Blues and fathers might not be, at first glance, the most obvious of pairings. For one, according to Muddy Waters (father of the electric blues, according to some), blues is a woman who “got pregnant/and they named the baby rock and roll.” As well, some of the finest practitioners of the form (Charley Patton, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, to name a few) never earned the best of reputations; the songs themselves rarely celebrate the joys of domesticity or the well-earned comforts of family life.
Yet in the lyrics, among the players, and throughout the history of the music, fathers of all sorts have been, well, instrumental. This list attempts to pin down a few, in honor of Father’s Day.
1. WC Handy
If you venture east on Beale Street in Memphis, you can stroll past all the shops and bars and restaurants (most of which are sincerely tacky or tackily sincere) and witness a statue of WC Handy in Handy Park. The statue is very representative of Handy: nattily dressed, well groomed, trumpet in hand. Hardly the image of the lowdown bluesman most of us prefer. Yet a list of blues fathers without Handy is decidedly incomplete. After all, the man named his autobiography, Father of the Blues, and the historical record certainly backs it up. Composer of such blues classics as Memphis Blues, St. Louis Blues, and Beale Street Blues, among others, also collected and promoted numerous blues tunes and melodies . All this after an encounter in a Clarksdale, Mississippi train station where he heard an African American guitarist playing what Handy called “the weirdest music I had ever heard.” And while it is difficult to envision the blues in the twentieth century without a Bessie Smith or BB King, it is impossible to envision it without WC Handy.
2. Howlin’ Wolf
Unlike WC Handy, Chester Arthur Burnett—AKA Big foot Chester, AKA The Tail Dragger, BKA Howlin’ Wolf—all but typifies the mid twentieth century bluesman. Brazen enough to shake his ass in front of white teenagers on an episode of Shindig, Wolf blew harp like he was trying to put out fires, was an overlooked but powerful slide guitarist, and inspired more '60s rockers than perhaps any other figure outside of Elvis Presley. Yet as James Segrest and Marc Hoffman, the writers of his biography Moanin' at Midnight, make very clear, off stage Wolf was different than most of his Chess Record peers: he managed well his own money, provided good salaries and health insurance to band members; he even earned a GED and was a Mason! He married a good woman, Lillie, and became by all accounts a good stepfather to her two children, Bettye and Barbra. And while it should be a law that every list of bluesmen has Wolf on it, he certainly earned himself this place.
3. Raful Neal
Like many bluesmen who took up their instruments in the shadow of rock and roll, this Lousiana-born harpist and vocalist should be much better known. He didn’t record enough during his prime, and perhaps by taking over Slim Harpo’s band in the early seventies he effaced his own sterling harp playing and solid vocal chops. Poor health didn’t help his reputation either, preventing his touring outside of Louisiana much, but about fatherhood he has few peers, in and out of the blues world. He is the father to Kenny Neal, who I can guarantee is on stage somewhere amazing all with his blistering guitar playing and soul-stirring vocals. Were Kenny his only son, Raful would merit serious consideration for this list, but what secures his place is this fact: of his eleven children, nine are blues performers.
4. Robert Johnson
Of course, a case could be made that Mr. Johnson is as much the “father of the blues” as Mr. Handy, but it’s not his musicianship or mythmaking that concerns me here. Instead, Robert is listed for his term of service as stepfather to the incomparable Robert Lockwood, Sonny Boy Williamson II’s guitar accompanist and stellar performer in his own right for nearly 50 years. Off and on for ten years, Johnson lived in Helena, Arkansas with Lockwood’s mother, and though an accurate accounting of Johnson’s whereabouts are as elusive as his actual grave (currently three sites claim his bones), one oft-heard anecdote cites how Lockwood could imitate Johnson’s playing so well people could not tell which Robert was playing. And while his more singular fluid and jazzy runs are as much a part of the blues guitar lexicon as any other player’s, Lockwood maintained that Johnson had been the prime reason he took up the instrument, and for this, Mr. Johnson should be one proud poppa.
5. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Call him an early rock and roller, a precursor to Alice Cooper for showmanship (dude sprang out of a coffin on stage!), or recall his scene-stealing acting work in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Jalacy “Screamin Jay” Hawkins was at heart a bluesman, and apparently one of the most prolific fathers outside of Solomon. Near his death, he put out the word that he might have more children than those from his six marriages and wanted all his offspring to meet. Trouble was, that number might be in the fifties and there was purportedly video of Hawkins claiming as many as seventy-five. Even though his legitimate children suspected their father was exaggerating, they still expected an additional ten to fifteen. And while for the most part, the saga remains ambiguous in just how many of Jay’s kids there are, for now he deserves this spot.
6. Rufus Thomas
As colorful a performer as they come, Rufus Thomas had a CV that reads like a history of black achievement in the twentieth century: sharecropper’s son, college student (for a semester), minstrel, DJ, performer of “Bear Cat,” the answer song to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” “Walkin’ the Dog,” and “Do the Funky Chicken.” He remained one of the blues’ most beloved figures and Memphis’s finest ambassador up until his death in 2001. And of his three musical daughters, one was Carla, whose timeless “Gee Whiz” may well be one of the most naked expressions of longing known to man.
7. Big Daddy Kinsey
The nickname “Big Daddy” might be as common as coal in Kentucky but occasionally there are people who’ve actually earned it: Lester “Big Daddy” Kinsey was one such figure. Not nearly the physical presence as Howlin Wolf, he was, however, equipped with an incomparable baritone and played slide guitar like no other. Living in Gary, Indiana and working at the steel mills kept him out of the recording studio during his younger days, but his influence on and production of his sons, Donald, Kenneth and Ralph (three fourths of Kinsey Report), includes him here.
Although Muddy Waters claimed that the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll, he does not name the father. Whether it was country & western or bop or swing, this father is worthy of some attention. For it is necessary to consider where the blues might be were it not for its rowdy offspring. The nurturing relationship between blues and rock kept Wolf and Mud and Sonny Boy touring and recording through the sixties and seventies, and kept toggling back and forth with the work of such artists as ZZ Top, George Thorogood and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. And the mustual admiration of rock and blues can still be seen today in the work of Gary Clark, Jr. and Jarekus Singleton, African American artists with chops that set air guitar players to strumming and hearken back to every holler and moan that informed and influenced these fundamentally American art forms. Mother blues and Rock and Roll’s Daddy might not talk as much as they should these days but when they get together the results are always worthwhile and listeners should honor this deadbeat dad, whoever he is.
9. Pops Staples
If you’ve never seen the documentary Wattstax, get thee to Netflix, if for nothing else than to see Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his divinely-inspired daughters. And from there get hold of every recording by the Staples Sisters, along with Pops’ Peace to the Neighborhood and Father Father and understand that his was a vision informed by the sacred. But his guitar playing can get lowdown in a hurry and his vocals send you back to church on Sunday. And then you’ll know why he’s on this list.
More than once, John Lee Hooker (whose own son, John Lee Hooker, Jr., is not too shabby a performer) has sung some variation on these lines of artfully designed dialogue, “One night I was laying down/I heard momma and poppa talkin./ I heard poppa tell momma, ‘Let that boy boogie woogie. It’s in in him, and it’s sure got to come out.’” If a more telling scene exists about how blues inspires, I don’t know. Called devil’s music, scourged, feared, ignored, despised, coopted, covered, counted out, left for dead, you name it, blues is still around and able to capture listeners like nothing else. And it’s been this and other poppas who’ve assured these frightful mommas that there’s no need to fret, there’s no need to worry. When I think of the boys and girls named or alluded to on this list, and think of all they’ve let out for us to enjoy, I believe this poppa represents so many others, and for that alone, he deserves this ranking.
TOM WILLIAMS is the author of Don't Start Me Talkin' and The Mimic's Own Voice (Main Street Rag Publishing Co). He has also published numerous stories, reviews, and essays, most recently in RE:AL, The Collagist, Booth, and Slab. An associate editor of American Book Review, he is the Chair of English at Morehead State University.