op-ed: we need more black female blues guitarists! tribute to the pioneers

October 12, 2015

“I’m a woman/I can sing the blues/I’m a woman/I can turn old to new”. This lyric comes from “I’m a Woman”, one of the best known songs by blues guitarist Deborah Coleman. Coleman has the distinction of being nominated for the W.C. Handy Blues Award nine times. She is also a rarity in blues music. A black woman playing the blues on guitar isn’t anything new. Memphis Minnie was a pioneering black blues guitarist. Lady Bo played backup to her boss Bo Diddley in the late 50’s. Yet with Lady Bo’s recent passing comes the knowledge that there are too few living black female blues guitarists.

By Latonya Pennington, AFROPUNK Contributor


(Memphis Minnie)


Besides Coleman, the only other black female blues guitarist out there is Beverly “Guitar” Watkins. You could even count Barbara Lynn if you squint, because she’s more R&B and rock than blues. The lack of black female blues guitarists wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that blues has always been associated with men.

In the past it was female blues singers like Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday that got overlooked. Now female blues guitarists are getting overlooked so that the first thing you think of when you hear “blues guitarist” is are names like T-Bone Walker or B.B. King.


(Deborah Coleman)


For a black female blues listener like me, this can be problematic when some black male blues artists put out songs with misogynistic lyrics. In Robert Johnson’s “Me and The Devil’s Blues”, Johnson sings of beating his woman until he’s satisfied. In Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up”, he tells his woman to stop complaining while likening her to an animal he’s caught and taken care of.


(Bo Diddley)


While there is no denying the influence of Robert Johnson or the late B.B. King in music, sometimes it can be vexing to have to look up the lyrics to their songs & wade through offensive tracks. It is also disappointing to think that Deborah Coleman may never get the same recognition as her male counterparts.


In a world where a black women in music today is encouraged to do pop and R&B, it would be great to see more black female blues guitarists. The world needs to see that black women can sing the blues and play it too. Until then, I will keep playing Deborah Coleman and Beverly Watkins on repeat.


(Beverly Watkins)