12 Classic Folk and Blues Artists to Listen To During Black History Month
There are so many, but here's a few to get you started
There’s a wealth of rich history regarding music, and I feel confident saying that most modern music wouldn’t exist without the contributions of talented Black artists. Specifically, Black folk and blues artists from the early 20th century were the direct sources for all sorts of strides forward in music, especially regarding fingerpicking styles and lyrical structures.
Since the history of folk-blues music isn’t often taught in modern times, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some of the most prominent Black artists in this genre. In no particular order, these are the artists you ought to play on repeat during this Black History Month (and beyond).
1. Elizabeth Cotten
As said in the intro, Elizabeth Cotten’s distinct fingerpicking style became the basis for many folk musicians thereafter. But she wasn’t just talented as a guitarist. She also had a distinctly soft, almost dreamy voice. She sang with an earnest intent that instantly made me soften up the first time I heard her.
Leadbelly is one of the more well-known figures on this list. He’s the inspiration for the likes of Nirvana, as well as having a fairly storied and well-documented past. As a fairly larger-than-life figure, he earned the nickname “Leadbelly.” Musically, he was particularly adept at playing the twelve-string guitar, which he dubbed himself the “King” of. And let’s be real, he absolutely was the king of the twelve-string.
3. Robert Johnson
I’ve written before about the various myths surrounding Robert Johnson and his “deal with the Devil.” This is another storied figure in blues history, but compared to Leadbelly, Johnson’s got an almost otherworldly sound to him, in both his vocals and guitar-playing. Johnson was more or less the first person to utilize the “boogie bass pattern,” or “boogie shuffle,” to such a recognizable degree.
4. Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John might just be the sweetest-sounding man on this list, singing with a comforting cadence and gentle fingerpicking style. Not much is known about his personal life, but the love he put into his songs has translated over the years into a fervent love for the man all the same. This song will always mean a lot to me.
5. Blind Willie Johnson
Lots of musicians on this list had at least some expertise with the slide guitar, but Blind Willie Johnson had total mastery in that department. Add in his distinctly chesty singing style, you’ve got yourself an American blues staple.
6. Lightnin’ Hopkins
As his name implies, Lightnin’ was one of the most talented guitarists of his time, to the degree where guitarists like me will listen to songs like this and wonder how the hell you could make it sound like that. He could play multiple scales and iterations at the same time. Yes, that is as hard as it sounds.
7. Howlin’ Wolf
If you haven’t heard this particular song by now, I’m glad to finally get you out from under that rock you’ve been sleeping under. Howlin’ Wolf made an already sexy genre even sexier. But he also brought that sexiness to multiple other genres, making him a much-needed renaissance man in the grand scheme of American music.
I highly recommend reading up on the history of Odetta, because she’s one of the most badass figures in American music history, full stop. As civil rights activist and a prominent folk artist, many people were inspired by her. But not enough people talk about her these days. Watch this recording in its entirety and tell me you can’t see the passion and beauty emanating through her. Some people just play guitar, but Odetta was the sort of person who put her whole spirit in it.
Really, I can’t say enough how much I love this performance.
9. Big Mama Thornton
Similar to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ma Rainey, Big Mama Thornton’s version of the blues eventually gave way to other genres of music, hence why I haven’t included those first two on this particular list (the former leaned more towards rock, and the latter, jazz). Ultimately, though, Mama was pretty consistently bluesy all the way through.
There’s a powerful brightness and spirit to her style that’s evident in this video and in her other songs, including “Hound Dog” (which is her song, to be clear, and a song about Black female power).
10. Blind Willie McTell
Blind Willie McTell was pretty inventive in the grand scheme of things. He combined the twelve-string guitar, sliding, and ragtime all in his technique, leading to a pretty distinct sound that’s hard to replicate. In addition, his voice had a softer, lighter timbre compared to his Delta blues peers. There’s something delightful about the sound he’s able to evoke, regardless of the lyrics themselves.
11. Reverend Gary Davis
Rev. Gary Davis got his start in the Piedmont blues scene, then experienced a revival during the New York folk scene some years later. His bassy voice is unmistakable, and his particular fingerpicking style is the sort of playing which makes a guitar tell its own story, regardless of lyrics. It’s hard to describe. When you fingerpick, your brain wants you to match formulaic patterns, yet Davis seems unburdened by this kind of mental limitation. Pretty cool stuff.
12. John Lee Hooker
There’s a good chance that, of everyone on this list, you’ve likely heard about John Lee Hooker somewhere, someplace. He’s a blues staple even today. Hooker brought the boogie to the blues which, in turn, brought the genre to a wider demographic of listeners. Specifically, his is the sort of blues you can (and should) dance to.
Honestly, this list could go on and on with talented artists worth mentioning. I had a hard time keeping it to a manageable number. But this is a decent place to start, and I highly recommend you go down your own journey through folk and the blues. Discovering (and rediscovering) this era of music is a phenomenal experience. If you’ve already been down this road, I encourage you to share your favorite artists and songs in the comments.
(Featured Image: Netherlands Nationaal Archief)
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