I’ve listened to this powerful genre since my teen years and seeing a legendary exponent of this somewhat mystical art has given me pause to reflect on why I’m so attached to the blues. What better way to reflect than to share with you my favourite blues songs! It is by no means a definitive list and I realise that there are probably readers out there who have more knowledge in there little toe than I do in my entire body, however I know what I like and this is them.
Dying Crapshooter’s Blues – Blind Willie McTell 1940
Bob Dylan sings, ‘Nobody Can Play the Blues Like Blind Willie McTell’, for a number of years I wondered what he meant. Then a few years ago I picked up a copy of Atalanta Twelve String a compilation of McTell’s career . Recorded in Atlanta, Georgia, McTell’s home state, Dying Crapshooter’s Blues is a tour de force of early country blues.
Penned by McTell himself the song tells the story of a broken hearted gambler that has just been shot by the police. Knowing that his number is up the dying crapshooter tells his fellow gambler how he wants to be farewelled. Using a his trademark 12 string guitar, he paints a darkly humorous anecdote of the planned funeral ceremony.
“Guess I ought to know
Exactly how I wants to go
(How you wanna go, Jesse?)
Eight crapshooters to be my pallbearers
Let ‘em be veiled down in black
I want nine men going to the graveyard, Bubba
And eight men comin’ back
I want a gang of gamblers gathered ’round my coffin-side
Crooked card printed on my hearse
Don’t say the crapshooters’ll never grieve over me
My life been a doggone curse
Send poker players to the graveyard
Dig my grave with the ace of spades
I want twelve polices in my funeral march
High sheriff playin’ blackjack, lead the parade
I want the judge and solic’ter who jailed me 14 times
Put a pair of dice in my shoes (then what?)
Leave a deck of cards be my tombstone
I got the dyin’ crapshooter’s blues”
There is often a mysticism placed around delta bluesmen having sold their soul to the devil, but what is less pronounced is their role as entertainers. McTell certainly fits into the later category, a true entertainer.
Terraplane Blues – Robert Johnson 1936
The closest thing to a household name of all of the early delta bluesmen, Johnson is also the artist shrouded more than any other in legends and mysticism. Dead at the age of 27 in mysterious circumstances, Johnson is what most people associate with the delta blues and the notion of standing at the crossroads and selling your soul to the devil. The seminal release in 1961 of The King of Delta Blues Singers, containing 16 of the 29 songs Johnson recorded, had an incredible impact on budding musicians both sides of the Atlantic.
Full of innuendo, the song tells of the singer’s suspicions that some other man has been driving his Terraplane (a type of car) during an absence from home. This blues track is one of Johnson’s most energetic performances. It is easy to underestimate how powerful a performance like this would have been in the flesh, despite the grainy nature of the recording. The intensity and passion Johnson brings to this performance gives you the best sense of what an amazing guitarist and artist he really was.
Hey Hey – Big Bill Broonzy 1951
Blues is at its’ best when it’s doesn’t pretend to anything other than what it is and Hey Hey is a classic example. Broonzy was one of the first of many bluesmen to cross the Atlantic and play to an adoring and inquisitive British audience. Big Bill first came to prominence when at the last minute he was called on by legendary A&R man John Hammond to replaced the recently deceased Robert Johnson at a Delta Blues showcase at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1938.
The immediately addictive guitar part with Broonzy’s thumb is in overdrive to provide a beat that bring to life probably the most basic lyrics to ever be penned in a blues song. The term, ‘hey hey’ is simply and profoundly applied to articulate the singer’s ambivalent admission of his love for a woman with the strong determination to love on his terms whatever they may be.
Grinnin’ In Your Face – Son House
One of the few delta bluesman to survive and enjoy the blues renaissance of the 60’s, Son House was the real deal and was said to be an early influence on Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and even Robert Johnson. Son House played the guitar in a percussive style, an attribute highlighted in Martin Scorsese’s excellent series of documentaries entitled, The Blues. Son House’s style was examined to illustrate the earliest origins of the blues. Slave owners deprived slaves of their traditional West African instruments and House’s technique is an example of how African Americans adapted their musical origins and sensibilities into the blues.
Grinnin’ In Your Face has no instrumentation. House’s voice is accompanied only by his own sporadic hand clapping. The song is a haunting warning to all those who don’t know that you can’t please everyone so why bother trying. The arrangement of the song underlines one man coming to terms with the world ethic of not only this song but blues music as a whole.
Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters – 1955
An incredible song from a man who’s influence on music can’t be underestimated. The first true exponent of the electric blues, Waters, raised in Mississippi, lead the transformation of delta blues into what is now known as the Chicago blues. A type of blues that was an immediate predessor of what was to become Rock ’n’ Roll.
For many Mannish Boy is the quintessential blues song. The repeating stop-time figure on one chord throughoutwith droning harmonica and the exclamation by one man to the world that he is in fact ”A man!” is classic Waters. A big acknowledgement should be payed to Bo Didley who’s song I’m a Man was the inspiration for Mannish Boy.
Promised Land – Chuck Berry 1964
Chuck Berry is of course better associated with Rock ’n’ Roll, but of course Rock at the time was just electrified blues aimed at a teenage market. Promised Land has some of the best lyrics of any song! Like many great American songs, the main character, the “Poor Boy” plots a line right though the musical heartland of the USA as he goes on his quest to reach the promised land – California.
Featuring Berry’s trademark guitar playing, his voice never seems to have been more resonant than in the role of the poor boy.
Leave My Girl Alone – Buddy Guy 1965
On any given day this song is probably my favourite blues of all. By 1965 Guy was an established artist in his own right after a lengthy apprenticeship that only few could dream of. Recorded during his stint with Chess Records this recording capture’s Guy at one of his peaks. A very basic premise with a standard Chicago blues arrangement, what sets this song apart from others is the absolute ferocity of Guy’s vocal delivery. You believe every word he belts out, unusually for Guy the whirlwind passion of his voice is met with a reasonably restrained guitar solo and accompaniment.
Sounding unashamedly of its time this song is a widely known classic amongst blues aficionados.
The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King 1970
This is B.B. King’s signature song and it reiterates all the attributes that have made him such an enduring artist. Rolling Stone magazine listed King at number three in the list of greatest guitarists of all time. He listed so highly not because of any virtuoso technique but because it is widely accepted that he pioneered the use of vibrato, a trait that almost every player on the planet now utilizes. Basically if you are a pioneer in blues you are a pioneer in popular music - period.
The Thrill Is Gone is a shining example of a blues giant at his peak. King cites T-Bone Walker as being a major influence on his career and sound, but what distinguishes King from other blues artists is that he has style and voice that is completely his own and that’s immediately recognisable as soon as you hear it. Listen to The Thrill is Gone and you will be enamoured with King the artist.
Before You Accuse Me – Eric Clapton 1990
This was the first blues song I ever heard and it was played by an Englishman in a pink Versace suit. There is some conjecture as to the origins of the original song, some say, it’s a Big Bill Broonzy number but most recognise it as Bo Didley staple. This is one of the few instances where all versions of the song are excellent.
This particular version is close to my heart as it was my first exposure to the blues. Of all his contemporaries Clapton is the most convincing and heartfelt in his delivery of the blues, he also has the track record to back it up. Alongside the Rolling Stones, Clapton, in his various guises probably done more than any other artist to place the blues front and centre in the minds of the general populous.
Life by the Drop – Stevie Ray Vaughan 1991
Released posthumously after the tragic death of Ray Vaughan in a helicopter accident in 1990. the album The Sky is Crying , a compilation of outtakes and alternate versions of songs between 1984 and 1990, the album has a number of gems none greater than Life by the Drop. Ray Vaughan is the most pre-eminent of all the Texas blues players and is generally accepted as being one of the best, if not the best, electric blues players of all time. Having said that, Life By The Drop is a rare recording of Ray Vaughan on a 12 string acoustic.
Written by Ray Vaughan’s good friend Doyle Bramahll, the song has significant meaning for Ray Vaughan who for so long suffered as a severe alcoholic. The song is about someone who deals with and overcomes alcoholism which Ray Vaughan had successfully managed to do before his untimely death. Because of the 12 string arrangement, Ray Vaughan’s voice resonates much clearer and it emphasises what an underrated singer he was and what a tragedy it was to lose him at such a young age, 37 days before his 37th birthday.
Well that’s it. You will notice that I haven’t put any links to any of the songs like I usually do. I haven’t done it for two reasons, first of all it’s too easy to download and where’s the fun in that? Secondly with most CD’s, especially those of the delta bluesmen, there are usually significant and sometimes comprehensive liner notes that not only explain the recording but quite often provide biographical information on the artists.
If you want to get into the blues best by it on CD or vinyl. I used to go to a place in West Melbourne called Hound Dog Records.