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10 Essential Blues Songs
Whether it’s Howlin’ Wolf or Stevie Ray Vaughan,
blues is musical medicine for the soul.

A man playing a saxophone on stage

   

 

Wake up this morning with the blues all around your bed? You're hardly alone. Americans — mostly African Americans — have been singing and playing the blues since the late 19th century. The brilliance of the blues, a simple musical form accommodating infinite variations, is that they sound almost as good when you feel good as when you don’t. I’ve written about music for 40 years and, like many fans, I was introduced to the blues through 1960s Brit rockers — Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jeff Beck and many others — who appreciated the genre’s ample space for instrumental swagger. Those musicians sent me back to the source, where I learned about the blues in all its country, urban, acoustic, electric and juke-joint variations. I hope this list does the same for you.

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

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