Chances are good that we will never be able to pinpoint a single moment when the blues came into existence. Sometimes, a genre is too broad to be summed up in such a way.
Still, everyone agrees the blues started being documented in the early 20th century, though its roots reach much further back. The genre has continued to evolve ever since.
For example, it saw a significant surge in popularity around the Second World War, thus enabling it to reach a wider range of listeners than ever before.
Likewise, it has given rise to related genres such as blues rock, gospel blues, and soul blues. More than a century of existence has resulted in no lack of incredible blues songs. Something that makes it easy for interested individuals to find recommendations.
Here is our opinion of the 20 best blues songs ever released:
“Pride and Joy” was one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s better-known songs even before he recorded it for release. It can be considered one of a pair. The other would be “I’m Cryin’.” Combined, these two songs offer a more comprehensive perspective on Vaughan’s relationship with one of his ex-girlfriends than either one on its own.
19. “Catfish Blues” – Robert Petway
There isn’t much known about Robert Petway. We know what he looked like in 1941 because of a publicity photo. Otherwise, we don’t know where he came from and where he winded up.
Even the man’s surname is uncertain because it could have been spelled several ways. Despite these things, Petway earned a position on this list because he influenced numerous blues and rock musicians of note. Some are even on this list, as shown by the inclusion of Jimi Hendrix and Muddy Waters.
18. “I’m a King Bee” – Slim Harpo
Swamp blues is one of the two subgenres of Louisiana blues. It tends to be laidback, thus enabling it to stand out from its cheerful-sounding though not necessarily cheerful counterpart of New Orleans blues.
“I’m a King Bee” is one of the best examples of swamp blues. Moreover, its impact can be seen in how it went on to be covered by the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and John Belushi, though the last one was driven by comedy more than anything else.
17. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” – Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson was one of the blues musicians who taught themselves how to play their chosen instruments. Despite this, he went on to make one of the finest gospel blues songs ever released, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Interested individuals can find it showing up in the strangest of places.
For instance, this song was included on the Voyager Golden Record, which is meant to showcase human music to any intelligent extraterrestrials that come upon the spacecraft. That was no small honor considering the limited spots on the record.
16. “Dust My Broom” – Elmore James
“Dust My Room” is older than interested individuals might realize. Robert Johnson recorded the original version as “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” Still, he based it on even earlier blues songs.
Later, Elmore James recorded a cover before releasing it as “Dust My Broom.” He made it a blues classic. Moreover, his guitar skills inspired a considerable number of rock musicians.
15. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” – Bessie Smith
The Roaring 20s were a time of prosperity. However, it still had its ups and downs. In this song, Bessie Smith sang about someone who experienced meteoric success before plummeting from the heights, thus resulting in them losing their fair-weather friends. “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” proved prophetic.
For context, it came out in May 1929. Black Tuesday happened in September 1929, which started a decade of economic woe throughout the United States and beyond.
14. “Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream
For the unfamiliar, Cream was a British rock band active for a short period in the 1960s for the most part. Each of its three members was a skillful individual who had been in a previously successful act.
As a result, Cream is often considered the first supergroup to come into existence. In any case, “Sunshine of Your Love” is one of the band’s most beloved songs. It is very psychedelic-sounding, which is a reflection of then-contemporary developments in rock and roll. That said, it also counts as blues rock.
13. “Devil Got My Woman” – Skip James
Skip James is another individual who inspired numerous other blues musicians. He was active in the 1930s. Unfortunately, that meant James released his music right into a Great Depression market, which wasn’t very receptive to such things, to say the least. As such, he returned home to work for his father’s church.
It wasn’t until folk music revivalists rediscovered James’s music that he returned to activity from the mid to late 1960s. He released “Devil Got My Woman” in 1968, which showed that he hadn’t lost his touch. Sadly, that was only a short while before his death.
12. “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” – Memphis Minnie
Men make up the bulk of blues artists. Even so, some of their female counterparts have carved out positions for themselves as blues legends in their own right.
For instance, Memphis Minnie is still remembered for releasing this song in the National Recording Registry. Unsurprisingly, it has more than one layer of meaning, thus making for a much more enjoyable listening experience when one bothers to take the whole thing in.
11. “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” – Blind Lemon Jefferson
Music is a time-honored choice of profession for the blind. As such, interested individuals should know Blind Lemon Jefferson’s nickname wasn’t metaphorical. Despite this, he proved influential, so much so that he is often seen as one of the people who pioneered Texas blues.
“See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” proved highly successful in the late 1920s. Due to this, Jefferson recorded two versions in 1927 and 1928 to meet the demand.
10. “I Can’t Quit You Baby” – Otis Rush
Otis Rush was one of the luminaries of Chicago blues. He wasn’t the one responsible for writing this song. However, it was based on his experiences. Specifically, Willie Dixon wrote the song based on a relationship preoccupying Rush at the time, meaning there was an understandable connection between the song and the singer.
The result was one of the most remarkable blues releases of the decade, as shown by how it has been recorded by more than 30 artists since.
9. “Born Under a Bad Sign” – Albert King
“Born Under a Bad Sign” is the title track of the compilation album of the same name. The latter failed to stir up much enthusiasm from consumers. Something that was quite at odds with critical evaluations.
To music critics, Born Under a Bad Sign is one of the best blues releases ever. Moreover, this opinion is supported by guitarists and other musicians who have cited it as a source of inspiration to them. Supposedly, the astrological reference is an extra bit of assistance to keep the song topical.
8. “Smokestack Lightnin” – Howlin’ Wolf
“Smokestack Lightnin’” has one of the more evocative names on this list. As such, people might be interested to know that Howlin’ Wolf was inspired by the sight of nighttime trains, which would release sparks in their exhaust.
Regardless, “Smokestack Lightnin’” is another example of a blues classic with far-reaching influence. As strange as it sounds, even Soundgarden covered it, meaning its appeal wasn’t limited to blues musicians but instead extended into other genres.
7. “I’m Tore Down” – Freddy King
Interested individuals might be more familiar with Freddy King as Freddie King. He was a man with a powerful voice plus exceptional guitar-playing skills.
Thanks to those things, King cemented himself as one of the greatest electric blues musicians of his generation. “I’m Tore Down” came out when King was still using a different spelling of his name. It did quite well, as shown by how it peaked at the number five position on the Billboard Hot R&B Sides chart.
6. “Death Letter” – Son House
The blues have a well-earned reputation for sadness. That doesn’t mean every blues song manages to convey the same level of emotion. For pure misery, few can match “Death Letter,” which is Son House’s signature song. It is named thus because it opens with the narrator receiving a letter telling him that his significant other is dead.
He sees her body at the morgue, attends her funeral, and then feels crushed at home. House makes the whole thing sound authentic. Something that has ensured “Death Letter” a place on this list.
5. “I’d Rather Go Blind” – Etta James
“I’d Rather Go Blind” has three individuals in its songwriting credits. Supposedly, Ellington Jordan and Etta James were the ones who took the lead. He was the one who described the outline to James.
Then, the two worked together to flesh it out. As for the third individual, James claimed she gave her songwriting credit to her then-partner Billy Foster for tax reasons.
Whatever the case, she was the one to release the first recorded version of the song, thus ensuring that their names would be tied together forever. The name itself should make it clear that “I’d Rather Go Blind” is another song of great emotional weight.
“Red House” was one of the earliest songs from the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It is one of his most orthodox songs, but it is also one of his most beloved songs. On the whole, “Red House” is a blues song that serves as a superb showcase of Hendrix’s legendary guitar-playing skills.
3. “Hoochie Coochie Man” – Muddy Waters
Willie Dixon has penned more than one song on this list. For proof, consider “Hoochie Coochie Man,” which he penned for Muddy Waters. The song did great things for both men’s careers.
Dixon cemented his role as Chess Records’ chief songwriter through it, while Waters scored one of the biggest hits of his career. “Hoochie Coochie Man” is a boastful song packed with references to hoodoo, which is a kind of African-American folk magic.
2. “The Thrill Is Gone” – B.B. King
Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell wrote “The Thrill Is Gone” in 1951. After that, Hawkins turned it into a Top 10 hit on the Billboard R&B chart. However, it was B.B. King who made “The Thrill Is Gone” a blues standard when he released his version in 1969.
It earned him a Grammy in 1970 and then a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Those were well-earned because King’s version is considered one of the best songs of the 20th century, even without being limited to the blues.
1. “Cross Roads Blues” – Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson became one of the most influential blues musicians of the 20th century despite the fact his recording career lasted seven months. As a result, it is perhaps unsurprising that his story would take on supernatural proportions, particularly since the blues already have such a strong connection with folklore.
As the story goes, “Cross Roads Blues” refers to the place where Johnson sold his soul in exchange for his musical skills. That doesn’t quite hold up. Still, “Cross Roads Blues” remains one of the best blues songs ever released, even without considering the rest of its cultural significance.
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