An impossible list to compile, of course, but here is an attempt
from a guitarist's perspective. I placed an emphasis on good
fingerpickin' and nice slide technique and omitted some well-known
(but essential) artists such as Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton,
Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt and Tampa Red. I did
not have room for great singers like Frank Stokes, Texas Alexander
and Tommy Johnson and that can be a future column. This is in no
particular order but I have to start with Blind Blake.
BLIND BLAKE - Never ceases to amaze, the slickest fingerpicker ever. This may be called "Travis Pickin'" (after Merle Travis) but it all starts here. The current Best Of (Yazoo2058 $16.99) is a great overview which includes most of the hits like "Diddie Wah Diddie" and the amazing "Blind Arthur's Breakdown". The Documents are a bit much for some but essential to me.
BLIND WILLIE McTELL - Perhaps an underrated guitar player who could do it all from ragtime, blues, gospel, and popular songs of the day. A versatile street corner songster, Blind Willie McTell was a great lyricist and displayed an expressive slide guitar technique. The Yazoo's (1037, 1005, 16.99) have the warmest 78 sound but are a little short in length by CD standards. The 2-CD Definitive (Columbia53234 $19.99) is good and Document vol 1 thru 3 (5006, 5007, 5008, all 16.99) will do the trick. "Atlanta 12 String" (Atlantic 82366, 11.99) is a great later period record.
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON - One of the most inimitable of all guitarists. Blind Lemon's phrasing and concept of time is truly unique and he played incredible guitar arrangements in all keys. He could flatpick with his thumbpick and he could sing and play guitar with total independence. The current "Best Of" (Yazoo 2057 16.99) is the best bet for Blind Lemon Jefferson. The Documents are great but suffer somewhat from repetition due to the popularity and frequent recording of Blind Lemon.
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON - Blind Willie seems to be well known these days but he is a must on the list from a guitar standpoint. His slide playing is without question the sweetest on record. He puts on a clinic in tone, string damping, vibrato, and intonation and he does what slide guitar was meant to do- sing. The "Complete" (Columbia 52835, 19.99) is all great but I think the succinct "Praise God I'm Satisfied" (Yazoo 1058, 16.99) and "Dark Was The Night" (Columbia 65516, 11.99) make a powerful statement and are a good place to start.
REVEREND GARY DAVIS - Probably the most versatile of all blues guitarists, Gary Davis is an unequaled improvisational ragtime player. The "Guitar and Banjo of.." (OBC 592, 11.99) has recently been reissued and is all instrumental (Check out "Maple Leaf Rag" in the neglected Ragtime guitar key of A) and to me is a must-have. The "Complete Early Recordings" (Yazoo 2011, 16.99) sounds great and shows Davis at the peak of his powers.
BIG BILL BROONZY - There is a ton of great stuff available from Big Bill but I love the earliest recordings from the 20's and early 30's. He could play rags with the best of them, lowdown blues in E and A, and could even flatpick a la Louis Lasky in the great "How you want it done". The Young Big Bill and Do that Guitar Rag (Yazoo 1011 & 1035, each $16.99) are my favorites. The same stuff but more complete can be found on Document Volumes 1 and 2 (5050 & 5051, both $16.99).
BO CARTER - Bo Carter is great and his wide array of original tunings (Check out DGDGBE) and use of the capo is a never-ending wild goose chase. "Twist it Babe" (Yazoo 1034, 16.99) is great. The constant double-entendre of "Banana in your Fruit Basket" (Yazoo 1064, 16.99) can be tiresome but his playing and singing is always first rate.
DR. ROSS - Isaiah Ross may not be pre-war but this one man band is absolutely essential. Great Rhythmic playing in open G and Harp enthusiasts will love him, too. "Call the Doctor" (Testament 5009, 12.99) is a good introduction.
RAMBLIN' THOMAS - The older brother of Jesse Thomas is relatively unknown and available only on Document 5107 (16.99). Beautifully understated slide playing and nice singing. Owners of the Harry Smith Anthology will know him from the haunting "Poor Boy Blues". Thomas even does credible impersonations of Blind Lemon (No Baby Blues) and Lonnie Johnson (Jig Head Blues).
WILLIE WALKER - Willie Walker cut two sides in 1930 and has to be heard to be believed. He can be found on the compilation "Ragtime Blues Guitar" (Document 5062, 16.99).
Joel Paterson works at JRM and is a member of many Chicago bands including The Four Charms, The Wabash Jug Band and has recently released a solo country blues CD entitled Down at the Depot (Ventrella 3596, $14.99) which showcases his passion for delta blues, ragtime, old time guitar and early American roots music.
All reviewed items are available from the Jazz Record Mart, 1-800-684-3480.