From the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Valerie Turner
Let’s be honest—role models for contemporary women playing blues guitar are few and far between. This isn’t because they’re not out there; it’s simply because they aren’t well recognized. I can’t tell you how many times as a performer I’ve shown up for a soundcheck, guitar in hand, only to be asked if I was a roadie or a fan. The assumption is never that I might be there to play an instrument, let alone a guitar. But this is nothing new—early blues women that played guitar didn’t receive equal attention, either.
Female vocalists captured the ears and hearts of the blues-loving public early on, and the mere mention of blues singers immediately brings to mind artists like Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith. However, when thinking about blues guitarists, this nearly always elicits the names of men, with little consideration for their female counterparts whose legacies are just as important. You’re probably already familiar with artists like Elizabeth Cotten, Memphis Minnie, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe—all giants in their respective blues arenas. This article will highlight other female blues guitarists who helped shaped the blues; masterly musicians who don’t always receive the recognition they deserve.
But first, let’s first take a look at the world in which they lived. Making its debut in the late 19th century, blues music was the soundtrack of the Jim Crow era, a time when state legislators had enacted laws that legalized racial discrimination and segregation in the United States. Life for Black women in the South at the turn of the 20th century was far from easy, and this is reflected in many of the blues songs left behind. From front porches to family gatherings to picnics to jook joints, blues music tells the stories of African American people navigating a new and difficult existence. Just about every human experience and emotion has been captured in blues songs, and many of the topics covered are still relevant today. This is one of the reasons why this music is timeless and speaks to so many people in diverse places.
Several common threads connect most of the artists profiled here. For example, many came from musical families and got their start playing and singing in churches or at local events. You’ll also notice that family and work obligations often took priority over more artistic endeavors, thwarting their music careers until they neared middle age.
Haunting and Mysterious
Starting with one of my favorite early blues artists, let’s take a look at Geeshie Wiley. Details about Wiley are sparse, and no one can say for sure when or where she was born. Some think she may have come from Louisiana or Mississippi, and her birthdate is placed somewhere in the early 20th century. Things we do know about Geeshie Wiley include that she was either married to or living with hokum performer Charlie McCoy, and that she was romantically linked to Casey Bill Weldon, Memphis Minnie’s first husband.
According to Ishmon Bracey, a Delta blues musician from Byram, Mississippi, Wiley was also known to perform publicly in Jackson, Mississippi, around 1930. This is where she came to the attention of H.C. Speir, who owned a local furniture store. Speir was also a talent scout, and he introduced Wiley to the Paramount recording company, in Grafton, Wisconsin, where she traveled with her duet partner, Elvie Thomas, to make their iconic 1930 recordings. During that session, Wiley accompanied Thomas on “Motherless Child Blues” and “Over to My House.” Wiley also made two solo recordings, “Last Kind Words” and “Skinny Leg Blues.” The following year, Wiley and Thomas returned to Grafton, where Wiley recorded two more songs, “Pick Poor Robin Clean” as a duet with Thomas, and “Eagles on a Half” as another solo piece. These six songs are representative of an era in which contemporary African American music was evolving into what we now call blues.
The raw, eerie sounds of Wiley’s guitar, combined with her haunting vocals, make a lasting impression and solidify her place among the early blues greats. Some other artists that you might recognize who were recorded by Paramount at roughly the same time include Charley Patton, Blind Lemon
Jefferson, and Skip James. Although her recorded repertoire is limited, Geeshie Wiley’s music is well worth a listen and will leave you wondering what else she played that was never captured.
The notation in Example 1 is inspired by Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words.” Played in E, part of the song’s eeriness can be attributed to its use of the iv chord (Am) in a major-key context. One important thing to keep in mind when playing the slides in bars 3 and 4 is that the destination note (either the fifth-fret E or the fourth-fret B) is the one that counts. This becomes clear when you listen to the original recording.
Flora Molton (née Flora Rollins) of Virginia is our next subject. Born partially blind in 1908, she underwent surgery, which eventually allowed her to read large print. Molton’s father was a West Virginia preacher who played accordion, while her mother, a housewife, was an organist. Following in her father’s footsteps, Molton began a ministry of her own, but raising two children through preaching proved difficult. Flora eventually relocated to Washington, D.C., where she became a street performer. While Molton is generally categorized as a gospel musician, one important thing to understand is that the blues and gospel are tightly coupled. As explained by country blues master John Cephas in a 2009 interview for the Library of Virginia, “Musically, there’s no difference between the blues and the gospel presentation. The only difference is the context . . . Lyrically, they talk about two different things that happen in your life.”
Using a metal slide, Molton played guitar while singing, adding percussion with a tambourine that she tapped with her foot. She was a fixture at busy intersections along F Street NW, in Washington, and her rural sound inspired local blues musicians, including Phil Wiggins. Wiggins, a young harmonica player who often accompanied her, went on to become an NEA National Heritage Fellow and internationally acclaimed as part of the Cephas & Wiggins duo. Molton also influenced Eleanor Ellis, a Louisiana native now living in Maryland. Ellis learned from and performed with Molton and, these days, can be heard playing one of Molton’s signature songs, “The Sun Will Shine in Vietnam.”
Molton was a clear influence on the Washington blues scene. In fact, she was one of the founders of the D.C. Blues Society. In addition to local and regional performances, she also enjoyed a successful European tour and remained musically active until shortly before passing away in 1990, at the age of 82.
Example 2 is patterned after the intro to Flora Molton’s signature song, “The Sun Will Shine in Vietnam.” Though Molton was known for her work in open-D tuning, she typically sang the piece while accompanied by guitarist Ed Morris, who played in open G, as notated here. The intro is off to a dramatic start with a hammer-on flourish in the pickup bar, followed by the bent Fs that imply a G7 chord. Beginning in the second half of bar 2, a descending, octave-based line brings it all back home.
Mistress of the Piedmont Style
Looking toward North Carolina, we find Etta Baker (née Etta Lucille Reid). Born in 1913, Baker came from a large, musical family. She was skilled at playing both guitar and banjo and learned directly from her multi-instrumentalist father, Boone Reid.
Baker played in what is known as the Piedmont style of fingerpicking. As the name suggests, it’s an approach originating from the Piedmont region, which runs along the east coast of the United States from Virginia to Georgia. In the Piedmont style, the thumb of the picking hand alternates between two bass strings while the remaining fingers of the picking hand play a syncopated melody, giving the illusion of two guitars being played at once. Baker’s command of the style was impressive, but her talents were largely unknown outside her circle of family and friends until she reached her 40s. Although she performed locally with her father and sister for family gatherings and parties, Baker’s main priorities were her job as a textile worker, caring for her husband, and raising their nine children.
Folklorist Paul Clayton captured Baker in field recordings while scouring the region for traditional music in the 1950s. The subsequent inclusion of these recordings on the compilation Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians finally put a spotlight on Baker’s music, inspiring the likes of Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. One song that she is especially known for playing is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Dime Blues”; Baker’s version has a smooth and flowing texture, whereas Jefferson’s sound is more staccato.
Baker was respected by other Piedmont-style guitar players from the Tidewater region of North Carolina and Virginia, such as John Cephas, Archie Edwards, John Jackson, and others. Passing away in 2006, Baker’s recognitions include the North Carolina Folklore Society Brown-Hudson Award, North Carolina Heritage Award, and National Heritage Award.
Example 3 is inspired by Etta Baker’s classic interpretation of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “One Dime Blues.” Pay special attention to the alternating bass line in bars 3 and 4. While the second and fourth beats of these measures are always played on the D string, the first and third beats additionally alternate between the low E and A strings.
Music and Dance
Blues music is dance music, and both came together perfectly in Algia Mae Hinton (née Algia Mae O’Neal) of North Carolina. Her father, Alexander O’Neal, was a dancer and taught Hinton the art of buck dancing—a percussive soft-shoe folk dance originating among African Americans during the antebellum period. Taught by her talented, multi-instrumentalist mother, Ollie O’Neal, Hinton also learned how to play guitar.
Born in 1929 into a hard life of farm work, Hinton helped her family tend crops of tobacco, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and corn. Years later, when she was married with seven children, her husband met an untimely death, leaving her to raise their family alone. A resourceful woman, she made ends meet doing seasonal farm work that she supplemented by dancing and playing guitar. Hinton was such a skilled performer that she often buck danced while playing her guitar behind her head. One of her best remembered compositions is “Cook Cornbread for Your Husband (Biscuits for Your Outside Man).”
Hinton’s early performances were confined to local events such as dances and house parties. Through folklorist Glenn Hinson, currently an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, Hinton accepted an invitation to perform at the North Carolina Folklife Festival in 1978. This break led to other prestigious engagements, including the Chicago University Folk Festival, National Folk Festival, and even New York’s Carnegie Hall. Hinton also gave numerous presentations to school children, exposing them to some of the music and dance traditions of the Piedmont region. Her only performance outside of the United States was in Italy.
Hinton’s passing was mourned by her fans in 2018. A recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award, she embodied the expressive music she played and listening to her is like listening to her very soul.
Example 4 is fun and easy, inspired by the chorus of Algia Mae Hinton’s “Cook Cornbread for Your Husband (and Biscuits for Your Outside Man).” Note that the downstemmed notes are picked with the thumb and the upstemmed ones with the index finger. To achieve Hinton’s resonant sound in the absence of a 12-string guitar, such as the one she likely used to record this song, be sure to fret the entire chord for each bar and experiment with lightly brushing two or three strings instead of just playing single notes.
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Down-Home Country Blues
Like so many other blues musicians, Precious Bryant, born in 1942, came from a musical family with traditions that spanned blues, gospel, and folk. Indeed, her cousins were part of the Georgia Fife and Drum Band. She learned to play guitar from her father at an early age and banjo was also in her musical arsenal. In her hometown of Talbot, in west-central Georgia, Bryant got a solid start in singing by performing in a Baptist church with her sisters. This experience helped inform the gospel and spiritual aspects of her repertoire.
Listening to Bryant’s music, you’ll hear a blend of the traditional fingerpicking that has come to be associated with musicians from the Piedmont region mixed with the electric sounds of Mississippi artists like Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters. One possible explanation for this diversity could be from Bryant’s exposure to a variety of artists on records and the radio. In her 20s, Bryant received attention from folklorist George Mitchell, who recorded her in the late 1960s, but at least ten years would pass before Bryant’s music career gained real traction.
Performing both domestically and abroad, Bryant’s warmth and energy made her a fan favorite. She passed away in 2012 and is especially remembered for her ability to engage her audience. Her first album, Fool Me Good, was recognized in the form of two Blues Music Award nominations. Bryant also received a nomination for Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year.
Example 5, inspired by “Fool Me Good,” showcases Precious Bryant’s fine fingerpicking style, which gives the illusion of two guitars playing at once. In this example, quarter-step bends in bars 2 and 3 add to the bluesy vibe. Using the first finger, create an A7 chord by barring the first two strings at the second fret, and add the second finger to string 1, fret 3. This creates a solid base from which to bend the third-fret G, by pushing the first string slightly upward with the second finger after picking it.
The Legacy Continues
The musical contributions of the women highlighted here represent a variety of styles that have influenced today’s contemporary blues artists. Modern-day trailblazers Bonnie Raitt and Rory Block are household names in the blues business, but there are others that you should know about.
Look to Ruthie Foster for a dose of gospel, blues and folk. Representing the often overlooked D.C. blues scene, Eleanor Ellis is keeping Flora Molton’s legacy safe. Valerie June’s gentle storytelling style is reminiscent of Elizabeth Cotten, and Gaye Adegbalola carries on Algia Mae Hinton’s passion for music combined with dance. The music of Memphis Minnie has found a home in the capable hands of Del Rey, and Mary Flower’s ragtime fingerpicking is second to none. Offering up folk-blues originals, Jackie Merritt’s songs have found an appreciative audience, while Lauren Sheehan carries on a variety of Americana traditions including blues. With impeccable fingerpicking, Joan Fenton can dissect a fretboard like no other. Erin Harpe handles the Delta Blues tradition with string-snapping precision and, for overall mastery in a variety of acoustic blues guitar styles, look no further than Shari Kane. I myself, being greatly influenced by early blues artists like Elizabeth Cotten, Etta Baker, and Mississippi John Hurt, am pleased to be a tradition bearer of the Piedmont style of fingerpicking and to continue the music traditions passed down by my late mentor, John Cephas. All of us owe a great debt to our predecessors and do our best to move the music forward—one generation at a time.
Valerie Turner is an American blues guitarist, vocalist, educator, and author based in Queens, New York. She plays in the Piedmont style and is the author of Piedmont Style Country Blues Guitar Basics. piedmontbluz.com
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.