Female Blues Guitarists
Part 2 : Bonnie Raitt – Rory Block – Ruthie Foster – Rhiannon Giddens – Veronika Jackson – Donna Herula
Part 1 of the series of articles on female blues guitarists introduced two historic acoustic guitarists, Elizabeth Cotten and Memphis Minnie and two historic electric guitarists Sister Rosetta Thorpe and Beverly Watkins. In part 2 we’ll introduce some American female acoustic guitarists from more recent times who may have been influenced by the two legends who came before them and then in the next edition, we’ll introduce some UK acoustic guitarist ladies.
Born in California in 1949, she received her first guitar, a Stella when aged 8. She didn’t have any formal training but was self taught from listening to the USA folk music revival of the 50s.
After graduating from Radcliffe, the liberal women’s arts college in Cambridge Massachusetts she met the legendary Blues promoter and photographer Dick Waterman in 1970 and this helped develop her love and interest for the blues and very soon she was playing with Mississippi Fred McDowell at The Philly Folk Festival and with John Hammond in New York.
News of her performances led to her signing her 1st record deal with Warner Brothers but she didn’t achieve the recording success that was hoped although she was performing live to acclaim.
The next two decades were quite barren in terms of recording success and much of her work was fairly commercial, however a massive breakthrough was made in 1989 when her release ‘Nick of Time’ on Capitol stormed to the top of the USA album charts. Her future was made and from then on she has stayed at the top, winning 10 Grammy awards in that time.
Despite the massive commercial success and appearances with and recognition from stars of different musical genres, she has stayed true to the blues and has paid for headstones for blues legends Memphis Minnie, Tommy Johnson and Sam Chatmon.
Hear her on the beautiful John Prine classic ‘Angel from Montgomery’ https://youtu.be/toJ3ZYWRh24
Born in Princeton New Jersey in 1949, Rory Block grew up in Manhattan where her father introduced her to the 50s folk scene of Greenwich Village and this stimulated her to learn classical guitar. However, she met Stefan Grossman when she was 14 and he introduced her to the music of the Mississippi Delta Blues men.
At 15 she left home to search out Mississippi John Hurt, Rev Gary Davis and Son House and honed her craft from learning first hand from these legends before ending up in the coffee houses and bars of Berkeley California.
Since then, she has remained at the top of the USA blues scene and has released getting on for 40 cds, covering many of her favourite blues men and also many self penned songs and her last two on Stony Plain Records were part of the series ‘ Power Women of the Blues’. In that time she has garnered many Blues Music Awards including ‘Acoustic Artist of the Year’ and ‘Acoustic Blues Album of the Year’.
Hear her on this traditional track ‘Mississippi Blues’ https://youtu.be/Vgbh2N9AJlE
Born in Texas in 1964, Ruthie came from a family of gospel singers and after studying music and audio engineering at college she fronted a blues band in and around Waco.
She then took a complete career change and joined the US Navy and after that career ended, she moved to New York playing in coffee bars and gaining a reputation which brought her to the attention of Atlantic Records. However, a recording contract for pop music was not what she wanted and she returned to Texas determined to involve herself more in American roots music.
Then in 1997 her first recording was released and there then followed a long standing relationship with Blue Corn Music. She has released 11 cds and a dvd and has won numerous Blues Music Awards and 3 Grammy nominations and recently was awarded a US Artists’ Fellowship Award of $50,000 for her contribution to music.
Apart from her superb guitar playing, Ruthie possesses arguably one of the finest voices on the US blues scene frequently singing a capella at her shows.
Born in North Carolina in 1977, Rhiannon inherited her musical talents from her white father who came from a family of bluegrass musicians but scandalised the family by marrying an African American woman who, whilst not a musician had an eclectic love of music ranging between classical to gospel to funk.
Rhiannon in her teens showed aptitude in maths and science but at 16 decided that music was where her future lay and after mastering the violin, she became entranced by Celtic music and whilst she does play the guitar she eventually became a very fine banjo player.
Already possessing a beautiful voice she took her musicianship to form the Roots, Blues and Traditional American trio The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Dom Flemons and Justin Robinson, both very talented multi instrumentalists.
Performing songs that related to traditional African American music the trio achieved considerable success supporting Bob Dylan and Taj Mahal and in 2010, their cd “Genuine Negro Jig” won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk release.
After the three members decided to go their own ways in 2016, Rhiannon started to perform solo and in 2017 her 2nd cd, the superb “Freedom Highway” really brought home the intensity of her feelings about the issues concerning the African American people in the USA. The album was greatly received and nominated for album of the year in the 2017 Americana Music Honours awards.
In 2015 she appeared on the Jools Holland show and duetted with Tom Jones and in 2016 she became the first American to be awarded Folk Singer of The Year on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. In August 2020 she hosted Radio 2’s Blues show when Cerys Matthews was away on holiday.
Rhiannon’s beautiful voice accompanying her banjo playing can be heard on this lovely track https://youtu.be/tYuqnUs9gP8
A regular performer at some of the most prestigious American blues festivals but relatively unknown in the UK, Veronika is an excellent acoustic guitarist whose self penned songs draw on the history of American folk and blues and the rights of the African American people.
She started her music career at an early age, singing in the school choirs at the age of ten. She was raised with a musical influenced family in St. Petersburg, Florida. In her teens her love for acoustic folk and R&B music grew as she followed such artist as Odetta, Dolly Parton, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Joan Baez, Ella Fitzgerald, and later, Diamond Teeth Mary, a blues performer who inspired many folk artist through her performances at the Florida Folk Festival.
Veronika, who now lives in Georgia has taken the acoustic folk guitar and the history of her culture as an African-American woman, and has generated her own original, authentic and exciting style of music. She is a rare and unique performer. Her smooth and strong interpretive vocals are very expressive. Her clear, simple rhythmic clean way of piedmont blues-style guitar picking compliments her performances. She has been told that her music says something, it educates and also inspires.
Here she is at the King Biscuit Festival..https://youtu.be/Zc6NhO7S8co
Donna Herula is a Chicago-born blues singer, songwriter and acoustic slide guitarist who has a passion for playing traditional country blues, Delta Blues, early Chicago Blues, folk, roots, and Americana in addition to contemporary and original songs. Her sound combines her love for music of the Deep South and Chicago with her love of blues guitar improvisation. She is a regular performer on the Chicago club scene and has opened for Buddy Guy many times at his club and In October 2016, she was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. She is also a teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago where she teaches Acoustic Slide Guitar, Blues and Americana Fingerstyle and Electric Slide Guitar group and individual lessons. She is a regular at the Chicago Blues festival and also the King Biscuit Festival where she performed solo tributes to Robert Nighthawk, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Johnny Shines.
Catch her on the following link https://youtu.be/KzZ0s5yUdlE
UKBlues Board Member
This article is part of the UKBlues Federation’s British Blues Archive.