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After Robert Johnson: A Nod to Pre-War Blues Players

Noticeably absent from the following list of pre-war blues players is Robert Johnson. He’s getting a brief mention here simply as a result of being one of the most important exponents of the style that was popularized in various, disparate southern locales between the aughties and the thirties, just prior to the (first) great crash. His playing certainly set the bar for future blues peformers much in the same way his lyrics, rife with religious double speak and meandering tales of woe and damnation, would change not just the blues, but rock music in the following decades.

While Johnson might still be – and will remain – the most celebrated bluesmen, the folks below aren’t slouches in any sense. Well, Skip James wasn’t all that great at guitar, but it can be forgiven. Regardless, each of the players represented herein affected not only the way in which a guitar would be wielded by rock and blues musicians, but also the American song book. Understanding the genre, after Robert Johnson, begins here.

Rev. Gary Davis
Possessing one of the most startling voices in pre-war blues, the street preacher turned recording artist may have been one of the most important links between religious music of the nineteenth century and blues of the following years. His outrageous singing (?) voice belies the fact that his guitar playing remains unmatched by any other. It could be argued that the totality of his output had as much, if not more to do with ragtime, but we’ll let that be for now. The jauntiness imbued in each bar of blues here easily makes the music, even if that voice wasn’t enticing enough, one of the most playful in blues’ recording history.

Skip James
Disregarding James’ basic musical talents – on guitar and piano – his singing voice makes his catalog one of the most peculiar and haunting out of the pre-war blues folks listed here or elsewhere. Relatively recently his work’s been featured in some films renewing, to a degree, his popularity. But it still seems that James’ll remain one of those hidden treasures amongst blues freeqs.

Mississippi John Hurt
Seemingly one of the happier blues players, Mississippi John Hurt was able to make it through to the revival of the ‘60s, somehow maintaining his skill and songbook. His catalog, both from the twenties and later, represent some of the better fidelity in country styled blues. But beyond that, the fact that his music has been utilized by countless rock bands – most notably some SF hippies – is a testament to his skill. And “Louis Collins,” might be one of the greatest songs penned by an American, in any genre at any time.

Blind Willie Johnson
One of the more powerful performers, partially as a result of working out his religious tunes on street corners, Johnson’s something of a less well known Rev. Gary. That comparison might not be fair, Blind Willie wasn’t second to anyone. His religious polemics were more terrifying than other’s and with his deep, dirty voice – occasionally accompanied by his wife – there’s a creepy church sentiment being distilled throughout his catalog. Not as accessible as other folks here, Johnson makes up for it by being focused on a subject matter while simultaneously being a terrifyingly intense singer.