I sent my French friends a CD of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and they are now in love. They are absolutely crazy about American music, particularly 50s-era rock and various bluesy and rootsy gospel stuff, and I’d love to listen a bit and send them some more stuff they will like.
Now I really don’t know a whole lot about artists who play this kind of music, but I know what they (and I) will like when I hear it. Can you recommend some rootsy-type blues artists, preferably acoustic (and especially slide guitar), and some gospel, especially some a cappella harmony stuff (choir stuff is great, too, but we’re not so crazy about the stuff that comes with electronic keyboards, electric bass, and lots of overproducing)? The more authentic and spontaneous, the better.
Spike Lee made a movie about a capella… I can’t remember the name, but the sound track is all a capella gospel music, and you might like it. I’m not that knowledgeable about Blues, but if you like old-timey another good soundtrack to pick up is the soundtrack to Crumb, which is all old-time blues music selected by the subject of the movie.
This is bluegrass with the added bonus of having some old gospel songs like “Drifting too Far from The Shore” and “Working on a Building”. David Grisman plays the mandolin and Jerry Garcia is on banjo.
Acoustic blues: Check out Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, though the recording quality will be somewhat poor. Still amazing stuff though. Also check out Skip James. He made some recordings in (I think) the 1960’s with good sound quality. All great stuff. You might also like John Lee Hooker. He wasn’t exactly acoustic but played kinda in that style.
I don’t listen to much gospel so the only gospel I can recommend is Mahalia Jackson. She was around in the pre-synthesizer days. Not exactly a capella, but a beautiful voice.
Been said before, but it’s gotta be said again: can’t even talk about acoustic blues (or any other kind, for that matter) without talking about Robert Johnson. Charley Patton and Son House were around first, of course, and merit a listen (though most of the Patton recordings that have survived are in terrible condition). But Robert Johnson is to the blues what Elvis was to rock & roll (before Elvis stopped having anything to do with rock & roll). Some of Son House’s early work actually combines the two genres you’re asking about (House was a Baptist preacher in his teenage years, and retained a highly conflicted attitude about the propriety of playing the blues and singing in juke joints most of his career), and his career lasted long enough that recordings exist of Son House that didn’t have to be duped from poorly pressed 78s on inferior material that’s noisy even if it’s scratch-free (unlike Patton).
By the time you get into the 1940s, most of the Delta blues men had moved out of the Delta and into the cities – Memphis, in some cases, but more often farther north to Chicago. Along the way, they picked up electric guitars, for the most part. The foremost exception, to my mind, was Mississippi Fred McDowell. McDowell, despite having played the blues at least part-time since the 1920s, was never recorded until Alan Lomax found him in 1959. Perhaps largely because music wasn’t his primary career after he settled down to a farming life in Mississippi, he never took up playing electric blues, and was downright contempuous of those who did (his final album was entitled I Do Not Play No Rock’N’Roll), continuing to do his thing with just acoustic guitar and his voice until his death in the early 1970s.
In addition to Skip James and some of the other bluesmen mentioned already here, your friends might also enjoy Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, etc. Also, Columbia Records has a great 4-disc box set called Roots ‘n’ Blues: The Retrospective 1925-1950 that’s full of this kind of stuff.
Thanks for the great material, guys! I now realize my OP (which was written after a long day at work and a long guitar class, during which we played some Stevie Ray, among other things) isn’t the clearest thing in the world.
My friends (and I) love acoustic guitar in all its forms, but by no means do I want to restrict selections to the 50s and earlier; 50s music is just one of the kinds of music they love. (They are huge Elvis fans, among other things, and met each other in classes for what the French call “rock ‘n roll” dancing, which is kind of a swing/jitterbug hybrid; a few months before their wedding, they actually placed 3rd in France in competition.) If it involves acoustic guitar, we pretty much love it.
Although I’d be up for some blues harmonica recommendations, too, if anyone has any. And having lived in the Chicago area most of my life, I’ve at least heard of most groups that play locally with any frequency, although I don’t see too many live concerts because of my inability to deal with cigarette smoke. (And the fact that all my friends have small kids and never want to go out anymore, but that’s a rant for another day.)
I second Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James – if they like old-time blues (sometimes on pretty bad recordings), these are as good as it gets. Also Tommy Johnson, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
If they like gospel, they might want to check out Blind Willie Johnson, a Texas bluesman who recorded in the twenties. He is considered by some to be the greatest slide player ever, and has one of the most ferociously bluesy voices you’ll ever hear, but all of his lyrics were gospel – he was apparently a very religious man who disdained the blues.
D’oh! Scopped by Labdad on Chris Smither. How about Guy Clark, Greg Brown, or John Gorka for acoustic guitars. Clark is from Texas, and has a lot of western feel in his songs. Brown is probably the bluesiest of the three, but he talks through his songs a lot - it bothers some people (I usually like it, but it gets to me sometimes). John Gorka has so much variety in his music that it’s hard to describe a certain style, but he has an incredible voice to go along with his playing.