Folk and folk-blues

Topical folk music became popular in America in the 1930s with the Depression and the social ills that it brought. Its most famous exponent was Woody Guthrie. Certain blues artists as well, however, particularly Leadbelly, may be categorized as folk or folk blues since unlike pure acousticblues performers, their repertoire included blues songs as just one of many styles.

This style of music had little impact directly on the Stones. Yet it was very important as an influence on the blues background in which they evolved. At art school, the music Keith was exposed to, just as he was starting to play guitar, was this type of blues, rather than the electric Chicago stuff the Stones later cut their teeth on. In a similar way, when the Stones joined up in 1962 around the Alexis Korner R&B scene in London, the blues they were often exposed to often retained this strong folk or folk blues influence. The Stones eventually rebelled and defined themselves against this particular way of treating the blues, opting for a more electric and rhythmically aggressive format.

JESSE FULLER  (1896-1976)

Born in Georgia, Fuller is a guitar player and vocalist (and harmonica player) who was important in helping along the acoustic blues revival of the 1950s and '60s. His own success came in writing and performing folk and blues tunes in the San Francisco area in those same decades.

Fuller's folk-blues, like Guthrie's and Leadbelly's, was not the stuff that the Stones were into. He was a very influential figure, however, in the art school environment in which Keith grew up in his teens and where he formed his early guitar playing.

(O)nce I started learning guitar, I began attending art school, second year. The atmosphere was very free. You'd walk into the john to take a pee and there'd be 3 guys sitting around playing a guitar, doing Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott stuff. I was getting into the blues - Big Bill Broonzy, Jesse Fuller - by hearing these guys play.

                                                  - Keith Richards, 1988


WOODY GUTHRIE  (1912-1967)

Like Leadbelly, Oklahoma-born Guthrie, though he is probably the greatest folk singer ever (along with Dylan), is not much of an influence on the Stones. Guthrie is the incarnation of the topical folk artist, composing politicized folk material in the 1930s and 40s that defined the genre. He himself had been influenced by early country artists like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He came to be an important influence on Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, in addition to all the folk artists of the
1950s and 1960s.

Guthrie is worth mentioning, however, because he was a figure, along with Leadbelly and Broonzy, whose music Keith was exposed to often during his years at art school in the late 1950s, during the time he was getting into guitar playing.

I was 15 and there are kids there 19, in their last year. A lot of music goes on at art schools. That's where I got hung up on guitar, because there were a lot of guitar players around then, playing anything from Big Bill Broonzy to Woody Guthrie. I also got hung up on Chuck Berry, though what I was playing was the art school stuff, the Guthrie sound and blues. Not really blues, mostly ballads and Jesse Fuller stuff.

                                                                                    - Keith Richards, 1970


LEADBELLY  (1888-1949)

Leadbelly is a great figure in Afro-American music, but he represents somewhat of an outsider in terms of his influence on the blues. His music is more typically defined as folk-blues, since he sang not only blues but many types of musical styles, including spirituals and minstrel songs. Born in Louisiana, Leadbelly spent many years in prison as a convicted murderer and on his release was discovered by Library of Congress archivist John Lomax, who recorded him and made him the first Afro-American blues artist to be appreciated by white audiences. His influence, however, was stronger on the folk audience (Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, eventually Bob Dylan), than on the blues circuit.

It was this type of acoustic, folkish blues that Keith was first exposed to at art school, and which was also still a discernible influence on Alexis Korner and his musicians in the early 1960s. As with Broonzy, he may have appreciated it but his greatest passion, and the Stones', lied elsewhere, with rock and roll and electric Chicago blues especially.

Keith Richards covered Leadbelly's Goodnight Irene on his 2015 solo album Crosseyed Heart.

Written by Ian McPherson, 2000-2015.
Like all files on Time Is On Our Side, it is the exclusive intellectual property
of Ian McPherson and cannot be duplicated, in any form, without his authorization.

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