I was asked to make a list of my ten favorite blues tracks for a blues magazine in the UK. I personally hate top ten lists, so I chose to simply list ten great tracks. If I had to make another list tomorrow morning it might be completely different. I might add some Charlie Patton or maybe even some Nat King Cole. Please feel free to tell me I’m crazy. You might be right!
Thanks for giving a damn,
Allen Ginsberg would often ruffle people’s feathers by calling Bob Dylan one of the all time great blues singers. I understand and agree with the point he was trying to make. I’m a firm believer that there is a lot more to blues music than noodling pentatonic scales over a 12 bar progression. Blues has more to do with translating raw emotions and common experiences in a way that resonates at a gut level with the listener. This is why I believe the music of people like Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Waits is the natural continuation of the blues. On the other hand, the endless wanking of the Clapton and Stevie Ray clones of the world, leave me bored to tears. While I appreciate anyone who has taken the time to woodshed and develop their technique, it sometimes starts to resemble an athletic event more than music. It should be obvious by now that I like my art to be imperfect and dare I say, human. Now that I’ve drawn a (friendly) line in the sand, here’s a list of ten blues tracks that ring true to me. These are in no particular order.
“She’s Nineteen Years Old” -Muddy Waters
This is Muddy at his best! I love the muscular and confident delivery when he sings “I’m gonna say this to you and I don’t care if you get mad.” This track has one of the finest endings of any song I’ve ever heard. I can only imagine how he must have brought the house down in the smoky night clubs of Chicago.
“From Four Till Late” -Robert Johnson
This was the first of his songs that stood out to me. I love the lyrics and guitar playing. “A woman is like a dresser, some man’s always going through her drawers.” That’s some funny stuff! And what is “an apron overalls?”
“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” -Reverend Gary Davis
I’m in love with his guitar playing, so I was tempted to list one of his instrumentals, but this song is just perfect. The version from the Newport Blues Festival is chilling. “You look in the bed and find everybody gone”. Who can’t relate to that? I haven’t heard many songs that match the raw emotional power of this track.
“Sittin’ On Top Of The World” -Howlin Wolf
Lots of people have taken a stab at it, but Howlin Wolf owns this song. There’s never been a more identifiable voice in any genre and he shines on this track. This is also my girlfriend, Amy’s favorite version, and I’m a firm believer that Momma knows best!
“Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan)” -Bessie Smith
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Delta I couldn’t get this track out of my head. I kept hearing the lazy, drunken horns matched against her huge voice singing painfully, “my heart cries out for muddy water.” It was a fitting soundtrack to that moment in time.
“Strange Fruit” -Billie Holiday
I can’t imagine a more haunting track. She closed her shows with this and audiences around the world were left speechless. Few songs have had the same impact. It became the anthem of the Anti-Lynching Movement, which lead to the Civil Rights Movement. There are many great Billie Holiday tracks, but the greatness of this one just can’t be denied.
“Tappin’ That Thing” -Yank Rachell
I have fond memories of seeing Yank play live around Indianapolis, Indiana when I was younger. I can remember women getting up to dance to this song, while Yank sang and played. It was obvious that he was a real, honest to God bluesman and that he was something special, but I had no idea of how fortunate we were to have him living in our town. This song is an example of how fun and upbeat the blues can be. The risque lyrics could make a gangsta rapper blush.
“Ride On Josephine” -Bo Diddley
A Bo Diddley song is always gonna have a great driving rhythm to it. I love his songs with the trademark “Bo Diddley Beat”, but this one stands out just a bit more to my taste. It swings and makes you want to move, and it’s one of those rare blues songs with a big sing along chorus. Bo sounds great singing the story, while the guitar pushes everything along. I’m also a sucker for a good song about a car.
“That’s How Strong My Love is” -Otis Redding
From the opening measures of the track it becomes obvious that this is a truly great band. Then one of the greatest voices of all time comes in and lord have mercy! I love everything about this track. It’s a love song that doesn’t leave you feeling cheap, or pandered to. You can’t listen to this without being moved. I’ve been going back to this song since I was a kid and I keep finding different things that I love about it. That’s the mark of a great track.
“Levee Camp Blues” -Son House
Son House was one of those rare artists that could meld man and guitar into one pure instrument, and as he aged he grew closer to the source. This song is a perfect example of that. The Alan Lomax recordings are beautiful, but later versions of “Levee Camp Blues” pulsate and throb with every slide and moan. It’s easy to see why he was so influential to later generations after listening to this track.