50 greatest traditional blues songs
“A lot of peoples wonder, ‘what is the blues?’ I hear a lot of people saying ‘the blues, the blues,’ but I’m gonna tell you what the blues is. When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay your house rent, you still got the blues. A lot of peoples holler about ‘I don’t like no blues,’ but when you ain’t got no money, and can’t pay your house rent and can’t buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you ain’t got no money you got the blues, because you’re thinking evil. That’s right. Any time you’re thinking evil, you’re thinking about the blues.” – Howlin’ Wolf
I’ve chosen not to include blues/rock fusion musion in this chart. So these songs are ‘traditional’ in that they represent the forms of blues, instrumentations and styles of playing that existed before the advent of rock’n’roll. In my notes I have pointed to how much they influenced a variety of later musicians. But these songs are also superb music in their own right. They often speak about the life experiences of America’s poor in a very direct and forthright way; and there is a great rawness and passion to many of the vocals. So I would say to those of you who aren’t familiar with many of these artists, don’t just check out the top 10, there is some real quality music right through this chart.
Click on the artist’s name to see their Wikipedia entry, and on the song title to watch a youtube video of the song. And please let me have your feedback by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page.
UPDATE AUGUST 2010 : I’ve made a podcast aimed at fans of traditional blues. Full tracklisting and download link here, or just listen :
50 James Baker and gang – Black Betty
First, something that gives a sense of the roots of blues. One of the most important antecedents was African American worksongs. This earliest recording of Black Betty was made by John and Alan Lomax in 1933 at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas. The call and response of the work gang is led by convict James Baker. The song was popularised by Leadbelly who recorded it in 1941, and reinvented as a rock song by Ram Jam in 1977.
48 Memphis Minnie (1897 – 1973) – Kissing In The Dark
She recorded over a forty year period, almost unheard of for any woman in show business at the time, and was an important part of the early Chicago blues scene.
40 Arthur Big Boy Crudup (1905 – 1974) – My mama don’t allow
Despite writing songs covered by Elvis Presley, he never received the wages or the royalties to which he was entitled, and some of his last decade of life was spent bootlegging and working as an agricultural labourer.
39 Buddy Guy (1936 – ) – What kinda woman is this
“Buddy Guy has been called the bridge between the blues and rock and roll. He is one of the historic links between Chicago electric blues pioneers Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and popular musicians like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page as well as later revivalists like Stevie Ray Vaughan.” – Wikipedia
37 Sonny Terry (1911 – 1986) & Brownie McGhee (1915 – 1996) – Cornbread, Peas And Black Molasses
In the 1940s this duo became part of the New York folk scene, performing alongside artists such as Leadbelly, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie.
33 Reverend Gary Davis (1896 – 1972) – The Angel’s Message To Me
Ordained as a minister in 1933, nearly all of his blues and gospel recordings are from the late 1950s onwards, when he was already over 60. He performed at various folk festivals in the 1960s, but for him the important thing about the music he made was its religious content.
32 Etta James (1938 – ) – I just wanna make love to you
Written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters, this number has been covered on numerous occasions including a version by the Rolling Stones.
31 Otis Rush (1934 – ) – Got To Be Some Changes Made
“His distinctive guitar style features a slow burning sound, jazz-style arpeggios and long bent notes… his sound became known as West Side Chicago blues and became an influence on Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Peter Green and Stevie Ray Vaughan.” – Wikipedia
29 Robert Lockwood Jr (1915 – 2006) – Kindhearted Woman Blues
This was the first song that Robert Johnson recorded, and was composed as if in answer to Cruel Hearted Woman Blues by Bumble Bee Slim, which in turn was based on Mean Mistreater Mama by Leroy Carr . Lockwood, who sings this version, was taught how to play guitar by Robert Johnson.
27 Ma Rainey (1886? – 1939) – Call Me Anything, But Call Me !
“If Bessie Smith is the acknowledged “Queen of the Blues,” then Gertrude “Ma” Rainey is the undisputed “Mother of the Blues.” As music historian Chris Albertson has written, “If there was another woman who sang the blues before Rainey, nobody remembered hearing her.” Rainey fostered the blues idiom, and she did so by linking the earthy spirit of country blues with the classic style and delivery of Bessie Smith. She often played with such outstanding jazz accompanists as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, but she was more at home fronting a jugband or washboard band. ” – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
25 Robert Wilkins (1896 – 1987) – Rollin’ stone (part 1)
Written by Muddy Waters, whose version was appropriately chosen by Rolling Stone magazine as number 459 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2004.
24 BB King (1925 – ) – You Upset Me Baby
“His half-century of success owes much to his hard work as a touring musician who consistently logged between 200 and 300 shows a year. Through it all he’s remained faithful to the blues while keeping abreast of contemporary trends and deftly incorporating other favored forms – jazz and pop, for instance – into his musical overview … As a guitarist, King is best-known for his single-note solos, played on a hollowbody Gibson guitar. King’s unique tone is velvety and regal, with a discernible sting. He’s known for his trilling vibrato, wicked string bends, and a judicious approach that makes every note count … King doesn’t play chords or slide; instead, he bends individual strings till the notes seem to cry. His style reflects his upbringing in the Mississippi Delta and coming of age in Memphis.” – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s still touring in 2009.
22 Robert Petway – Catfish blues
There is no record, official or unofficial, of Petway’s death. As such, he may still be alive, though he would be roughly 100 years old. The last record of his public life is a quote from Honeyboy Edwards: “nobody I know heard what become of him.”
21 Big Bill Broonzy (1898 – 1958) – Just A Dream
“I dreamed I was in the White House, sittin’ in the president’s chair
I dreamed he’s shaking my hand, and he said ‘Bill, I’m so glad you’re here’
But that was just a dream, Lord, what a dream I had on my mind…”
20 Tommy Johnson (1896 – 1956) – Canned heat blues
The song is about an alcoholic who has taken to drinking Sterno – a fuel with a toxic mixture of ethanol and methanol, which when combined with liquids such as water was known as canned heat. The product is squeezed through a rag to extract the alcohol.
19 Big Mama Thornton (1926 – 1984) – Ball n chain
Willie Mae Thornton toured the south as a blues singer in the 1940s, then settled in Texas. She wrote and sang blues songs, played the harmonica and taught herself to play the drums. In 1953 she had a hit with Hound Dog, soon to be a smash for Elvis. In the intro to this live recording she refers to the fact that Ball n chain was also covered, by Janis Joplin.
18 Mississippi John Hurt (1892? – 1966) – Payday
“Mississippi John never pursued success. In 1928 a mobile unit of the Vocalion company came to Avalon, Mississippi to look for new talents. An audition in Avalon resulted in John being called several months later to go to New York for a recording session under the direction of Lonnie Johnson. The depression led to the reduction in pressing of records and John stayed in Avalon and lived quietly on his farm with his 14 children.
Guided by the words of one of the titles recorded in 1928 by Hurt, Avalon My Home Town, the folklorist Tom Hoskins decided in 1963 to go to Avalon. He met Hurt, who was shocked to see that someone remembered his 1928 recordings that had brought him only twenty dollars a song. John Hurt’s new career lasted only three years, but at Newport Festival, on college campuses, and in the folk clubs of Washington D.C., he displayed his talents as storyteller, entertainer, and singer. He overwhelmed the public with his outstanding mastery of the guitar.” (Source: Encyclopedia of the Blues by Gerard Herzhaft)
17 Sonny Boy Williamson II (1908? – 1965) – Slowly Walk Close To Me
“By the time of his death in 1965, he had been around long enough to have played with Robert Johnson at the start of his career and Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Robbie Robertson at the end of it. In between, he drank a lot of whiskey hoboed around the country, had a successful radio show for 15 years, toured Europe to great acclaim, and simply wrote, played and’ sang some of the greatest blues ever etched into black phonograph records. His delivery was sly, evil and world-weary, while his harp playing was full of short, rhythmic bursts one minute and powerful, impassioned blowing the next. His songs were chock-full of mordant wit, with largely autobiographical lyrics that hold up to the scrutiny of the printed page. Though he took his namesake from another well-known harmonica player, no one really sounded like him.” – Cub Koda
15 Willie Dixon (1915 -1992) – Back door man
Willie Dixon’s name came up again and again when researching this list : I am beginning to appreciate what an extraordinary songwriter he was. This is one of his compositions, written for Howlin’ Wolf, and later recorded by the Doors.
14 Son House (1902 – 1988) – Pearline
Delta blues singer and innovative slide guitarist. The White Stripes dedicated their debut album to Son House, and Jack White frequently acknowledged his huge influence.
13 Vera Hall (1902 – 1964) – Trouble so hard
Alabama blues and spirituals singer, recorded by John Lomax in the 1930s for the Library of Congress. This song will be familiar to some from having been remixed by Moby on his single, Natural Blues.
12 Little Walter (1930 – 1968) – My Babe
This number was written by Willie Dixon for Little Walter. Released in 1955, it became “the only Dixon composition ever to become a no. 1 R&B single, and it was one of the biggest hits of either of their careers. The song was based on the traditional gospel song This Train (Is Bound For Glory), which Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded in the 1939 hit, This Train. Dixon reworked the arrangement and lyrics from the sacred, the procession of saints into Heaven, into the secular, a story about a woman that won’t stand for her man to cheat: ‘My baby, she don’t stand no cheating, my babe, she don’t stand none of that midnight creeping’. – Wikipedia
10 T-Bone Walker (1910 – 1975) – Mean old world
Pioneer of the electric guitar, and a childhood hero of Jimi Hendrix. He played a large Gibson hollowbody guitar, held straight out from his chest and parallel to the floor (which contributed in part to his unique tone) but would cut loose and play behind his back, between his legs or do the splits in an effort to get the crowd going.
9 Skip James (1902 – 1969) – Crow Jane
Skip James recorded some songs for Paramount in 1931, but was not fully paid for this work, and sales soon slumped with the onset of the depression. He did a variety of jobs and was ordained as a minister. Then in the mid 60s blues collector John Fahey “discovered” him in a Mississippi hospital . One thing led to another, and he played in the Newport Folk Festival that year, and went on to record some of the finest music of his career, including this traditional song.
8 JB Lenoir (1929 – 1967) – Alabama blues
In September 1963 four black schoolgirls were killed when a bomb exploded during a church service in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. Martin Luther King called Birmingham “by far the worst city for race relations in America”, and John Coltrane wrote a song called Alabama. In March 1965 civil rights marchers were brutally assaulted by state troopers and deputies as they left Selma Alabama, causing many serious injuries. Later in 1965 JB Lenoir recorded this searing anti-racist anthem.
7 Leadbelly (1888 – 1949) – Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (In the Pines)
In 1930 John and Alan Lomax met Leadbelly during a visit to Angola Prison Farm. John Lomax was to prove instrumental in launching Leadbelly’s career as a recording artist. Leadbelly mixed blues and folk. His signature instrument was the 12 string guitar, and in his songs he commented on a wide range of subjects. In the Pines is in fact a traditional folk song, not a Leadbelly composition. It was subsequently recorded by Doc Watson, Mark Lanegan, Nirvana, Dolly Parton and many others.
6 Elmore James (1918 – 1963) – Dust My Broom
“When one thinks of the classic blues tune Dust My Broom one tends to think of the legendary Robert Johnson who along with his Sweet Home Chicago created two of the signature blues songs of the pre-World War II period. However, my first hearing of Dust My Broom was on a hot LP vinyl record (the old days, right?) version covered and made his own by the artist under review, Elmore James. I have heard many cover versions since then, including from the likes of George Thorogood and Chris Smithers, and they all reflect on the influence of Elmore’s amazing slide guitar virtuosity to provide the heat necessary to do the song justice.” – American Left history blog
5 Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937) – Gimme a Pigfoot
“Bessie Smith earned the title of ‘Empress of the Blues’ by virtue of her forceful vocal delivery and command of the genre. Her singing displayed a soulfully phrased, boldly delivered and nearly definitive grasp of the blues … Smith sang raw, uncut country blues inspired by life in the South, in which everyday experiences were related in plainspoken language – not unlike the rap music that would emerge more than half a century later. She was ahead of her time in another sense as well. In the words of biographer Chris Albertson, ‘Bessie had a wonderful way of turning adversity into triumph, and many of her songs are the tales of liberated women.'” – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
4 John Lee Hooker (1917 – 2001) – Boogie Chillen
“John Lee Hooker is a giant of the blues and the father of the boogie. Beginning in 1948 with his first single, Boogie Chillen, he introduced the world to the persistent, chugging rhythm of boogie music, a form of country blues Hooker learned back home in Mississippi. His foot-stomping boogie was adapted and amplified in the Sixties and Seventies by a great number of rock and roll artists, including the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Canned Heat, John Mayall, Ten Years After, Foghat, ZZ Top and George Thorogood. Beyond his ability to lock into a hypnotic boogie groove, Hooker is renowned for the gruff emotionality of his voice and the stark intensity of his guitar playing.” – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
3 Howlin’ Wolf (1910 – 1976) – How Many More Years
“Howlin’ Wolf ranks among the most electrifying performers in blues history, as well as one of its greatest characters. He was a ferocious, full-bodied singer whose gruff, rasping vocals embodied the blues at its most unbridled. A large man who stood more than six feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds, Howlin’ Wolf cut an imposing figure, which he utilized to maximum effect when performing. In the words of blues historian Bob Santelli, ‘Wolf acted out his most potent blues, becoming the living embodiment of its most powerful forces.’ ” – Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
2 Muddy Waters (1913 – 1983) – Mannish boy
This is Muddy Waters version of the Bo Diddley hit I’m a man. The driving muscular song and the macho lyrics guaranteed that it would soon become a rock classic, and I see that Muddy Waters has also performed this song with the Rolling Stones.
1 Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) – Hellhound On My Trail
Legendary Delta blues singer, described by Eric Clapton as “the most important blues musician who ever lived”. However this reputation was not established until long after his death. Columbia Records released a collection of his songs in 1961, King of the Delta Blues Singers, which has remained his definitive work, and was more recently listed at number 27 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time .