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).

BHM: Blind Willie Johnson

Even though he recorded only about 30 songs in his life, he was the first preacher to make blues records and influenced everyone to come along afterwards. Years ago, I spent a whole drive from Asheville, NC to Memphis, TN singing along to this song to try to learn how to inflect like he does. I’m still working on it…

BHM: Son House

Son House is a country blues player whose slide playing style I have ripped off plenty, but so did Robert Johnson and just about everyone else since who plays slide guitar.

BHM: Boyd Rivers

Boyd Rivers sang and played with the spirit and fire of a man doing his best to save us from certain damnation — he’s the baddest preacher I have ever come across. Discovering this video blew my mind that this man was virtually unknown outside the communities of dedicated blues listeners. Watching it taught me about singing from a deep place in my body, and to do it with style and joy. There are a few rare recordings of his out there — all worth checking out.


This post is part of a series where I pay tribute to the numerous Black American artists that have inspired and influenced me over the years.