There’s really no definitive answer to who the father of the blues is, although in a debatable way names such as W.C. Handy, Charley Patton, and Lead Belly are worthy contenders.
It’s also important to focus this question more, such as who invented the blues, who first wrote the blues on sheet music, and so on.
Diving into a myriad of a question
People are always wondering who the first to play the electric guitar was, who the first guitarist to employ the tapping technique was, who invented rock n’ roll, who was the greatest blues artist, and in this case which artist was known as the father of the blues. It’s definitely natural to wonder and fantasize about these “firsts”, of course it goes beyond music too — who was the first to walk on the moon, etc. Too often though, the natural world doesn’t work within these straight line, 90 degree frameworks. A newer man-made city often has rigid grid patterns of roads, all partitioned neatly in human, finite angles; whereas, a large river or mountain regions flow in these fractal-like, unpredictable patterns; one river branches from another, branching into 7 others, practically indefinitely.
So it is with starters in terms of music. Pinpointing a true father of the blues, such a broad question can be split into three sub-questions. Who invented the blues, who first notated the blues, and who is the most influential. Usually, one of these three sub-questions is really what people wonder when they ask who the father of the blues was.
Who invented the blues?
Tackling first who invented or started the blues, here’s one answer: no one. For instance, Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly, W.C. Handy, and Ma Rainey (each considered iconic pioneers in their own right) all recalled hearing what they later understood as “the blues” around 1900, before common recording technology existed. To be exact, some point to 1901, others point to 1902, and so on. Now surely if they first heard the blues around this time, it’s reasonable to guess that it had actually been around for at least a year or two more. If that’s the case, the blues was quite possibly in formation well prior to 1900. In truth, and returning to the fractal case, blues is often said to be a melange of African-American spirituals, folk music such as work songs, and older musical traditions, which irregularly formed branch by branch over a span of time.
To say it another way, rather than being a question of “the chicken or the egg”, it was probably instead a slow morphing of past creatures which over time became what we call today a chicken. This is a hard pill to swallow in a way because us humans with our 90 degree angles want a definitive answer — who invented the blues?! (And who therefore can be crowned father of the blues?!) But instead we’ll have to answer it with an unstable, vacuum of an answer once more: nobody!
Who first notated the blues?
If by asking, which artist is known as blues’ father, people mean to ask, who first notated the blues? Then, this is much more black and white question. W.C. Handy is generally accepted as being the first to write the blues down, with his landmark Dallas Blues (1912) and Saint Louis Blues (1914), capturing the 12 bar structure so well-known today. Often, and bringing back that topic of the “inventor” of the blues, W.C. Handy is then mistaken as being the inventor of the blues, but again this is fairly straight-forward to debunk since of all those names like Jelly Roll contended they’d heard the blues before Handy.
On top of that, Lead Belly mentions on one of his Lomax interviews that he’d heard Saint Louis Blues years before knowing W.C. Handy’s name. That being said, W.C. Handy definitely marks his place in the annals of music history for his notable step forward.
Who’s the most influential blues artist?
Now, jumping to the “father of the blues” as it pertains to the most influential blues artist, this is also a doable one to shotgun some answers. It’s not a topic with a definitive answer of course, but one which stokes great conversation and debate. Returning to the parallel of branches, and how all artists, rather than being “0-1” inventors of wholly new ideas, areinstead contributors of a greater whole, here are some artists who contributed especially significant branches, off of which other musicians were able to create their branches (aka, their contributions).
For example, in rock guitar, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t a total alien with entirely new concepts; he borrowed from Pete Townshend’s on-stage antics, he amalgamated BB King’s licks with others’ licks, he wrote lyrics inspired by Bob Dylan. So, he was just a branch off of the larger tree of music. However, his branch was an enormously significant branch, and one which allowed others to branch from, including Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, and so on. Here are some such branches in terms of early blues.
Many would point to Charley Patton as a father of the blues, even a patriarch of the blues. Marking his influence as a real “touring” folk artist, he was unique for his time in that he actually was fairly well-known, a “robin-hood” kind of figure, known to locals, playing shows as far as Chicago and New York City.
Although, his main region of playing in various Mississippi areas. People point to Patton as the blues’ influential father because he was a key mentor to so many blues musicians who followed, including Son House, Willie Brown, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bukka White. In other words, had Charley Patton not set his example of being a working artist, those other musicians may not have taken their course so strongly, which would’ve hugely impacted the course of 20th century American music to come.
Another notable father of the blues is the man who was allegedly shot in the stomach with a shotgun and outran a team of prison bloodhounds to escape from jail.
Truly, Lead Belly lived the Hollywood life of a bluesman, moving from city to city — sometimes using pseudonyms — to beat jail, and collecting piles upon piles of songs like jewels which he’d record en masse over the years. Being so prominent early on, born around that same early time like Charley Patton, Lead Belly has a strong claim to being the father of the blues. One aspect of Lead Belly, though, is that he’s often considered to have covered more than just the blues (in the technical 12 Bar Blues sense), with many of his famous songs being folk songs such as House of the Rising Sun, Black Betty, and Midnight Special. Still, being a close friend of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s and having remarkable facility on his Stella 12 String to play that full, down-home blues, Lead Belly can still be considered a father of the blues.
Many “meta” pre-war blues fans may contend with Robert Johnson being named father of the blues; this might sound contradictory since Johnson is easily the most famous bluesman of the pre-war period.
However, since he’s the most commercially well-known of this cohort (perhaps other than Muddy Waters), niche listeners may often say that the hype and the true contribution of Johnson are out of sync. And, with the difficulty of separating the commerial hype from the real substance of his recordings, they often leave him as an outlier in the discussion. Is there value to this point of view? Potentially, but Johnson surely was indeed a true blue contributor; in other words, the hype is valid. Contrary to Keith Richards and Eric Clapton’s praise of Johnson as an untouchable guitar genius, this is where it’s overhyped. His slide playing was not even close to being as masterful as Blind Willie Johnson, his fingerstyle prowess was nowhere near that of Blind Blake, and many of his classic licks were straightaway adapted from Son House songs, among other predecessors of his. But, Johnson played with an inimitable flair and style — that pre-Rock n’ Roll bohemian non-chalance and sexuality, as well as really cultivating that hell / devil aesthetic as his own. Plus his edgy type of playing was certainly excellent; this can’t be denied. Although he didn’t necessarily match the raw technical abilities of some of his predecessors, his recordings caused such a stir, forever veering the path of 20th century music in a new direction, that his impact inevitably calls for the question of if he’s the father of the blues, regardless and even in full acknowledgement of his hype.
A unique figure in blues is Muddy Waters. Most of the possible fathers of the blues discussed here have been pre-war players, which makes sense since, despite “father” being difficult to define, surely there’s an early influencer aspect to it.
Although Muddy Waters was both; he began his playing in that pre-war style, all acoustic and even employing Blind Willie Johnson-like bottleneck playing in his early recordings, all the way to pioneering the electric blues Chicago style in the 1950s. By being so firmly rooted in traditional, early blues playing, and being not just present but extremely impactful to so many of the future generation of musicians, Muddy’s influence was quite broad. From Chuck Berry, to Little Walter, to the Rolling Stones, Muddy instigated so many movements along the significant junction points of music that he could also be considered a father of the blues. Of course, his style, like Johnson and Lead Belly, was quite unique. A full-on womanizer, with a dominant presence according to those who remember him, and a classic Telecaster sound, with “cat-growl”-like slide licks.
Tying up the discussion’s loose ends
In summary, there are a few different ways a “father” of the blues can be interpreted. Perhaps when people ask which artist was known as blues’ father, they mean in terms of who invented the blues, who first notated the blues, or who was the most influential blues artists. To answer these questions, no single person invented the blues, W.C. Handy was probably the first to notate the blues, and the most influential blues artist is quite debatable but probably includes names like Patton, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters; the answer to this last question sways with each person’s personal slant.