The Fathers of the Blues

By Sergio Ariza

Lead Belly (20 January, 1888 - 6 December,1949)

The gigantic shadow that Lead Belly, born Huddie William Ledbetter January 20, 1888, left on 20th century music is as big as his own legend. From Tom Waits to Jack White, from Pete Seeger to John Fogerty, from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain (who, just before committing suicide, declared he was his favourite musician ) his music left a mark on many of the luminaries of pop music over the last 100 years. His favourite instrument was a Stella acoustic 12-string guitar, although what most resonates still today is his incredible voice in either blues, gospel or folk songs, on great gems like Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Cotton Fields and Black Betty.

Charley Patton (Possibly in April 1891 - April 28, 1934)

You can’t attribute just one person to have started the Delta blues, but the most likely candidate there is, is Charley Patton. Among his disciples you will find names such as Robert and Tommy Johnson and Chester Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf himself, with the Patton-like howl, whose powerful voice could be heard half a kilometer away without the need for a mic. Patton played a Stella Grand Concert and played with such mastery that it allowed him to throw in a few tricks, like playing behind his back, or between his legs. Several decades after his death, when Jimi Hendrix took the Delta blues into the stratosphere he was still using many of the tricks of Patton. He didn’t record until the final years of his life, his first recording was on June 14, 1929, but he left us a great legacy exemplified in songs like Pony Blues, High Water Everywhere Part 1, Down the Dirt Road Blues, Shake It and Break It, and Some of These Days.

Big Bill Broonzy (June 26, 1893 - August 14, 1958)

Lee Conley Bradley, better known as Big Bill Broonzy, is one of the most important acoustic blues guitarists in history. His style influenced people like Muddy Waters, Rory Gallagher, John Redbourn, Ray Davies, Ronnie Wood and one Eric Clapton, who would declare that Broonzy “became the model to follow when it came to playing an acoustic”. His best known guitar is the Gibson Style O and among his basic songs you’ll find C.C.Rider, Mean Old World, Rockin’ Chair Blues, Key to the Highway, and Hey Hey.

Blind Lemon Jefferson (September 24, 1893 - December 19, 1929)

Lemon Henry 'Blind Lemon' Jefferson
can be considered the father of Texas blues, that school where there were graduates like Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. One of the most distinctful, original guitarists in history, Jefferson had an expressive voice that shone on the high notes, as you can see in some of his mythic recordings like Matchbox Blues, See That Grave is Kept Clean, Jack O’ Diamonds and Black Snake Moan. He began his career playing with Lead Belly and he was the man who taught T-Bone Walker how to play guitar. He died of a heart attack in Chicago, and not only they didn’t kept his grave clean, but was also unmarked until 1967...

Tommy Johnson (January of 1896 - November 1, 1956)

Tommy Johnson learned from Charley Patton, and apart from his amazing technique, he picked up many of his little tricks, like how to throw a guitar into the air and playing between his legs, but he also had some of the most chilling falsetto voices in blues, a voice that was completely his, but which only had the opportunity to be recorded in two sessions, one in 1928 and another the following year. Just 18 songs didn’t keep Johnson from a preeminent spot among the fathers of blues music. Anyone who’s ever heard Canned Heat Blues
(which served as the name for a great band in the 60s), Big Road Blues, Cool Drink of Water Blues, and Maggie Campbell, would certainly agree.  

Blind Willie Johnson (January 25, 1897 - September 18, 1945)

Blind Willie Johnson
’s house burned to the ground in 1945, that night he would live what he had masterfully recorded almost 20 years before, dark was the night, and cold was the ground, Johnson was sleeping on the ashes of one of the few roofs he ever knew in his life, poor, and without any  other place to go, he would remain among the ruins of his house until he died, a few months later. He was buried in an unmarked grave, without anyone’s tears for one of the greatest talents that popular music had given us in the first half of the 20th century. 32 years after that his Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground left planet Earth aboard the spacecraft Voyager on the Golden Record  that Carl Sagan sent into deep space with the hopes that if there is intelligent life out there, they would have some idea of who we humans were. Together with works by
Bach, Beethoven and Chuck Berry, Johnson will make us proud when some being out there listens to the languid slide notes on his Stella. Ry Cooder has no doubts that it’s “the most moving and transcendent piece of all American music”.   

Blind Willie McTell (May 5,1898 - August 19, 1959)

Nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell, were words sung by Bob Dylan, and he was right. To Charley Patton’s predominant howl, McTell answered with a soft silvery voice, a smooth caress in a world of shrill voices. McTell’s voice could adapt to different styles besides the blues, like ragtime, gospel, or hokum. As a guitarist, he preferred the 12-string and used it for his expressive slide work, besides being a remarkable composer as seen on the legendary Statesboro Blues, and others such as Lord Send Me an Angel, Married Man’s a Fool, and Southern Can is Mine.    

Son House (March 21, 1902 - October 19, 1988)

Eddie James ‘Son’ House was late to the blues, he denounced the devil’s music for 25 years as a preacher, then just like that, when he turned 25, driven by his passion for booze and babes, what he started to preach with conviction, was the blues. With the new faith of a convert, he soon became one of the most admired players in the Delta, special thanks to his slide work. Shortly after, the big Delta star Charley Patton took an interest in him, and they started playing together. When Patton recorded for the first time, he went with House, who also cut his first songs. He wouldn’t record again until 11 years later when Alan Lomax
recorded him for the Library of Congress, the same year his most famous disciple Muddy Waters would record. Unlike most of his contemporaries, House lived long enough to be rediscovered in the mid-60s thanks to the revival of folk and blues. The way he played his National guitars, tuned in open G, influenced people like Buddy Guy, Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jack White, and Derek Trucks.  

Skip James (June 9, 1902 - October 3, 1969)

Just like Son House, Skip James got a second chance in the 60s and he was able to see Cream
 playing his I’m So Glad and the white crowd surrendered on their knees on his performance at the Newport festival. James used his ‘fingerpickin’ technique and his sound was dark and gloomy, as if the devil himself had stolen his woman. His impact can be seen in admirers like Nick Cave, Lou Reed, and Lucinda Williams.

Robert Johnson (8 de mayo de 1911 - 16 de agosto de 1938)

Robert Johnson
was a young fellow who usually hung out with big blues figures from Mississippi like Charley Patton and Son House, and nobody paid much attention to him, so nobody gave it much thought when he went missing for a few months. When he came back, all eyes and mainly ears were on him. Who could believe that this kid went from being a novice to an absolute guitar master. It seemed so supernatural that a rumour began to spread that he had made a pact with the devil, giving up his soul in exchange for becoming simply the best blues musician.  With a grin, Johnson didn’t bother to dispel these rumours and began to record things like Crossroads Blues, Me and the Devil’s Blues, and Hellbound on My Trail. Decades later, after his death under suspicious circumstances (it all seems to point to a jealous husband that did the devil’s work), a young Keith Richards still thought that there were 2 guitarists that appeared on his 27 legendary songs recorded. And Johnson’s music is so good, it’s hard to disentangle it from the legend.