Black Folk Music Artists You Need to Know

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,

In this blog post, we’ll be discussing some of the most influential black folk music artists of our time. If you’re a fan of folk music, or just looking to expand your musical horizons, this is the post for you!

Black folk music artists: a brief history

Black folk music artists have been making music for centuries, and their contributions to the genre are immeasurable. From spirituals and blues to jazz and hip hop, black musicians have consistently innovated and pushed the boundaries of what is possible in music.

Here are just a few of the many black folk music artists you should know about:

-Arthur Crudup: One of the pioneers of rock and roll, Crudup was an immensely gifted singer and songwriter. His songs “That’s All Right” and “My Baby Left Me” would go on to be covered by Elvis Presley, helping to launch the King’s career.

-Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly: A true American original, Lead Belly was a folk and blues musician who wrote hundreds of songs over his lifetime. His catalogue includes classics like “Midnight Special” and “Rock Island Line”, which have been covered by everyone from The Weavers to The Clash.

-Billie Holiday: Holiday was one of the most influential jazz singers of all time, her voice immediately recognizable even to those who don’t typically listen to jazz. Her version of “Strange Fruit” is particularly haunting, and still relevant today.

-Mahalia Jackson: One of the greatest gospel singers in history, Jackson popularized gospel music with her powerful voice and moving performances. Songs like “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and “Move On Up a Little Higher” are now standards in the genre.

This is just a small sampling of the incredible black folk music artists who have shaped American music over the years. These artists have inspired generations of musicians, and their legacy continues to influence music today.

5 black folk music artists you need to know

Folk music is often thought of as a white genre, but there are a number of black folk musicians who have made their mark on the genre. Here are five black folk music artists you need to know.

1. Odetta Holmes: Known as the “Queen of American Folk Music,” Odetta was a powerful vocalist and influential figure in the 1960s folk revival. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was a child. Odetta began singing in nightclubs while still in her teens and first gained attention for her performances at the San Francisco Club beginning in 1949. She went on to release numerous albums and toured widely, becoming an important voice in the civil rights movement.

2. Josh White: A South Carolina native, Josh White was one of the most popular folk musicians of the 1930s and 1940s. He began his career as a street musician before moving to New York City, where he became known for his bluesy guitar playing and soulful vocals. White recorded dozens of albums and toured extensively, becoming one of the first black musicians to gain widespread mainstream popularity. He also worked as an actor and political activist, using his platform to speak out against racism and injustice.

3. Willie Johnson: A Mississippi Delta bluesman, Willie Johnson is best known for his recordings with legendary slide guitar player Robert Johnson (no relation). He began playing guitar as a teenager and made his first recordings with Robert Johnson in 1936. After Robert Johnson’s death, Willie continued to perform and record, eventually gaining recognition as one of the finest Delta blues musicians of his generation.

4. Furry Lewis: Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Furry Lewis began playing guitar at an early age and soon developed his own distinctive style. He gained attention for his appearances at local clubs and parties, and he went on to record a number of successful albums. Lewis continued to perform until shortly before his death in 1981; he remains one of the most beloved figures in Memphis music history.

5. Peggy Seeger: The half-sister of iconic folksinger Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger is a highly respected musician in her own right. A classically trained violinist, she turned to folk music after becoming interested in the British folk scene during the 1950s. Seeger has released more than 20 albums over her career; she continues to perform and tour extensively throughout Europe and North America

5 more black folk music artists you need to know

1. Odetta
2. Mavis Staples
3. Nina Simone
4. Ledisi
5. case/lang/veirs

5 black folk music artists to watch

The world of folk music is vast and ever-changing, with new artists arising all the time to carry the torch forwards into the future. Here are five black folk musicians who are currently making waves and ensuring that the genre continues to evolve in new and exciting ways.

1. Moses Sumney

A rising star in the world of experimental folk, Moses Sumney first came to prominence with his 2016 debut album Aromanticism. Since then, he has continued to push boundaries with his ethereal voice and unique songwriting, creating music that is both deeply personal and universally relatable. His latest album, græ, is a double album that further cements his place as one of the most innovative and exciting artists working today.

2. Jamila Woods

Chicago-based singer-songwriter Jamila Woods first gained attention with her 2016 debut album HEAVN. A hugely talented poet as well as a musician, her songs tackle issues of race, inequality, and police violence with a rare combination of hope, anger, and beauty. Her 2019 follow-up LP LEGACY! LEGACY! saw her continuing to hone her craft, resulting in an even more polished and assured sound.

3. Lauren Daigle

Lauren Daigle is a Grammy-winning contemporary Christian singer whose music has crossing over into the mainstream in recent years. A powerful vocalist with a inclusive message, she has found success with both Christian and secular audiences alike thanks to her ability to connect with listeners on a deep emotional level. Her 2018 album Look Up Child was one of the year’s best-selling albums overall, further proving her wide appeal.

4. Anderson .Paak

An acclaimed rapper, singer, drummer, and producer, Anderson .Paak is one of the most exciting talents working in music today. He first came to prominence as part of Dr Dre’s acclaimed Compton album before striking out on his own with 2016’s Malibu – an instant classic that cemented his place as one of hip hop’s most vital voices. Since then he has gone on to release two more excellent albums, 2018’s Oxnard and 2020’s Ventura – both of which have further demonstrated his incredible range and skill as an artist.

5.(SOUNDBITE OF SONG,”FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH”) CARDI B: (Singing) What it’s worth…

5 classic black folk music albums

Black folk music is a genre that encompasses a wide range of styles, including blues, gospel, jazz, and hip hop. While the term “folk music” is often associated with white musicians from the American South, black folk music has its own rich history dating back to the days of slavery.

Here are 5 classic black folk music albums that every fan of the genre should own:

1. Thelonious Monk – Straight, No Chaser

2. Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

3. Nina Simone – Sings the Blues

4. Billie Holiday – Lady in Satin

5. Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace

5 contemporary black folk music albums

1. Leyla McCalla – The Capitalist Blues (2019)
2. Sam amidon – Sam Amidon (2017)
3. Tony Allen & Hugh Masekela – Rejoice (2016)
4. Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism (2018)
5. oddisee – The Beauty in All (2018)

In recent years, there has been a boom in the number of black folk music artists hitting the scene. This genre of music is a blend of traditional folk music with elements of blues, jazz, and gospel. If you’re looking for something new to add to your musical repertoire, check out these five recommended black folk music artists.

1. Shemekia Copeland
Shemekia Copeland is a blues and soul singer from Harlem, New York. She has been described as “one of the most powerful and distinctive vocalists of her generation.” Copeland has released six studio albums, and her most recent album, America’s Child, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Blues charts.

2. Valerie June
Valerie June is a singer-songwriter from Tennessee who blends elements of country, blues, gospel, and soul in her music. Her 2013 album, Pushin’ Against a Stone, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album. June has also appeared on major television shows such as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with David Letterman.

3. Fantastic Negrito
Fantastic Negrito is a Grammy Award-winning musician from Oakland, California. His style of music is heavy on the blues influence and often tackles social and political issues in his lyrics. His latest album, Please Don’t Be Dead, was released in 2018 to critical acclaim.

4. Citizen Cope
Citizen Cope is an alternative rock/blues artist from Washington D.C.. He has released eight studio albums, including his most recent release, Heroin and Helicopters, in 2018. His music has been featured in several films and television shows over the years, including The Lincoln Lawyer and Sons of Anarchy.

5. Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from North Carolina who performs primarily in the genres of Americana and folk music. She is a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning musical group The Carolina Chocolate Drops. In 2017, she released her solo album Freedom Highway to critical acclaim.

For further reading: 5 books on black folk music

If you’re interested in reading more about black folk music, check out these five recommended books.

“Afro-Blue: The Search for Miles Davis” by Graham Lock
In this book, jazz critic Graham Lock looks at the life and work of Miles Davis, one of the most influential figures in jazz history.

“The Black Roots of Salsa: Latin Dance Music in New York City” by Vera Mantero
Vera Mantero’s book documents the history of salsa music in New York City, tracing its roots back to the African-American and Puerto Rican communities of the city.

“The Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America and the Music That Developed from It” by LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)
In this classic work, Amiri Baraka traces the history of blues music from its African roots to its influence on American culture.

“Jazz from its Beginnings to the Present” by William G. Roy
In this comprehensive history, William G. Roy looks at the development of jazz from its earliest days to its present-day iterations.

“A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America” by Craig Werner
In this book, professor Craig Werner looks at how black music has shaped American culture and politics.

For further listening: 5 podcasts on black folk music

For further listening, check out these 5 podcasts on black folk music:
1. Folkadelphia Radio #257: Dori Freeman & Teddy Thompson
2. Hear in theSouth: A Southern African American Odyssey in Song – Roots Music from the 1930s and 1940s
3. Blackfoot Confederacy: Native American/First Nations Music of the United States and Canada
4. The Field Recording Hour: Black History Month Special
5. Songs of Our Native Daughters

For further watching: 5 films on black folk music

Documentaries and feature films about black folk music and its artists offer a rich and varied look at the genre. Here are five movies that explore different aspects of the music and its performers.

“The Road to Memphis” (2010)
Directed by Richard Pearce, this documentary chronicles the life and career of musician Booker T. Jones, best known as the leader of the seminal soul group Booker T. and the MGs. The film traces Jones’ development from his early days as a child prodigy in Memphis to his work with such legends as Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, as well as his solo success in later years. “The Road to Memphis” provides an in-depth look at one of the architects of American popular music.

“Muddy Waters: Can’t Be Satisfied” (2003)
This documentary, directed by Robert Gordon, examines the life and music of blues pioneer Muddy Waters. Drawing on a wealth of archival footage and interviews with family members, friends, fellow musicians and admirers, “Can’t Be Satisfied” chronicles Waters’ journey from sharecropper’s son to influential musician, showing how he took the sounds of rural Mississippi and helped shape them into what would become known as Chicago blues.

“The Country Blues” (1959)
Directed by James A. DeVinney, “The Country Blues” is a classic study of the genre, featuring interviews and performances by some of its most important figures. Among those featured are Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White and Willie Brown, all captured in their natural environment – barrooms, juke joints and country crossroads – playing the music they love. An essential document of American musical culture.

“Bessie” (2015)
Directed by Dee Rees, this HBO film tells the story of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith, one of the most important figures in early jazz and blues. Starring Queen Latifah in the title role, “Bessie” chronicles Smith’s rise to fame in the 1920s as she overcame racism and sexism to become one of the era’s most successful performers. A stirring portrait of an artist who helped create a new form of American music.

“The Learning Tree” (1969)
Actor-turned-director Gordon Parks’ semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is set in Kansas in 1919 against a backdrop of racial tension following World War I. The film centers on young black teenager Newt Winger (Kristoff St. John), who must grapple with issues of identity, violence and racial injustice while coming into manhood. Featuring an original score by Quincy Jones, “The Learning Tree” is an important work from one of Hollywood’s most groundbreaking filmmakers

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