One of the earliest figures in Delta Blues history is Henry Sloan, an African-American musician who lived on the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, Mississippi. Sloan could be the real “Father of the Delta Blues,” because he was an original innovator of this style and taught Charley Patton and many others to play.
Researcher David Evans said Sloan was born in Mississippi in 1870 and by 1900 was living in the same community as Patton near Bolton, Mississippi. Sloan moved to the Dockery Plantation near Indianola, between 1901 and 1904. This is the same time as the Patton family moved there.
Very little is known about Sloan or his life. What is known is that he taught Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Son House and many others. Most of Sloan’s music students recognize him as the originator of what became the Delta blues style.
In a previous blog I wrote that W.C. Handy said the essence of blues music was revealed to him in 1903, when he was working as a band leader in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was passing through the little town of Tutwiler and ran into an itinerant street guitarist at the train station.
“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages,” said Handy in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues. “As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I ever heard.”
It’s quite possible that Sloan was the musician W.C. Handy heard playing guitar at the train station near Dockery Farms in 1903. The song referred to the crossing of the Southern and Yazoo & Mississippi Valley railroads in Moorhead, forty-two miles to the south. The railway was nicknamed the “Dog,” or “Yellow Dog.” Handy composed his “Yellow Dog Rag” in 1914 which later became “The Yellow Dog Blues”.
Sloan was a labourer who worked part time as musician. He was probably at least twenty years older than Patton. Sloan taught Patton and they played together for a while until Patton became so popular that he went on the road to perform for a wider audience.
Several musicians, including Tommy Johnson, said some of Patton’s songs such as “Pony Blues” were Sloan’s songs. Patton played these songs with very few changes.
Some reports indicate that Sloan also left the plantation, possibly moving to Chicago, although this cannot be confirmed and there were no further reports of what happened to him.
Evans research found that Census records suggested Sloan and his family were living around West Memphis, Arkansas in 1920. He may have been the Henry Sloan whose death, aged 78, occurred in Crittenden County on March 13, 1948.