Often underrated or unappreciated, several principal female innovators of blues music are equipped with a staggering amount of raw talent, undeniable moxie, and impressionable guitar skills. Whether referencing the pioneers who excelled despite time periods that were oozing with racism or pointing out those who maintained the blues tradition, never allowing the music to shed its important cultural components, each woman mentioned here successfully maneuvered through their path, creating crucial and influential space for those women who hoped to follow in their wake. It is safe to say that without these audacious women blues music would not be remembered for what it is today.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten
Widely remembered for her everlasting tune “Freight Train,” Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was an American blues and folk musician whose impact can be heard within the soulful strumming of The Grateful Dead and Americana essence of Bob Dylan. Recognized as a “living treasure” by the Smithsonian Institution, Cotten was a self-taught, left-handed guitarist whose unique strumming was later trademarked as “Cotton Style.” After being discouraged by her church during her teenage years to discontinue playing what they considered to be the work of the devil, Cotten respected their wishes and put down the instrument. She went on to marry and have a child and would later on only occasionally play at church. It wasn’t until 25 years later that she would revive her love of the instrument. Cotten’s first album wasn’t released until she was 62 years old. Despite the late professional start and due to the folk revival of the 1960s, Cotten toured throughout the United States, playing shows the likes of the Newport Folk Festival (“The Kingston Trio Lineup, Biography”). Prior to her passing in 1987, Cotten received a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording; she was ninety years old at the time.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Crowned the Godmother of Rock N’ Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe rattled conventions throughout the 1930s and ‘40s when she unabashedly exposed women to be soulful, gritty singers and passionate, well-practiced guitarists. At the tender age of six, Tharpe began performing throughout the south with her mother’s gospel evangelist troupe. After relocating to Chicago, it became apparent that Tharpe’s southern roots style began to absorb the chi-town blues sound, producing a unique and captivating quality to Tharpe’s music. Beyond being a female African American guitarist throughout a time of heavy racial prejudice, controversy arose in Tharpe’s career as she strove to perform for both religious and secular audiences, as well as when the news of her same-sex romantic relationships became public. Persevering beyond the many hurdles, Tharpe’s most celebrated songs are “Rock Me” and “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” which became the first gospel single to cross over onto the Billboard charts. A resurgence for Blues in the United Kingdom emerged in the 1960s, allotting Tharpe an opportunity at a long and prosperous career. Her influence over musicians such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton proves Tharpe’s strong and lasting impression on music, which recently led to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.
Elizabeth Douglas, better known as Memphis Minnie, claimed her title as Queen of Country Blues by beginning her 200-song recording career in the 1920s. Minnie was notorious for outplaying the boys while simultaneously presenting herself in fancy dresses and a flawless face of makeup. Always evolving, Minnie took her traditional southern blues style and transitioned to Chicago, where she became one of the first performers to plug in and go electric. Remembered for her storytelling lyrics and impressive guitar-picking skills, Minnie is credited as an important contributor to the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll genres. Though a massive inspiration for men and women alike, female musicians such as LaVern Baker, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Rory Block, and Tracy Nelson have credited Minnie as a trailblazer who greatly influenced their careers.
Beverly “Guitar” Watkins
Inspired by the successful female blues musicians of the 1930s and 40s, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins taught herself to play the guitar by listening to her mother’s records. Watkins spent the early 1960s performing rhythm guitar with Piano Red & the Interns. She can be heard playing on their singles “Doctor Feelgood” and “Right String But The Wrong Yo-Yo.” Watkins then joined Eddie Tigner and the Ink Spots, which later led to her residency with Leroy Redding & the Houserockers. It wasn’t until the rise of the internet in the 1990s that Watkins was rediscovered and began gaining the recognition that she had long deserved. In 1998, she was part of the Women of the Blues “Hot Mamas” tour with Koko Taylor and Rory Block, and her 1999 solo debut, Back in Business, earned her a W. C. Handy Award nomination. Watkins remains an influential blues guitarist, as she can still be caught jamming in Atlanta, Georgia clubs to this very day.
Editor’s Update: Ms. Watkins passed away on October 1, 2019
Peggy “Lady Bo” Jones
Peggy Jones, aka Lady Bo, grew up in New York City, where she attended Manhattan’s High School for the Performing Arts. Initially focusing her studies on opera, tap dance, and ballet, it wasn’t until a run-in with Bo Diddley that her guitar aspirations began to take flight. Diddley quickly recognized the raw talent and potential behind Jones’ playing and, soon after their initial meeting, asked her to join his backup band. This relationship blossomed into a beautiful exchange of style and technique to the point where it became nearly impossible to decipher the difference between Diddley’s and Jones’ sounds. Jones departed from Diddley’s band in 1961, forming her own group, The Jewels, which went on to become one of the most popular touring bands on the East Coast. When Jones eventually reunited with Diddley in 1970, the crowd was so overcome with excitement that they began chanting “Lady Bo,” cementing her beloved nickname and undeniable link to Bo Diddley. Though remembered as a sturdy pillar within Diddley’s legendary career, Jones deserves individual recognition as a forerunner within rhythm and blues music as well as an outstanding innovative female guitarist.
Growing up in the Deep South during the era of the Great Depression, Odetta’s initial love for music blossomed through hearing the painfully honest tales sung by struggling people throughout the 1930s. Continuing to be musical throughout her adolescence, Odetta eventually graduated from Los Angeles City College in 1950 with a degree in music. Soon after, while singing in a traveling chorus, Odetta found herself in San Francisco and deeply submerged in an obsession with folk music. Odetta gained notoriety with her first solo album Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, as well as with the live recordings of her performance at Carnegie Hall. The 1960s proved to be Odetta’s most significant years. Throughout this time, Odetta used her influential voice to promote black equality. Performing at rallies and demonstrations, Odetta gave one of her most widely acclaimed appearances on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being introduced by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1999, Odetta was awarded the National Medal of Arts, and in 2004, she was named a Kennedy Center Honoree, and in 2005 she received the Living Legend Award by the Library of Congress. Odetta’s music was so powerful that it would later be christened the “Soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement” and go on to influence musicians and activists alike for generations.
Deborah Coleman was eight years old when she picked up a bass after witnessing a televised performance by the Monkees. It wasn’t until her teenage years, when her love for Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin emerged that she exchanged the bass for a guitar and began following the roots of rock n’ roll back to the soulful basic blues. After performing with a series of R&B bands, Coleman had all but quit pursuing her musical career to raise her daughter. Returning to the limelight in 1985, Coleman collaborated with the all-female group Moxxie which began her experimentation into developing her own sound and eventually led her to join the R&B trio Misbehavin. After minimal success, Coleman forged her own path when entering the Charleston Blues Festival’s National Amateur Talent Search. Taking first place in the competition, Coleman was awarded free studio time. This prize provided Coleman the opportunity to record her album, Takin’ A Stand, which was succinctly followed by a record deal. Coleman then produced a string of blues albums that initiated her win of the Orville Gibson Award for “Best Blues Guitarist, Female” in 2001 and four nominations for the W.C. Handy Award.
Etta Baker was taught how to play guitar and banjo by her father, a skill that had been passed down in their family for generations. This kindred talent prompted her performances at local dances and parties, where she experimented with hymns, parlor music, rags, and Tin Pan Alley songs. She all but ceased live performances to raise her family, but in 1956, Baker contributed to Paul Clayton’s Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians. This album would go on to become one of the key influences towards the legendary Folk Revival of the 1960s. At age 60, Baker decided to professionally pursue her musical career and went on to become a smash hit in the international folk-festival circuit. Playing well into her 90s, as well as being awarded the 1991 Folk Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Baker is celebrated for her iconic two-finger guitar picking style, driving rhythm, and undeniable impact within the folk and blues genres.
When Bonnie Raitt’s passion for social issues is aligned with her soulful voice and feel-good guitar playing, it becomes apparent why she is one of the most impactful musicians of her generation. Raised in L.A. but stationed in Massachusetts to attend Radcliffe College, Raitt dropped out of school to begin performing at local folk and blues clubs. Soon after, Raitt was introduced to Dick Waterman, an established blues manager, who signed and quickly got her performing with some of the biggest names in blues music; Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. In 1989, Raitt began making her anticipated commercial breakthrough. Her album, Nick of Time, in 1990, won three Grammy Awards, and its follow-up, Luck of the Draw, in 1993, added two more Grammys onto Raitt’s rapidly expanding shelf. Her singles “Something to Talk About” and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” sold more than eight million copies in the United States, and in 2000, Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Additionally, her 1996 tribute album to Stevie Ray Vaughn earned her yet another Grammy, exposing that Raitt is indeed an unstoppable force to be reckoned with, as well as one of the most decorated blues musicians of all time.
With both parents’ as professional musicians, Debbie Davies’ introduction to the world of music occurred at an early age. Her father had written arrangements for Ray Charles and worked in the recording studio with Frank Sinatra. His experiences bled into Davies’ life, perpetuating her infatuation with guitar. As Davies grew and her guitar interests evolved, it became apparent to her that she did not want to strum an acoustic but instead shred an electric, much like the British blues bands that were overtaking the United States throughout that time. After first performing in the San Francisco Bay area, Davies returned to her native city of Los Angeles and began playing lead guitar in the all-female band Maggie Mayall and the Cadillacs. Three years later, Davies joined Fingers Taylor and the Ladyfingers Revue as the lead guitarist. In September of 1993, Davies debuted her first solo release, Picture This, which began a string of successful solo albums. Davies has worked with the likes of Ike Turner, James Cotton, Rod Carey, and Mick Taylor. Her extensive resume and years of touring experience mark Davies as a massively successful contributor to the blues music genre.