband and collaborator, John Leventhal, played a 1930s National Guitar.
“You could almost hear the blues wafting over those fields,” she says. “It’s kind of like visiting The Globe (Theatre) in London, thinking about, oh, Hamlet was first performed here. (At Dockery), I was thinking, oh, Howlin’ Wolf sat right over there.”