Blues songs: 10 of the greatest of all time
Paul McGuinness explores the best blues songs of all time from some of the genre's greatest artists
Blues music gets its name from its original association with melancholy subjects and sounds. It originated in the Deep South after the US Civil War in the 19th century, evolving from the oral tradition of African American work songs and spirituals, and became popular in the 1920s.
Best blues songs of all time
Cross Roads Blues (Robert Johnson)
According to legend, the budding bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for mastery of the blues. This seems unlikely, and Johnson probably mastered his craft after studying under his mentors Willie Brown, Charley Patton and Son House. Regardless, the story of the crossroads remains the great blues legend.
Devil Got My Woman (Skip James)
This Delta blues singer/guitar player is noted for his haunting style and is one of the greats of the early blues. However, the Great Depression curtailed his career, and it wasn’t until the blues revival of the 1960s that he finally found the recognition his undoubted talents deserved.
The song 'Devil Got My Woman' is recognised as one of his greatest songs
Did you know 'Devil Got My Woman' featured on the film Ghost World?
Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters)
It might seem incongruous that the father of Chicago blues was actually from Mississippi. Born McKinley Morganfield, Muddy travelled north seeking fame and fortune in 1943, bringing a harder, electric style to the Windy City, which would in turn be a huge influence on rock’n’roll. 'Hoochie Coochie Man' was one of Waters most famous songs and regarded as a classic of Chicago blues
Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (Blind Willie Johnson)
If aliens are looking for life on Earth then this stunning recording from the blues-singing evangelist from Texas may point them in the right direction. Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground is one of 27 recordings selected for the Voyager Golden Records, which were loaded aboard the Voyager spacecraft and launched into space in 1977. As such, it is the first blues record to leave our solar system.
I’m A King Bee (Slim Harpo)
This Louisiana blues guitar player was one of the key exponents of the swamp blues style – as well as being a pioneer of the blues harp, or blues harmonica. Originally released on the b-side to Slim’s 1957 single I Got Love if You Want It, I’m A King Bee was honoured with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2008.
Me and My Chauffeur Blues (Memphis Minnie)
Bob Dylan called this recording “One of the great blues songs of all time”. Memphis Minnie was one of the very few women who held their own in the male-dominated world of the blues. Recorded in 1941, this song finds Minnie enjoying the double-meaning of her chauffer, who she’ll shoot down if she finds him giving rides to other lady passengers.
Dust My Broom (Elmore James)
This Mississippi guitarist’s slide style was so distinctive it even gets namechecked by The Beatles (on For You Blue). The recording features the great blues harp player Sonny Boy Williamson II, but it’s that distinctive slide riff, apparently learned from Robert Johnson, that makes this such a landmark recording.
Smokestack Lightning (Howlin’ Wolf )
Chester Arthur Burnett – better known as Howlin’ Wolf – was one of the most influential blues artists of all time. Discovered by Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, Memphis, Wolf then became a star at Chess Records in Chicago. Smokestack Lightning’s relentless rhythm and riff fuses the Delta blues with the Chicago sound. 'Smokestack Lightning' would become one of his one of his most popular and influential songs
Red House (Jimi Hendrix)
Released on his 1967 debut LP, Are You Experience?, Red House is one of Jimi Hendrix’s earliest – and greatest – blues numbers. Featuring many references to and examples of the classic blues that so inspired the Seattle musician, it’s the stunning guitar playing that elevates this track to the level of genius.
Dead Letter Blues (Son House)
Son House hailed from Mississippi, and was regularly hailed by other bluesmen as one of the absolute greats – but it took some time for his career to take off. Playing in the South through the 1920s and 30s, House quit music in the early 40s, before being coaxed back during the 1960s blues revival. This recording was made in 1965, by which time House was already 63 years old.
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Paul McGuinness is a journalist with over 25 years’ experience. He has written about music of all styles for a variety of publications and labels. He has interviewed legendary musicians from five continents, and travelled the world to experience the music he loves in its natural setting.
He has stood in awe at doowopers busking on a street corner in Greenwich Village; sat in with the band at a late-night juke joint in Mississippi; supped cocktails in the shade listening to son music in Havana courtyard; and performed at a festival on a remote Hebridean island.