Smart Reasons to Sing the Blues

Whether it’s Howlin’ Wolf or Stevie Ray Vaughan, blues is musical medicine for the soul

If you’ve got the blues, maybe you should play some blues and sing along. Music offers a variety of mental health benefits, from improving your mood to triggering memories. It can also help you manage stress and regulate your blood pressure and heart rate, according to a new report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).

Listening to familiar tunes is like hanging out with old friends, but escaping your musical comfort zone is good for your brain. “Unfamiliar melodies may stimulate your brain while providing a new source of pleasure as you get used to hearing them,” the GCBH report states. That’s why Staying Sharp asked experts from musicians to music historians for their lists of essential songs in seven genres: rock, classical, jazz, Latin, country, hip-hop and blues. You’ll find the lists on the Music and Brain Health landing page.

Here’s the list of 10 essential blues songs from author and longtime music writer Richard Gehr.

1. “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” Blind Willie Johnson (1927)

Recorded in 1927 by an itinerant black guitarist in a Dallas hotel room, “Dark Was the Night” is a wordless interpretation of an 18th-century gospel hymn and arguably the most influential blues track ever. Accompanied only by his plaintive bottleneck steel guitar playing, Johnson's moaning lament reflects the human condition at its bluest.

2. “Cross Road Blues,” Robert Johnson (1936)

This enigmatic Delta blues guitarist was long mythologized as a devil's disciple whose ungodly talent was acquired at a Mississippi crossroads. In his dark, funky, and idiosyncratically arranged 1936 solo performance, however, Johnson begs the Lord's forgiveness at an existential junction — no satanic intervention required. English power trio Cream's electric interpretation made it a blues-rock standard.

3. "Evil," Howlin' Wolf (1954)

“Any time you’re thinking evil, you’re thinking about the blues,” growling Chicago blues legend Howlin’ Wolf once declared. This 1954 hit, with its eerie drums and boogeying piano, ruminates on the suspicion, fear and jealousy whipped up when “you know another mule is kickin' in your stall.”

4. “Mannish Boy,” Muddy Waters (1955)

Waters’ walloping 1955 follow-up to his hit single “Hoochie Coochie Man” combines potent male braggadocio with a subtle affirmation of black pride: Having split the Deep South for Chicago, he's now an “M-A-child–N ... no B-O-child–Y.” Find the song’s best version on the Johnny Winter-produced album Hard Again.

5. "Wang Dang Doodle,” Koko Taylor (1966)

Roaring Tennessee-born blues queen Cora “Koko” Taylor promises a hard-partying night with a colorful cast of characters including Automatic Slim and Razor-Totin’ Jim. Prolific Mississippi-born songwriter Willie Dixon wrote this Chicago blues blast for Howlin’ Wolf, but it took Wolf's bellowing female counterpart to turn it into a 1966 hit.

6. “How Blue Can You Get,” B.B. King (1964)

The blues king delivers guts, passion and class on his indispensable Live at the Regal, recorded in 1964 at the popular Chicago theater. He begins with a promise to go “way down in the alley,” includes a genre-defining guitar solo on his treasured black Gibson “Lucille,” and brings the house down with a showstopping climax.

7. “Ball and Chain,” Big Mama Thornton (1968)

Fans of Janis Joplin's incendiary live versions of “Ball and Chain,” performed with the blessing of Big Mama herself, should also hear it from its source. Thornton conveys ample authoritative angst on her 1968 single, but head to YouTube for the sheer blues perfection of a regal 1970 TV performance with guitar phenomenon Buddy Guy.

8. “Texas Flood,” Stevie Ray Vaughan (1983)

The title track of this 28-year-old Texas hot shot's 1983 debut album delivers a master class in guitar tone and technique. With its dramatic string bends and endless ideas, Vaughan's slow 12-bar blues polishes the dust off of Larry Davis’ 1958 original to ignite yet another revival of the timeless blues form.

9. “Done Got Old,” Junior Kimbrough (1992)

"I caint do the thangs I used to do," complains Kimbrough on this mesmerizing slice of North Mississippi hill-country blues from the 1992 debut album he recorded at age 62. The longtime juke-joint proprietor played guitar in a hauntingly stripped-down style in the lineage of Son House and Fred McDowell.

10. “Shrinking Man,” Ry Cooder (2018)

The traditional folk tune "Worried Man Blues" gets a crafty electric-gospel update on this track from Cooder's 2018 album Prodigal Son. "Don't need no sweatshop child puttin' shoes on my feet," sings the esteemed 73-year-old bottleneck guitarist on a track that blends vintage sounds with contemporary concerns.

—Richard Gehr

Curious about brain health? Get the full Staying Sharp experience including the entire 10 Essential Blues Songs article.

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