Here are some quick biographical sketches of many of the giants of this style of music. I wrote these bios for The Complete Acoustic Guitar Method, by Woody Mann.
Rev. Gary Davis
(Hesitation Blues, Let Us Get Together and portions of Carolinasippi Medley -- tracks 5, 9 and 2 on the "Recordings" page are Rev. Gary Davis tunes)
Born in 1986 in Laurens, South Carolina, performing in tobacco warehouses in Durham, North Carolina, being ordained as a minister and moving to New York, Rev. Gary Davis had a profound impact on the music of his day and for decades since his death in 1973. In the mid-1920s, Rev. Davis and Blind Boy Fuller entertained at quick-cash crowd at tobacco auctions and headed to New York. Rev. Davis abandoned the blues, playing only spirituals (in a ragtime and Piedmont style) until his later years. His songs were covered by major acts during the folk revival of the 1960s, providing him with royalty income to purchase a home in Queens. His lessons were as legendary as the students who took them, including, David Bromberg, Dave Van Ronk, Woody Mann, Stefan Grossman, Bob Weir, Roy Book Binder and countless others. His songs were covered by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Grateful dead, Hot Tuna, Jorma Kaukonen, Keb Mo and others.
Blind Lemon Jefferson
A native of East Texas, Lemon Jefferson was born in Wortham, Texas in 1897. Blind from birth, Jefferson spent most of his early years as a street singer in eastern Texas. Lemon Jefferson was discovered by a talent scout for Paramount Records in 1926 and was brought to Chicago where he recorded 100 songs under the name “Blind Lemmon Jefferson” and a handful of spirituals under the name “Deacon Bob.” Success came quickly to the blind bluesman; his recordings were at the forefront of the race records craze and earned him, among other things, an automobile from Paramount. Jefferson’s recordings are distinguished by his high and eerie vocal styling coupled with a distinct and free guitar phrasing. Jefferson’s life and career were short. He died of mysterious causes in Chicago, in 1929. He was not driving at the time.
Blind Willie McTell
(Statesboro Blues -- track 12 on the "Recordings" page, was originally recorded by Wilie McTell)
Born William Samuel McTier in either 1901 or 1898 in Thompson, Georgia, Blind Willie McTell began his recording career in 1927 for Victor Records. McTell was a master of ragtime playing complex rhythms and dizzying melody lines on a twelve-string guitar. His repertoire was not limited to ragtime; McTell was also a master of gospel, blues and even pop standards. McTell recorded under various aliases, for different recording labels, including Blind Sammie, Georgia Bill, Hot Shot Willie, Blind Willie, Red Hot Willie Glaze, Barrelhouse Sammie and Pig & Whistle Red. He spent most of his life in and around Atlanta, Georgia. McTell died in 1959 in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897, Memphis Minnie became one of the most prolific and gifted female blues guitar players and singers. Douglas ran away from home in her early teens, joined the Ringling Brothers Circus and first performed under the name Kid Douglas. She permanently adopted the stage name Memphis Minnie in the late 1920’s. Memphis Minnie recorded more than 150 sides as a solo artist and more than 200 sides with two of her husbands over the course of her more than 40-year recording career. She was one of the first blues artists to begin playing electric guitar in the early 1940s. Minnie lived most of her life in Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis. She retuned to Memphis in the late 1950’s where she lived until her death in 1973.
Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson, a gospel and blues player, was born in Brenham, Texas in 1897. He began preaching at a very young age and continued as a street preacher in Beaumont, Texas until his death in 1945. Blind Willie was born sighted, but is alleged to have lost his sight in a domestic incident between his parents. Johnson recorded 30 sides for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1930. His recording of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” was launched into space on the NASA Voyager space craft in 1977. His extra-terrestrial fame is entirely posthumous; he died in Beaumont, Texas in 1947.
(She's Your Cook, but She Burns My Bread Sometimes - track 4 on the "Recordings" page, is by Bo Carter)
Armenter Chapman, "Bo Carter," was born in Bolton, Mississippi, 1893, Cater became one of the best known blues artists of his time, largely as a result of lively and sophisticated tunes packed with sexual innuendo. His career included several years as a member of the Mississippi Sheiks, a string band that included his brothers. His solo career includes more than 100 sides recorded in the 1930’s. Carter died in 1964 in Memphis.
Henry Townsend was born in 1910 in Shelby, Mississippi but spent his early years in Cairo, Illinois. His recording career began in 1929 and stretched through the entire 20th century. Townsend partnered with Yank Rachell (on mandolin) and toured throughout much of the Midwest and in the greater St. Louis area. His 80-year career has left listeners with a raft of high quality modern recordings as well as many race records of the early 20th century. Townsend died in Mequon, Wisconsin, at the age of 96 in 2006.
Blind Boy Fuller
Piedmont blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, was born as Fulton Allen, in 1907, in Wadesboro, North Carolina. By the time Fuller turned 21, he had completely lost his eyesight and he earned his living from entertaining at house parties, in the tobacco warehouses and on street corners in the Winston-Salem and Durham areas. By the late 1930’s Fuller had been discovered and he recorded more than 120 sides for various labels. The influence of guitar masters Blind Blake and Rev. Gary Davis are apparent in Fuller’s styling. He died of natural causes in Durham, North Carolina in 1941.
Tampa Red, the “Guitar Wizard,” was born in 1904 in Smithville, Georgia and had a long and prolific recording career in Chicago. Primarily a slide player on a National Steel guitar, Tampa red recorded in a variety of styles from vaudeville tunes to soulful blues. Among his collaborators during the 1930s and 40s was pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey. Red died in Chicago in 1981.
Papa Charlie Jackson
Born in New Orleans in the mid 1880s, Charles “Papa Charlie” Jackson was a medicine show minstrel who played guitar, a hybrid six-string banjo and ukulele in Chicago. His recordings enjoyed commercial success and led him to record with Blind Blake, Big Bill Broonzy, Ma Rainey and Ida Cox. He recorded for Paramount and Okeh. His most famous songs include “Salty Dog Blues’ and “Shake That Thing.” He died in Chicago in 1938.
Little Hat Jones
A Texas street singer born in Bowie County, Texas in 1899, George “Little Hat” Jones spent virtually all of his life in the Lone Star State. Jones’ recordings were all made during three sessions over the course of 1929-1930 when he recorded only 20 songs – 11 as a solo artist and 9 accompanying Texas Alexander. Despite living for more than 80 years, Jones never recorded another song after the 1930 session. Little Hat Jones is best remembered for his tune “Bye Bye Baby Blues.” He died in Naples, Texas in 1981.
Little Brother Montgomery
Eurreal Wilford "Little Brother" Montgomery was born near New Orleans in 1906. A gifted pianist at an early age, Montgomery was raised in the company of blues and jazz musicians in New Orleans including Jelly Roll Morton. After recording for Bluebird and Paramount in the 1920s and 30s, Montgomery moved to Chicago in the early 1940s and established himself as a staple of the Chicago blues and jazz scene into the 1970s. Among his notable protégés in Chicago were Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. He died in 1985 in Chicago.
Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1899. He moved to Memphis at an early age and, by the age of 10 had established himself as guitar player and entertainer at house parties throughout Memphis. Lewis played with W.C. Handy as a teenager and traveled across the South as a hobo. He lost his leg in 1917 while attempting to hop a freight train, but nevertheless continued to tour for a few years. He worked as a street sweeper for the City of Memphis 44 years, a career that rooted Lewis to the city and made him a mainstay of the Beale Street music scene. Lewis was still performing during the “folk revival” of the 1960s when he was “rediscovered.” He was the inspiration for Joni Mitchell’s song, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Lewis died in Memphis in 1981
Frank Stokes was born in Shelby County, Tennessee, in 1888, and was raised in Tutweiler, Mississippi. He made a name for himself as a street performer in Memphis and soon became one of the city’s most popular performers by playing a wide repertoire of rhythmic dance tunes as well as minstrel and novelty tunes. He recorded with a group known as the Beale Street Sheiks and produced 36 songs for the Paramount and Victor labels. Among his recordings are early versions of “Tain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do,” and “I Got Mine.” In the 1930s and 1940’s Stokes’ performances were relegated to tent shows and circuses, including the Ringling Brothers Circus. He died in 1955. in Memphis, Tennessee.
Willard “Ramblin” Thomas was born in Logansport, Louisiana about 1902. He performed in Gulf port towns and in Oklahoma until he was discovered by a talent scout in Dallas, Texas in 1928. During 1928 and 1929, Thomas recorded eighteen songs for Paramount and Victor. Rambling Thomas’ music is in some ways reminiscent of Lonnie Johnson, but at other times harkens back to a more pure form of Delta blues. Ramblin Thomas died of tuberculosis in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1945.
One of the first blues players with no connection to the rural blues tradition, Clifford Gibson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1901 and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 1920s. He recorded two dozen sides for QRS and Vocalion in 1929 and 1930. His single-string solos and sophisticated urbane style is often compared to the playing of Lonnie Johnson. In 1963, Gibson recorded a few songs for Bobbi Records. He died in 1963, in St. Louis.
Buddy Boy Hawkins
Even more obscure than many other obscure blues artists, Walter “Buddy Boy” Hawkins is thought to have been born in Blythesville, Arkansas around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He recorded a dozen tunes for Paramount Records in 1927 and 1929. All of his songs were played in an open A tuning and included ragtime pieces and slow blues. Nothing is known of his death, but he has not been seen since the early 1930s and is assumed to be deceased.
Theodore Roosevelt “Blind Teddy Darby” Darby, was born in 1902 in Henderson, Kentucky, but spent at least two of his younger years in a reformatory and in the St. Louis municipal workhouse. After moving to St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 1920s, Darby teamed up with Petey Wheatstraw and Darby’s cousin Tom Webb. Darby’s recording career spanned 8 years, from 1929 through 1937 when he recorded 24 titles under a variety of names for Bluebird, paramount, Vocalion and Victor. Darby gave up music entirely and became an ordained minister after Webb was murdered. He died sometime in the 1960s.
Richard 'Hacksaw' Harney was born in Money, MS, on July 16, 1902. His recording career lasted from the 1920s through the 1970s. His style was varied and can remind listyeners of hard core delta blues style of Robert Johnson or the ratime flair of Blind Blake. Harney was sought after by many young blues afficiandos in the 19650s and 1970s. His last recording, Sweet Man, on Adelphi Records, was recorded around 1970 and gives listyeners a rare chance to hear an true master on a state-of-the-art recording. Harney dided on Christmas Day, 1973.
Carl Martin was born in 1906 in Stone Mountain, in the Appalachian region of Virginia. His musical career as a guitarist, mandolin player and violin player spanned for than 50 years and his repertoire included blues, jug band, jazz, standards and novelty tunes. Martin’s earliest recordings were made in the mid-1930s and featured Piedmont and ragtime styles on tunes including “Crow Jane,” “Old Time Blues” and a dozen other songs. Martin teamed up with Ted Bogan and Howard Armstrong and by the late 1930’s their trio Martin, Bogan and Armstrong was a staple in Chicago and the Midwest. Later in his career, Martin focused most of his musical skills on the mandolin. Carl Martin died in 1979.
Eddie James “Son” House was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1920. Unlike so many other blues guitarists who turned from secular to religious music later in life, Son House began his musical career completely devoted to church music until his mid-twenties, at which point he let loose with a driving delta blues style that inspired Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Willie Brown. Son’s career had several interruptions including a two-year stretch in jail for shooting and killing man (the sentence was commuted after judicial review). His recording career was sporadic, but extensive; he recorded several sides for Alan Lomax on the Library of Congress series in the mid-1940s and fell into obscurity until the folk-blues revival of the 1960s when he was regularly featured at major festivals in the US and in Europe and recorded extensively. Among his best known tunes are “Death Letter Blues” and “See that My Grave is Kept Clean.” Son House died in 1988.