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Important African-American Folk Music Artists

A brief look at some of the most important African-American folksingers

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African-American artists have played an enormous part in moving forward the history of American folk music, from the permutation of slave spirituals to early field recordings, songs of the civil rights and feminist movements, story songs, gospel songs, protest songs, and beyond. These artists have influenced and inspired generations of folk music artists and songwriters. So, in the spirit of celebrating black history, here's a look at some of the most notable African-American artists in American folk music (listed in alphabetical order).

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte
photo: Peter Kramer/Getty Images
Harry Belafonte became most widely known with his rendition of the calypso tune "The Banana Boat Song," but that was only the beginning of what has been a long and rather illustrious career. Belafonte's career has spanned numerous albums and nearly a decade of television specials in the 1960s. He was also the first African-American man to win an Emmy award for one of his specials, which helped introduce the U.S. to several budding folk songwriters. Belafonte has also been a vocal activist for social justice, Civil Rights, and other causes.

Blind Boys of Alabama

Blind Boys of Alabama
© Henry Diltz
The Blind Boys of Alabama formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Blind and, while they spent 40 years touring the country and establishing a name for themselves, it wasn't until 1992 that the group was recognized by the mainstream with a Grammy Award. Regardless of mainstream recognition, the Blind Boys have easily spent their nearly 60-year career fiercely influencing artists and fans in genres ranging from gospel to roots, rock, and beyond.

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops
© CCDs promo photo
Ever since they burst on the scene with their 2006 debut, Don'a Got a Ramblin' Mind, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have been making serious waves on the folk festival and club circuit. They earned a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2010 for their disc Genuine Negro Jig and have been turning a whole new generation onto the traditions surrounding old timey fiddle music and jug bands.

Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten - Shake Sugaree
© Smithsonian Folkways
Easily one of the most influential singer-songwriters in all of contemporary folk music, Elizabeth Cotten didn't even become known to the greater world until she was nearly an old woman, after taking a housekeeping job in the home of the Seeger family. But, her classic song "Freight Train" has been covered by younger and younger generations, and her signature guitar picking style (she was left-handed, so played the guitar upside down and backwards) has been attempted by all types of players.

Richie Havens

Richie Havens
promo photo

 You would be hard-pressed to talk about the evolution of American folk music in popular culture without the inclusion of Richie Havens. Havens was a giant of the traditional form, and an extraordinary live performer. He had the ability, onstage, to take you away through his songs, into a better world. His music was influential an inspirational, radical, and provocative. 

Keb Mo

Keb Mo
photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Keb Mo is most celebrated, perhaps, as an acoustic bluesman. But, it's the folk-blues he plays, carrying on a similar tradition to his forebears Leadbelly, Josh White, and others. He pulls in elements of jazz, rock, and soul, touching on all elements of both contemporary and traditional American roots music, making him a quintessential modern folk singer.

Leadbelly

Leadbelly Boll Weevil CD © Fruit Tree Records 2005
Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly) was born in Louisiana in 1888. Most notably, Ledbetter's songs were used twice to help him get out of jail on murder charges—the first time in Texas and the second time in Louisiana. It was his pardoning in Louisiana, when the judge released him under the care of music producers John and Alan Lomax, that his career took off. The Lomax's made a recording of "Goodnight Irene," which became an enormous hit for Leadbelly, and would eventually be adapted by the Weavers to be one of the most influential folk songs in contemporary history.

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey
Public Domain Image from The New Georgia Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Commons)
Born toward the end of the 19th Century, Ma Rainey was one of the original, definitive folk-blues singers. She traveled with a minstrel group and made more than 100 recordings - quite a feat for her generation. Rumor has it that Ma Rainey was an early mentor (and kidnapper?) to a young Bessie Smith, teaching her to sing the folk-blues and taking her on the road. When Vaudeville tours gave way to live radio, Rainey went right on recording and enjoyed a long career due to her catchy personality and inimitable folky vocal style.

Odetta

Odetta
photo: Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images
One thing people always say about Odetta is that her voice is beyond belief; and if her voice doesn't flatten your heart in one note, her stage presence is sure to mesmerize. Odetta's gospel-folk mastery inspired numerous artists and fans alike during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, and her magic as a folksinger and performer has hardly waned since. Her latest effort, Gonna Let it Shine was nominated for a 2007 Grammy Award, and her influence on American folk artists of all walks of life has been immeasurable.

Toshi Reagon

Toshi Reagon
© Molly Rubin
Sure, the fact that Toshi Reagon is the daughter of acclaimed folksinger/founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock Bernice Johnson Reagon does indicate the woman has solid musical genes. But the soulful, bluesy folk music she makes is a sound all its own. Where her mother's work comes from a deep tradition of African vocal music and gospel, Toshi's is more in the singer-songwriter vein, touching on all the intensely personal issues which come along with it. Of course she also occasionally touches on the socio-political as well.

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Sweet Honey in the Rock
photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
The seven-member, all-female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock started their career in the early 1970s, and they have been going strong ever since. 20 women have cycled through the Sweet Honey line-up throughout the years, but the themes the group sings about, and their innovative blend of folk music, with a smidge of jazz, gospel and world rhtyhms, has not changed. The women of Sweet Honey have indeed inspired and informed generation after generation of women and men through their mastery of American folk music.
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