It is surprising how many bluesmen have some sort of association with Dockery Plantation, a familiar name to many blues fans. But what exactly was Dockery, did it originate as a slave plantation, what was its connection to those blues legends, were they descended from families who were enslaved there?
In fact Dockery was established in 1895 – some 30 years after the abolition of slavery – by a graduate of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. Will Dockery originally bought the land, some 60 square miles of it, for its timber, but quickly came to realise the potential of its rich soil. The plantation was positioned on the Sunflower River between Ruleville and Cleveland, Mississippi, considered by some to be the place where Delta Blues was born.
Back then, much of the Delta was an untamed wilderness, inhabited by wolves, panthers and mosquitos. Dockery had the land drained and cleared and set about making it fit for the cultivation of cotton which entailed hiring black labour. Some remained as sharecroppers who would work an area of land and be paid for their share of the crop, others came and went as itinerant labourers. With the arrival around 1900 of The Yellow Dog – the Yahoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, The Dockery Plantation saw an increase in prosperity with improved access to distant markets, and of course Dockery built a rail terminal on the plantation, connecting to the main rail system at Rosedale.
Dockery became the name of the town that grew up, with its own school, general store, post and telegraph office, doctor and churches, as well as the boarding houses and picnic grounds where the workers lived, socialised and played their music. Tellingly Dockery had its own coinage in which the workers were paid and which they used to buy goods at the company store.
Will Dockery earned a reputation as a man who treated his workers fairly, allowing them to spend their leisure time as they wished and to travel, and as a result attracted workers from throughout the South.
Bill Patton Junior and his wife Annie moved into Dockery with their five children from Bolton, near Vicksburg, in the early 1900s. They were prosperous and well-educated, bought their own land and opened a country store in nearby Renova.
Their son Charley, born sometime between 1885 and 1891, was inspired to play music by guitarist Henry Sloan, another Dockery resident who had also moved there from the Bolton area. Not a lot is known about Sloan, one of the earliest Delta bluesmen. He never recorded and is rumoured to have moved to Chicago after The First World War. Nevertheless his influence on Charley Patton, who many consider to have been the most important of the Delta bluesmen, known as The Father of the Delta Blues, was significant. Tommy Johnson and Son House were later to say that Patton “dogged every step of Sloan’s.”
Patton himself became an important performer at Dockery, influencing many of the younger generation, including his playing partner Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, who took guitar lessons from Patton, and Roebuck “Pops” Staples, later to be leader of The Staple Singers.
Patton’s relationship with Dockery wasn’t always smooth. His “34 Blues” tells of him being banished by the Plantation Manager for running off with other tenants’ wives. He didn’t stray far from Sunflower County, playing guitar and sometimes preaching, and Dockery was a regular performance point where he was always welcome. Dockery singer and guitarist Willie Brown, the longtime onstage companion to Charley Patton, was born in nearby Clarksdale in 1900. A true blues pioneer, he influenced both Son House and Robert Johnson. He died in 1952 in Tunica, Mississippi, not far from where he was born.
Tommy Johnson was born in 1896 in Terry and died 60 years later in Crystal Springs, both Mississippi. His recording, “Canned Heat Blues”, extolling the pleasures of drinking methanol, was the inspiration for the name of the great 1960s band Canned Heat, while his song “Big Road Blues” was borrowed by the aforesaid Heat for their multi-million-selling single “On the Road Again”.
Tommy didn’t record in his later years, apparently under the misapprehension that he had signed away his right to record. Paramount Records, for whom he had recorded, supposedly did nothing to enlighten him.
Edward James ‘Son’ House was another of the originators of Mississippi Delta Blues whose ongoing association with Charley Patton brought him to Dockery. His hallmark fierce attacking guitar style and intense singing were the main influence on the legendary Robert Johnson and an inspiration to many, including Muddy Waters.
But the blues wasn’t his first calling. By the time he turned 20, he was already a Baptist Church pastor and known to be hostile to secular music.
His conversion to the blues was probably down to his troubles with women and alcohol. Born on a plantation in Riverton, Mississippi, in 1902, as a youth he moved to Louisiana, only to return to the Delta in 1926 at which point he found the blues and learned to play guitar.
He worked local jukes and house parties until 1928 when he was accidentally shot in the leg by an over-exuberant customer at a particularly wild party. Son responded by shooting and killing the miscreant, allegedly in self-defence, which earned him a 15-year sentence in Mississippi State Prison.
Two years later his case was reviewed and he was released. He met, and teamed up with, Charley Patton and Willie Brown in Lula and in 1930 they travelled to Grafton, Wisconsin, where they all recorded for Paramount.
One of Son’s recordings was his “Preachin’ the Blues” which tells how The Blues stole his soul from the Baptist Church. Nevertheless Son continued to describe himself as “churchy” or “churchified”. In 1969 this great Delta bluesman captivated a capacity audience at Henry’s Blueshouse in Birmingham.
Honeyboy Edwards is a familiar name to British and European audiences thanks both to his regular tours over here from the 1970s onwards and the fact that he was performing right up until his death in 2011 – at the age of 96. In fact Honeyboy had been scheduled to appear at The Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago at noon on the day he died.
David Edwards, known at various times as ‘Honeyboy’, ‘Honey Eddie’ and ‘Mr. Honey’, was born, one of six children, on a farm outside Shaw, Sunflower County, in 1915. When the family moved to Greenwood, Honeyboy started playing guitar at 14 and, by the age of 16, was playing parties and dances with Big Joe Williams. Two years later he teamed with Charley Patton, performing at parties and stores on and around Dockery.
Throughout his long career touring and recording he maintained that Delta tradition identified by his plaintive voice and dazzling guitar runs. In 2008 he received a Grammy for the album “The Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Blues Men” (with Robert Lockwood Junior, Henry Townsend and Pinetop Perkins), to be followed two years later with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
An important influence on Honeyboy Edwards was Joe Lee ‘Big Joe’ Williams. Born on a farm by Knoxford Swamp, Crawford, to John Red Bone Williams, a Cherokee Indian, and Rosa Lee, Joe was one of 16 children. At the age of five he was playing a home-made guitar and by the time he was 12 he was hoboing through Mississippi, hopping freights, playing picnics, roadhouses, dances, fish fries, levee and railroad camps, spending time in jail, maintaining a fiercely independent blues spirit.
By 1932 Joe had teamed with Honeyboy Edwards and was touring through Mississippi, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, always delivering Charley Patten-inspired country blues.
Big Joe recorded prolifically, appeared in the documentaries “The Devil’s Music – A History of the Blues”  and “Good Mornin’ Blues”  and in the UK was part of the Granada TV production “I Hear the Blues”. He appeared widely through the UK and Europe and played major festivals worldwide, keeping alive the music of The Mississippi Delta. Big Joe Williams died in 1982 in Macon, Georgia. Ten years later he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame.
A lesser-known Dockery figure was Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, born in 1900 in Edwards, Mississippi, who frequently performed with Charley Patton, Willie Brown, Bubba Brown, Little Milton and the usual suspects in the Delta juke joints from 1918 to 1935 when he joined Memphis Minnie and later Son House. He left the area briefly to appear with The Ringling Brothers Circus before returning to join the Howlin’ Wolf band before Wolf moved North.
A multi-instrumentalist – fiddle, guitar, trombone, bass – he played mandolin on the Son House recording sessions for Alan Lomax in 1941. Ever-resourceful, Joe switched to washboard with Wolf after damaging his hands in a fire. He briefly moved to Chicago, playing with Daddy Stovepipe on Maxwell Street in the late 1940s, but returned to the Delta where he worked with Woodrow Adams through to the 1960s, recording for Checker, Home of the Blues, Meteor and Flyright. He died of natural causes in 1975 and is buried in Mullins Cemetery, Clock, Mississippi.
In 1936 the Dockery plantation was inherited by Joe Rice Dockery, but at that time the settlements were gradually disappearing with the increasing opportunities for employment in the industrial North. Many of the settlements began to disappear, but some of the historic buildings remain.
Members of the Dockery family have established a foundation to fund research into the Delta blues and in 2006 the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today it hosts tours, lectures and performances. A marker designating Dockery Plantation as a site on The Mississippi Blues Trail is an acknowledgement of the important contribution the plantation made to the Delta Blues of Mississippi.