These are the early artists that helped define the genre of the blues. Whether from the Mississippi Delta or the fields of Texas, each of the following artists contributed greatly to the music, whether through their instrumental skills (usually on the guitar) or vocal talents, and their early recordings and performances served to influence a generation of blues artists to follow. Whether you’re a fan of the blues or a newcomer to the music, this is the place to start.
Photo courtesy Smithsonian Folkways
Perhaps more than any other artist, Big Bill Broonzy brought the blues to Chicago and helped define the city’s early sound. Born, literally, on the banks of the Mississippi River, Broonzy moved with his parents to Chicago as a teenager in 1920, picking up the guitar and learning to play from older bluesmen like Papa Charlie Jackson. Broonzy began recording in the mid-1920s and by the early-1930s he was a commanding figure on the Chicago blues scene.
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
Arguably the founding father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most commercially-successful artists of the 1920s and a major influence on younger players like Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Born blind, Jefferson taught himself to play the guitar, and was a familiar figure busking on the streets of Dallas, earning enough to support a wife and child. Jefferson played for awhile with Leadbelly, and is said to have traveled to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, and Chicago to perform.
Photo courtesy Price Grabber
The biggest star of the 1920s Delta firmament, Charley Patton was the region’s E-Ticket attraction. A charismatic performer with a flash style, his talented fretwork and flamboyant showmanship inspired a legion of bluesmen and rockers, from Son House and Robert Johnson, to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Patton lived a high-flying lifestyle full of liquor and women, and his performances at house parties, juke joints, and plantation dances became the stuff of legend. His loud voice, coupled with a rhythmic and percussive guitar style, was both groundbreaking and designed to entertain a raucous audience.
Photo courtesy Snapper Music
Born as Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana, Leadbelly’s music and tumultuous life would have a profound effect on both blues and folk musicians alike. Like most performers of his era, Leadbelly’s musical repertoire extended beyond the blues to incorporate ragtime, country, folk, prison songs, popular standards, and even Gospel songs. Leadbelly performed for a while with his friend Blind Lemon Jefferson in Texas, honing his skills on the twelve-string guitar, but it is his reinvention of traditional folk and blues songs, carried on from the African-American oral tradition, for which he is best known.
Photo courtesy Legacy Recordings
Even casual blues fans know the name of Robert Johnson, and thanks to the re-retelling of the story over the course of decades, many know the tale of Johnson allegedly making a deal with the devil at the crossroads outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi to acquire his incredible talents. The roots of the story lie in Johnson's relative inexperience when he first began performing, and the metamorphosis of his talent after a year's absence spent playing. Although we’ll never know the truth of the matter, one fact remains – Robert Johnson is the cornerstone artist of the blues.
Photo courtesy Shout! Factory Records
The great Son House was a six-string innovator, haunting vocalist, and powerful performer that set the Delta on fire during the 1920s and ‘30s with scorched-earth performances and timeless recordings. A friend and colleague of Charley Patton, the two often traveled together, and Patton introduced House to his contacts at Paramount Records. House was also a lay preacher and remained conflicted throughout his career, with one foot in the Gospel and one in the profane world of the blues.