BHM: Belton Sutherland

February came and went, and I managed a few posts about some of the Black American artists I love and have been inspired by, but there are so many more. Black Americans in general deserve greater recognition for their contributions to this country’s abundant wealth and culture, so Black History Month continues for me.

I discovered Belton Sutherland, a generally unknown blues player, in the music documentary The Land Where Blues Began (1979, dir Alan Lomax) (watch it here for free). I bought a DVD of it after seeing that my great blues idol RL Burnside had a few performances in it.

All of the performances in the film by various artists are remarkable in their own way, but something about Belton stirred me deeply. He was not a professional artist, just a man hardened by a punishing existence, expressing some dark and heavy blues — maybe the heaviest I have ever heard from a country blues performer. His lyrics are brutal — “Kill that old gray mule / burn that white man’s barn / I didn’t mean no trouble, I didn’t mean no harm”. This is folk music of a systematically oppressed and impoverished person.

He looked so badass too, with a cigarette barely hanging off his lip and his cold stare. Back in 2010-2011 when I was just starting to learn to play and sing in a country blues style, I dreamed that I could be that bad some day. So, I ended up buying a 1938 Gibson L-50 archtop guitar on eBay that looked just like his, and that’s the main acoustic guitar I still use today. I am still nowhere near as bad as he was though, and will probably never be (I’m cool with that).

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