5 Most Influential Blues Musicians of All Time

A murderous folk singer, two Delta blues men, a nonagenarian Grammy winner, and the Mother of the Blues. Read on to discover the five most influential blues musicians of all time.

Jun 21, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

most influential blues musicians of all time

The blues stands as a grand musical tradition, rooted in the experience of American slavery, that bears witness to the catastrophic circumstances of individual and collective life. The blues delves into themes of hardship, struggle, loss, dignity, and resilience. Despite the evolution of the blues in different directions, and its fusion with other musical forms, it has generally maintained its traditional pattern of four-beats–per-bar within a 12-bar structure. Both directly, and indirectly, the impact on the blues on the modern history of Western music has been profound.

 

Robert Johnson

 

Robert Leroy Johnson (1911-1938) was born and raised in Mississippi. He took up guitar at a young age and became a traveling musician, living for stretches in Arkansas and Tennessee. Johnson was a pioneer of the Delta blues, with a powerful, haunting voice, and a remarkable guitar style for the era; he could seamlessly blend rhythm, slide guitar, and walking bass at the same time. 

 

Although his music was largely overlooked in his lifetime, his posthumous influence has been immense. Icons like Bob Dylan and Robert Plant have cited his impact, with Eric Clapton hailing him as “the most important blues musician that ever lived.”

 

Yet, when it comes to Johnson, the myth often precedes the man. Legend has it that his talents stemmed from a pact with the devil. Driven by an insatiable desire to become a master of the blues, he purportedly exchanged his soul at a crossroads, in return for mastery of the guitar.  

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

Lead Belly

Lead Belly, King of the 12-string guitar, at the National Press Club, Washington DC, between 1938 and 1948, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Huddie William Ledbetter (1888-1949), better known as Lead Belly, was a country bluesman and folk singer, renowned for his mastery of the 12-string guitar. He spent his youth wandering the South, picking cotton, playing the guitar, and learning songs that dated back to slavery. Lead Belly’s adult life was marred by his propensity for violent crime. In 1918, he was sentenced to 35 years for murder but astonishingly received a pardon in 1925 after singing to the prison governor for his freedom. 

 

In 1933, folklorist John Lomax “discovered” Lead Belly serving yet more time in Angola State Penitentiary, and recorded him for a Library of Congress project documenting the history of American folk music. He traveled to New York to record his songs in 1935 and gained temporary fame as the “singing convict” – though commercial success eluded him. Influencing a wide range of artists, from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain, Lead Belly is considered one of the greatest folk singers and blues musicians of all time. 

 

Ma Rainey

The Mother of the Blues, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, pictured in 1917, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey (1886-1939) pioneered the blues in Vaudeville and Minstrel shows across the American South. Born in Columbus, Georgia, Gertrude Pridgett performed in Black Minstrel shows as a teenager. She started singing the blues in 1902, and in 1904, she married William “Pa” Rainey and took on the stage name “Ma” Rainey. 

 

Renowned for her commanding, soulful, and “gravelly” voice, Ma Rainey’s blues were shaped by the post-Civil War conditions of the Jim Crow South and the raw legacy of slavery. Her music offered an unflinching portrayal of black life in all its complexity. 

 

Through her songs, Ma Rainey told stories of black life, love, and sexuality, encapsulating the collective experience of black freedom amid the context of her times (Davis, 1998). Together with her lover, protege, and fellow traveler Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues”, shaped the first classic blues recordings in the early 1920s.

 

Elizabeth Cotten

 

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (1895-1987) was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. As a young girl, she learned to play the banjo and guitar on her brother’s instruments whenever he was away. Being naturally left-handed she flipped them upside down to make them earlier to play. Cotten was a supremely talented player and quickly developed a unique fingerstyle method of playing simple bass figures with an alternating thumb, blended with syncopated counter-point melodies – that came to be known as “Cotten Pickin.”

 

Despite her talents, Cotten remained in the shadows for much of her life. Pressured by her church, she refrained from playing “worldly songs” on the guitar for 25 years. It wasn’t until she was in her sixties that she became a professional musician. Best known for her timeless classic “Freight Train,” Elizabeth Cotten’s musical achievements were finally officially acknowledged in 1985 when she won a Grammy, at the age of 91.

 

Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters, King of the Electric Blues, performing in Paris, 1976, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

McKinley Morganfield (1913-1983), better known as Muddy Waters, was raised on Stovall Plantation, near Clarksdale Mississippi. He began singing in church as a child and inspired by the sounds of the Delta Blues, spent his teenage years learning to play harmonica and guitar.

 

In the 1930s, he was playing harmonica on tours of the Delta and performing his songs in and around Clarksville. His breakthrough came in 1941 when folklorist Alan Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress. Two years later he left for Chicago to pursue a full-time music career. 

 

Muddy Waters pioneered the sound of the modern Chicago blues. Yet his influence extended far beyond the city. In America, he influenced a new generation of artists, from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, who claimed that he was the influence that mattered to him the most. His 1958 tour of Britain kick-started British blues-rock. The Rolling Stones even named themselves after his 1950 hit “Rollin Stone.”

Author Image

By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.