We've been getting inspired lately by the fascinating underbelly of musicians who've helped shape rock and roll by way of the blues. These musicians came out of an era where the white man tried to keep them down, where feeding mouths took priority over passions, where the poor stayed poor, and you lived each day by the grace of God. These musicians also happen to be women.
After finding ourselves down "the rabbit hole" of the internet, we crawled out for air and gathered a list of blues women that will not only slap you silly with their mojo, but, perhaps, educate you on the fact that rock 'n roll didn't just begin with a white guy from Tupelo.
“I want to be where I can be free,” she says. “I live that rock & roll lifestyle.”-Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, Oxford American
We recently discovered a 76-year-old blues guitarist from Atlanta who has worked with James Brown, B. B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, plus countless others in her decade-spanning career since the '50s. Back-in-the-day she was a myth. Musicians in the blues community caught wind of incredible tales proclaiming her incendiary skills, spirited gimmicks, and stage panache. Now a legend, we introduce to you, Beverly "Guitar" Watkins. Don't mess with Miss Watkins, she'll blow you away.
Watkins learned to play the guitar as a young girl, receiving her first at age 8. She gathered inspiration from records played on her grandmother's Victrola player, mimicking her favorites. After winning the talent show in high school, she was discovered by longtime bluesman, Piano Red, and was offered a touring gig as one of three players in his rhythm section, transitioning her life from hometown hero to a young musician with a professional career, something unheard of at that time. And she's been at it ever since. At age 60, she recorded her first solo album and is still shredding. Go girl.
Born Rosetta Nubin in 1915 (!), she was one of the first women to go secular with gospel music, wildly stringing together spiritual lyrical themes, holy vocals and fast, rhythmic electric guitar that she played in heels. She influenced Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. She is the "Original Soul Sister" and the Godmother of Rock & Roll, and she shreds! Below is a PBS documentary on Sister Tharpe. Educate yourselves and thank us later.
Specializing in the North Mississippi hill country blues, Jessie Mae Hemphill was a Delta girl who picked up the guitar at a young age, starting at just 7 years old. Aside from a few Memphis clubs in the 50s, she mostly played at home until recording her music for a documentary by a professor at Memphis State University in the late 70s. Her first album, She-Wolf, was licensed by the record company founded by MSU and released on a French label in the early 80s. Hemphill is one the earliest female blues musicians and has influenced countless artists with her hypnotically ambient blues. Part Native American, Ms. Hemphill incorporated leg bells and other traditional instruments to create her sound.
Check out this podcast for more Mississippi Delta country blues.
Want some more? Read up, here. Are we missing your favorite? Let us know!