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Heroes of African American Country Blues

I love listening to country blues, also known as “old-timey” music. It’s as if the music is holding time in a jar; you just close your eyes and you are back in 1933. You are away from the troubles of the modern world, though coincidentally some of the songs are about the same heartfelt troubles we may face today. 

The following are some of my favorite African American guitar pickers. This is not an extensive or definitive list, just a few artists that I have decided to highlight. 

Robert Johnson

One of my first discoveries was Robert Johnson, probably the grandfather of the Delta blues. Rumor has it that he made a deal with the devil at the crossroads to become a great guitarist. He was in fact one of the first notable musicians to join the notorious “27 Club.” 

Robert Johnson’s songs have stood the test of time. They have been covered by Cream, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and many other musicians whom he influenced.

I suggest you check out Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings.

Here is his song “Malted Milk,” one of my favorites. I think you need something stronger than malted milk to drive the blues away, Robert, but I think he knew that.

 

Rev. Blind Gary Davis

The Reverend Gary Davis was both blues and gospel player. In his later years, if his wife was looking, she would not allow him to play blues in the house; it had to be gospel based. When his wife wasn’t looking… all bets were off.  

However, whatever he played was amazing. He rose from obscurity during the early 1960s folk revival (a theme we will see). He actually lived in the Bronx and gave lessons in his apartment where students would come from near and far.  

Check out Harlem Street Singer. By far it’s my favorite album of his. His guitar work shines.

Here is a song called “Samson And Delilah” from the album:

 

Elizabeth Cotten

Also known as “Libba,” she wrote the famous song “Freight Train” in her early teens. She was self taught and actually played her guitar upside down! She was left-handed, and instead of restringing the guitar to compensate, she just played it backwards. Amazing.

Check out Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes.

Here is a color video of her playing two songs on a TV show in 1969:

 

Blind Willie McTell

Bob Dylan proclaimed that “no one can play the blues like Blind Willie McTell” in his song “Blind Willie McTell.”  Yes, McTell is special as he’s probably the most accessible of these old-timey blues artists. 

Born in Georgia, McTell was a street singer in the 1920s and he recorded professionally on and off until his death in 1959. He was a big influence on Bob Dylan, Jack White, and blues guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Check out The Rough Guide to Blind Wille McTell.

Here is one of my favorites:

 

Blind Willie Johnson

When I first heard Blind Willie Johnson it gave me the creeps. The recordings are very archaic and seem to come from another world, which in a way they did. His voice was very stark and deep. His specialty was playing slide guitar.

Johnson was born in 1897 in Texas. His main recording years were from 1927 to 1930.  

Yonkers Public Library owns a two-CD set, The Complete Blind Willie Johnson.   It is exactly what the title says, including every track he ever laid down to wax.

This was the first song I heard by Blind Willie Johnson:

 

Lightnin’ Hopkins

Another guitar picker from Texas. Like many of these artists, after years of recording in the early part of the 20th century, his fame bloomed during the early ’60s folk music revival.  This is a time when blues researcher Mack McCormick tracked Hopkins down and help put him back in the spotlight.

Hopkins was a cool cat with a checkered past, endearing him to me even more.

Check out this DVD The Guitar of Lightning Hopkins if you are interested in learning a bit about his guitar style. 

 

Blind Boy Fuller

Blind Boy Fuller, born Fullton Allen in 1907, wrote the song “Truckin’ My Blues Away,” source of the phrase “keep on truckin’.” 

He wasn’t born blind, but an eye examination attributed his vision loss to the long-term effects of untreated neonatal conjunctivitis at about the age of 24.

Throughout his short career he recorded over 120 sides on different labels.    

I suggest the CD The Rough Guide To Blues Legends: Blind Boy Fuller Reborn and Remastered.  

 

Son House

Son House was born in 1902.  He’s another blues artist who was rediscovered and became more popular during the early ’60s folk revival. His best album, simply titled Son House, can be found in our catalog as well.

What I generally love about these early ’60s recordings by some of these artists is their high fidelity. The recordings are crystal clear and not taken from old 78 RPM records.

Son House played a resonator slide guitar with an emotional style of singing. He is revered by Jack White of the band The White Stripes, who have covered a few of his songs.  

Here is Son House in action:

 

Dom Flemons

A modern-day songster, Dom Flemons is proficient at the guitar, banjo, fife, harmonica, percussion, and quills.  He is actually known as “The American Songster” as his repertoire of music spans nearly a century of American folk songs, ballads, and tunes.

Born in 1982, he was a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops as well as releasing five albums under his own name. YPL owns Prospect Hill: The American Songster Omnibus as well as Dom Flemons Presents Black Cowboys.

I enjoy his style, virtuosity, and taste in music. He continues to carry the torch of those old folk songs and ballads. He is a historian of music.

 

Rhiannon Giddens  

Giddens  is a woman of many talents. She is an alumna of North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.  She also studied opera at the Oberlin Conservatory at Oberlin College.  

Another modern-day multi-instrumentalist, Giddens, like Flemons, carries the torch of music past. She, also like Flemons, was a founding member of the band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  

She is gifted with a beautiful voice and she plays a mean banjo. Listening to her is like going back in time.

I advise that you give a listen to the albums Tomorrow Is My Turn, There Is No Other, and Freedom Highway.