Bonnie Raitt’s 66th birthday was yesterday. The singer-guitarist (she qualifies as bandleader, songwriter and activist, too) was born in Burbank, CA on November 8, 1949, the daughter of the late Broadway actor John Raitt, whose major credits included Oklahoma, The Pajama Game, and Carousel. Wikipedia’s entry on Papa John (“He set the standard for virile, handsome, strong-voiced leading men during the golden age of the Broadway musical”) gives a likely hint as to why Bonnie was so at home hanging with and learning from many of the hyper-masculine leading men of blues in the sixties.
Her background (WASP, upstate New York Quaker summer camp and boarding school, Radcliffe) suggested a quite different direction in life than female blues-rock icon, and that’s an understatement, for there were very few white women immersing themselves in blues culture in the sixties, and even fewer actual musicians among them to serve as role models.
Bonnie’s immediate predecessors included Nancy Harrow, Judy Roderick, Maria Muldaur, and Tracy Nelson, each of whom tended toward the Classic blues of Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Chippie Hill; it was Raitt alone who broke new ground in developing an identity and mastery of guitar-driven Delta blues.
Bonnie’s early models were Odetta and Joan Baez. In Baby Let Me Follow You Down, The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years (which I quote throughout this piece), she said she “learned to play guitar” off an Odetta album that she first heard at Camp Regis in 1959. “Then I heard Joan Baez and fell in love. I wanted to pierce my ears and grow thin cheekbones.”
Next came the Elektra album Blues at Newport ’63. There she heard Mississippi John Hurt, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Rev. Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, and John Hammond, Jr. It drew her in and made her eager to attend the following summer’s Newport Folk Festival, but at 15, her elders deemed her “too young.”
From the album, John Hurt’s “Candy Man” was especially appealing. “When I heard that, I went, ‘I don’t know what that stuff is, but this guy is so cute, his voice is so cute, and his guitar is so pretty.’ I just had to learn about it.”