Born and raised in Manhattan by a family that had bohemian leanings, she spent her formative years hanging out with musicians like Peter Rowan, John Sebastian, and Geoff Muldaur, who hung out in her father's sandal shop, before picking up the guitar at the age of ten. Her recorded debut came two years later, backing her father on The Elektra String Band Project, a concept album. She met guitarist Stefan Grossman, who, like her, was in love with the blues. The pair would often travel to the Bronx to visit Rev. Gary Davis, one of the greatest living bluesmen.
At the tender age of 15, Block left home, hitting the road in true '60s fashion and traveling through the South, where she learned her blues trade at the feet of Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, her greatest influence, before ending up in Berkeley. It was there that she developed her slide technique (she uses a socket wrench as her slide), but she didn't record until 1975, when she released I'm in Love (a compilation of earlier material, The Early Tapes 1975-1976, appeared later). After two records for Chrysalis, she recorded the instructional How to Play Blues Guitar for Grossman's Kicking Mule label, and moved to the then-fledgling Rounder for High Heeled Blues in 1981. She enjoyed an ongoing relationship with the label for two decades. She toured constantly, often playing as many as 250 dates in a year, which kept her away from her family — she'd married and begun having children in the early '70s — but she developed a reputation as a strong, vibrant live performer and one of the best players of old country-blues in America. Other highlights of decade include 1983's Rhinestones & Steel Strings.
In 1987, the best of Block's Rounder cuts were compiled on Best Blues & Originals, which, as it said, featured her interpretations of blues classics and some of her own material. Two of the tracks, released as singles in Belgium and Holland, became gold records. In addition to her regular albums, Block made a series of instructional records and videos, as well as a children's record, Color Me Wild. Although she had been performing for a long time, the plaudits didn't really begin until 1992, when she won a NAIRD Award for Ain't I a Woman, a feat repeated in 1994 and 1997. In 1996, she began winning W.C. Handy Awards, first for Best Traditional Album (When a Woman Gets the Blues), and in 1997 and 1998 for Best Traditional Blues Female Artist. In 1997 she was elected to the CAMA Hall of Fame, and in 1999 she received yet another Handy Award, for Best Acoustic Blues Album (Confessions of a Blues Singer).
Throughout the '90s and into the 21st century, Block continued to tour, taking advantage of her growing popularity in Europe and Scandinavia. She was often accompanied by her son, Jordan Block Valdina, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who has also played on her albums, though he left the group after 2002's I'm Every Woman to pursue a career in designing eco-friendly buildings and energy systems. In 2003, after a long tenure with Rounder, Block struck a new deal with Telarc, and released two albums with the label, 2003's Last Fair Deal and 2005's From the Dust. In 2006, Block released The Lady and Mr. Johnson, a one-off release for Rykodisc that found her interpreting the songs of country-blues legend Robert Johnson, with the blessings of Johnson's family. The album was a precursor to what Block called her "Mentor Series," albums in which she devoted an entire disc to performing the work of a noted blues artist she had worked with in her early days. The first Mentor Series album, released by Stony Plain Records in 2008, was Blues Walkin' Like a Man: A Tribute to Son House. It was followed by 2011's Shake 'Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell, 2012's I Belong to the Band: A Tribute to Rev. Gary Davis, 2013's Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, and 2014's Hard Luck Child: A Tribute to Skip James. In 2011, Block published her autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues, and in 2014 she announced plans for a special tour in 2015 she called Spirit and the Blues, in which she would perform in tandem with the Strait Way Ministries Choir of Utica and MS, a gospel group led by Elder Steven Johnson, the grandson of Robert Johnson. Block issued continued her Mentor Series the following year with the album Keepin' Outta Trouble: A Tribute to Bukka White. In 2018, she inaugurated a series of recordings she called "Power Women of the Blues" with A Woman's Soul: A Tribute to Bessie Smith, for which she won an Acoustic Blues Artist of the Year award. That year she also appeared in the Netflix original film, Devil at the Crossroads: A Robert Johnson Story. Her second volume in the Power Women series was Prove It on Me, issued in 2020; it honored early contributions to the blues tradition by Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Rosetta Howard, and others. ~ Thom Jurek