A big misconception about bluesman is that they were old men playing their guitar and singing with weathered voices.
When most of these legendary players recorded, they were in their 20s.
Luckily renewed interest in this music in the 1960s relaunched some of their careers. By the time these musicians careers relaunched, they were old.
Sam Chatmon is an example of a great guitarist who was rediscovered and recorded in the 1960s. He was able to tour around for 20 more years until his death. Fortunately, we got a lot of great video recordings of him during this period.
Sam, along with his famous brother Bo Carter, were part of the popular group the Mississippi Sheiks during the 1930s.
When I used to study with John Miller, I found out he had spent quite a bit of time with Sam. I learned a couple of Sam’s tunes from John, and he showed me how Sam fingered some unconventional chord shapes.
Below is a video of Sam playing That’s Alright at age 81. If you want to learn how to play this, check out my free lesson.
If you’re interested in the history of this music, there are a couple interviews of Sam that are publicly available on Alan Lomax’s channel.
Sonny Boy Nelson (real name Eugene Powell) recorded in the 1930s, and played along side legendary country blues musician Hacksaw Harney. I first discovered Nelson a few years into playing blues music.
It was a revelatory experience.
Nelson’s intricate and sorrowful playing made me see the possibility of what my guitar playing could turn into.
When I studied with John Miller, I asked him to help me figure out some of Nelson’s playing because it was so unconventional, but so familiar. Only a master of this style like John could unravel this playing.
Watching and learning Nelson’s playing gave me a new outlook and perspective in what’s possible in country blues playing. It also helped me figure out the playing of blues-great Sam Chatmon who was undoubtedly in contact with Sonny Boy Nelson in his lifetime.
Here are some examples of Nelson’s incredible blues picking:
Nelson definitely has a unique style, but also has some clear influences. I can hear riffs from Tommy Johnson’s Lonesome Home Blues and a lot of stylistic borrowings from Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Matchbox Blues was a cover of a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, but Nelson’s version is a great example of making something your own.
For the same reasons as I love Scrapper Blackwell’s playing, I love Sonny Boy Nelson’s. They both have a clear way of playing in a key, and they constantly improvise, but their style is a recognizable trademark of their craft.