Arts, Culture & Media

How the conflict in Crimea influenced the Mississippi Delta Blues

What does Crimea have to do with the Mississippi Delta Blues?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

The answer is in the form of a song called "Vastopol."

“['Vastopol'] has its origins in the last time there was an international crisis centered on Crimea in the 1850’s,” said journalist Alex Zaitchik.  Zaitchik wrote about the song for the online magazine SALON.

“A lot of people remember [the Crimean War] as the first war to be reported by photograph and telegraph,” said Zaitchik, “and people all over the world including the United States were following it closely for this reason.”

One of the guys following the conflict, says Zaitchik, was an Ohio music teacher named Henry Worrall. He taught guitar at a woman’s college. And toward the end of the conflict he wrote a song that he called "Sebastopol:  Descriptive Fantasie."

The song was based upon a parlor style of guitar that was popular in the mid-19th century. And Zaitchick says, women at the time were playing miniature guitars called parlor guitars.

“Worrall trademarked this song 'Sebastopol' and it became a huge hit," he said. "It became sort of the standard, one of the main pieces people learned guitar on during the latter half of the 19th century.”

Then somehow the song took an unexpected turn south, becoming a familiar tune played by the legends of the Mississippi Delta Blues.

“Most musicologists who studied the matter believe that what happened was, as mass produced cheaper guitars started to become available in the late 1890’s, they came with little music instruction booklets that had a few songs in them, among them 'Sebastopol',” said Zaitchik.

"Sebastopol" was written in an open tuning that was adopted by some of the early guitar players in the Delta. Open tunings are easy to manipulate with slides, which produce some of the blue notes and the iconic Delta sound says Zaitchik.

Open-D tuning actually came to be known as 'vestapol tuning and henceforth this reference to a Crimean city half a world away has become an element of the delta blues.

My favorite version of the song is from the late, legendary guitar player, John Fahey. What's yours?  Let us know in the comments.