10 Essential Blues Songs

The genre we know as Blues has a long significant historical and cultural background. Originating from America’s Deep South in the 1860s  the music incorporated elements from folk songs, spirituals and work songs.

To identify the earliest blues songs is problematic due to the fact much of the music would have been passed down by ‘word of mouth’ and not written down, and to racial discrimination in the United States. 

Two of the earliest acknowledged blues songs were published in 1912 with ‘Dallas Blues’ by fiddler Hart Wand. A bandleader from Oklahoma City, this song based on a 12 bar bues form was published in March 1912.

This was followed shortly after by ‘The Memphis Blues’ by W.C. Handy which the composer himself described as “southern rag” taking the form of from ragtime music that was popular at the time.

Early reports of the blues are documented by various sources as composer W.C. Handy, blues singer Ma Rainey and jazz pianist, composer and arranger Jelly Roll Morton all recall hearing the music in the early years of the 20th century.

Throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, the blues has been a constantly evolving musical genre in its own right.

From the earliest published manuscripts to the recordings on piano rolls through the phonograph era and the introduction of electric instruments the blues has been a vibrant and of our musical culture not just in its birthplace in the United States but around the globe.

Below are some of the most important and influential blues songs:

Bessie Smith – Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out

Known as the “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith recorded her version of this classic song on 15 May 1929. A song about hardship, loss and reflection, and unusually Smith chose to record with a small group that included Clarence Williams on piano along with trumpet and tuba.

In an ironic twist of fate, with its lyrics telling of hard times, Bessie’s version of the song that would make her own was released just as the New York stock market began to slump and the Wall Street Crash of October 1929.

Since Bessie Smith claimed the song as her biggest hit, ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ has been recorded more than 200 times by others.

Smith’s heyday was the swinging Twenties, and following a decline in her career and fortune she died in 1937, aged just 43.

Blind Lemon Jefferson – Matchbox Blues

Another blues artist who died young, Lemon Henry Jefferson was just 36 when he passed away in 1929 from heart problems. Born in 1893 near Coutchman, Texas and he began playing the guitar in his teenage years.

Blind since birth his musical prowess and determination saw him become one of the most popular blues singer of the 1920s, earning himself the title of “Father of the Texas Blues”.

It was unusual at the time for an artist to record solo voice and guitar, and few had done so successfully before. He was a skilled guitarist and had a sound on the instrument that was commercially appealing.

He also sang with a distinctive high pitched voice, and this is heard to fine effect on ‘Matchbox Blues’.

Blind Lemon Jefferson recorded no less than three versions of the song in 1927, with the composition itself have a profound affect on blues singers for generations to come.

Perversely, the inspiration for ‘Matchbox Blues” originated from an earlier song by Ma Rainey, ‘Lost Wandering Blues’ and was later itself updated and amended by Carl Perkins in 1958 to become the song known as ‘Matchbox’.

Etta James – I’d Rather Go Blind

Blues and soul singer Etta James recorded this song in 1967 and although it made no impact on the charts at the time has subsequently become something of a classic.

While claiming co-composer credits, James has said that she heard the song sung by a friend Ellington “Fugi” Jordan who was in prison at the time and went home and finished the song herself.

The song is also credited to her partner Billy Foster, apparently for tax purposes.

Strangely, while regarded as one of her classic and most influential tracks it was never released as a single, but instead was the B-side of ‘Tell Mama’ from the 1967 album of the same name.

Etta James recorded the song again for her 1978 album Deep in the Night but under the new title of ‘Blind Girl’.

Robert Johnson – Sweet Home Chicago

This early blues song has also given rise to a whole host of cover versions over the years, and this version recorded by Robert Johnson in 1936 is already an amalgamation of several blues tunes of the time. 

While Johnson has claimed compositional credits, there are other songs that share the melody of ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ such as ‘Red Cross Blues’, ‘Honeydripper Blues’ and ‘Kokomo Blues’.

The emphasis of the lyrics and tone of the song were changed by Johnson to one of aspiration and the dream of a better place.

Big Bill Broonzy – Get Back

One of 17 children and born Lee Conley Bradley, there is some dispute about Broonzy’s birthdate. Some sources say 1893 while others claim 1903.

As a musician he started out on fiddle playing sprituals and country music. In the 1920s he moved to Chicago and switched to guitar.

Recorded in 1951, ‘Get Back’ found Broonzy firmly established as a blues artist and confident enough to tackle the social issues of the day in his material.

An accomplished guitarist with a smooth vocal delivery, Broonzy’s music encompasses ragtime, sprituals within his blues style.

Taj Mahal – Leaving Trunk

As we are discovering, it is not an unusual practice to take the music of other blues artists and reshape them into new songs for a new generation.

This song renowned as a classic blues track recorded by Henry St. Claire Fredericks, better known as Taj Mahal was composed by Sleepy John Estes under the title of ‘Milk Cow Blues’.

For his version that appeared as the title track on his debut album released in 1968, Taj Mahal adds to his impassioned vocals with harmonica lines that are imbued with equal feeling and featuring none other than Ry Cooder on rhythm guitar.

T-Bone Walker – Stormy Monday

This is an electrifying performance by Walker on this West Coast blues style and helped establish the role of the electric guitar in blues playing. The full title of the song by T-Bone is ‘Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)’ and is a slow 12 bar blues. 

One of the pioneers of the electric guitar, Walker’s playing on this 1947 recording contains no pyrotechnics or long guitar solo, but it is for the way he accompanies the lyrics that this is on of the undisputed classic of the genre.

Albert Collins – Sno-Cone, Parts 1 And 2

Two completely different songs on either side of a 45rpm single, and neither exceeded two and half minutes, but his was enough for the master of the Telecaster guitar.

The sound of Collin’s guitar would be another distinctive voice that would influence countless musicians, and his sharp and incisive lines can be heard on these cuts from his 1965 debut album The Cool Sound of Albert Collins which was made up of previously released instrumental tracks including ‘Don’t Lose Your Cool’ and ‘Thaw Out’.

Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man

This blues standard written by Willie Dixon was originally titled ‘I’m Your Hoochie Cooche Man’. When recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954 it made a huge impression with its unusual stop-time arrangement, and references to hoodoo’s spiritual practices and beliefs. 

The stop-time riff would become an integral part of the blues thereafter, and Bo Didley made a new song out of it with ‘I’m A Man’.

The song would become synonymous with Muddy Waters, and its popularity ensured Will Dixon’s tenure as head songwriter for Chess Records.

Jimi Hendrix – Voodoo Chile

Written by Hendrix and recorded for his 1968 album Electric Ladyland with his band the Jimi Hendrix Experience it was no doubt inspired by ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ in terms of the supernatural element inherent in the music.

The tune ‘Voodoo Chile’ itself is based on another Muddy Waters composition, ‘Rollin’ Stone’ which itself is drawn from a 1920s Delta blues from Mississippi titled ‘Catfish Blues’.

With ‘Voodoo Chile’, Hendrix offers up a fifteen minute extravaganza for the LP that is breathtaking in its performance and concept.

Known to meticulously plan his studio albums, Hendrix also recorded a shorter version for single release under the title ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’.

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