“You might say it all started here.” Those words are from blues legend and Mississippi icon B.B. King. He was talking about Dockery Farms in Cleveland, Miss. Charley Patton, “Father of the Delta Blues,” Robert Johnson, who’s been called the most important blues singer who ever lived, and Howlin’ Wolf, one of Rolling Stones’ 100 Greatest Artists of All Times, all were residents at Dockery during their lifetimes. So what better place to call the birthplace of the blues?
Dockery Farms was established in 1895 by Will Dockery who originally bought the land for its timber. He soon recognized the richness of the soil, and the land was cleared and drained for cotton cultivation, which encouraged an influx of African American laborers, including both settled sharecroppers and itinerant workers. Dockery developed a good reputation for fair treatment and attracted workers from across the South.
Relatively remote, the property was opened up for development by a new branch of the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, known as the Yellow Dog. Around 1900, Dockery had a rail terminal built on his plantation, connecting the land with the main rail system at Rosedale.
Dockery Farms eventually supported over 2,000 workers, who were paid in the plantation’s own coins. As well as the railroad terminal, it had its own general store, post office, school, doctor’s office and churches, and essentially operated as a self-sufficient town. The workers’ quarters included boarding houses, where they lived, socialized and played music.
Charley Patton and his family are believed to have moved to Dockery around 1900. Patton was influenced by an older musician named Henry Sloan, and soon became the central figure of a group of local blues musicians who included Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson and Eddie “Son” House. By the mid-1920s, the group widened to include Robert Johnson, Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.
By the 1930s, the plantation settlements were gradually disappearing due to new technology and employment opportunities in northern cities. But many of the original historic buildings still remain. Dockery Farms was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Today, the property hosts private tours, lectures and events in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Delta State University and other academic and cultural institutions. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker was erected on site in 2008 proclaiming Dockery Farms the “Birthplace of the Blues.”
For more about Mississippi’s musical heritage, visit the state’s official Tourism website at www.VisitMississippi.org.