in

The 30 Best Blues Songs: Where to Start When Discovering the Blues

best blues songs
The Best Blues Songs photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Table of Contents

Blues music is one of America’s prized original art forms. From its creation and evolution in the early 20th century to today’s latest styles, blues music is filled with astounding musicianship and genuine emotion. Looking for where to start with blues music? This playlist of the 30 best blues songs is the definitive introduction.

Your Guide to the Best Blues Songs

 

“Cross Road Blues” (1936) – Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is the biggest blues legend of all time. Whether he sold his soul to the devil or not, his guitar playing contains ingenuity that is still fresh today. He wrote and recorded many of the best blues songs.

Otherworldly songs like “Cross Road Blues” have cemented his place in blues history.

 

“Hoochie Coochie Man (1954)” – Muddy Waters

“The blues…at its most…Muddy Waters!” That’s how Robbie Robertson of the Band introduced him at their famous Last Waltz concert in 1976, and he isn’t wrong.

Though it isn’t featured on haunting 50s blues classic “Hoochie Coochie Man,” he’s well known for his biting slide guitar playing. His vocals are on full display here, though. Muddy’s voice was his most effective weapon, especially in live performances.

What is the best blues song ever? It might just be “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

 

“Crazy Blues” (1920) – Mamie Smith

The first blues stars were female singers like Mamie Smith. “Crazy Blues” is often considered the first blues song, and rightly so.

At its inception, the blues was jazz influenced, as you can hear on this song. Bessie Smith’s strong voice overpowers even the orchestra.

 

“The Thrill is Gone” (1969) – B.B. King

Who is the most popular blues singer? That’d be B.B. King.

King began his career as an electric blues sensation in Chicago in the 1940s and 50s. He was already a legend by the 1960s, a decade that found him expanding his sound with strings and more pop influences.

“The Thrill is Gone” is not only the pinnacle of this period for B.B. King, it’s also one of the best blues songs.

 

“Call it Stormy Monday” (1956) – T-Bone Walker

“Call it Stormy Monday” is one of the most well-known blues standards. It has been covered by the Allman Brothers, Cream, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lou Rawls, and hundreds of local blues bands in smoky bars.

T-Bone Walker was perhaps the most influential blues guitar player of all time, and his soulful leads on “Call it Stormy Monday” explain why. 

 

“Smokestack Lightening” (1959) – Howlin’ Wolf

Howlin’ Wolf is the ultimate blues artist.

He was big in every way: physically, with his voice, and as a force of nature on stage. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, referred to Wolf as “where the soul of man never dies.”

If you were making a top 100 blues songs list, Howlin’ Wolf could take half the spots. It’s hard to choose just one of his many classics, but “Smokestack Lightening” is the song he’s best known for and features his greatest vocal performance.

 

“Born Under a Bad Sign” (1967) – Albert King

Blues standards were still being made into the 1960s. “Born Under a Bad Sign” proves this, as it is one of the most well-known and best blues songs.

It’s got that cool voodoo thing that the blues often does so well going on. Also, dig that horn section. Everyone from Jimi Hendrix to the Simpsons has covered it.

 

“Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” (1929) – Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is the most well-known of the iconic early blueswomen. Her style, attitude, and voice are all just cool.

“Nobody Knows You (When You’re Down and Out)” is a standard because of Smith’s performance and its universal message: friends tend to come around more when you’re successful. 

 

“Boogie Chillen” (1948) – John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker did the impossible.

The blues legend wrote hundreds of the best blues songs that only have one chord. They are all equally interesting and emotionally deep. His droning songs are a vital link back to the African roots of the blues.

Hear the master at work on entrancing “Boogie Chillen,” his signature song.

 

“Matchbox Blues” (1927) – Blind Lemon Jefferson

Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of many blues guitar legends of the 1920s and 1930s. His effortless guitar style and expressive vocals helped him to become one of the most influential of the era.

“Matchbox Blues” has undergone many transformations in the hands of everyone from Carl Perkins to The Beatles. Nothing beats Blind Lemon’s original.

 

“I’m a King Bee” (1957) – Slim Harpo

The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are two of the many classic rock bands that Slim Harpo hugely influenced. The Stones covered this song and another Harpo classic, “Hip Shake.”

Even David Bowie, who you don’t always equate with the blues, named his first band after them.

His unmistakable voice and style are fully displayed on “I’m a King Bee.”

 

“Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” (1991) – Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy is the last living blues legend. He’s currently on his last tour, so catch him while you can.

An outstanding guitarist for other musicians, Guy came into his own in the 80s and 90s. “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” is his signature song from this period. It’s also one of the best blues songs of the 90s.

 

“Runaway Blues” (1930) – Ma Rainey

Classic blueswoman Ma Rainey came back into the public consciousness with the 2020 Netflix movie Ma Rainey’s Black BottomThe story of her fascinating life was made for the screen.

She’s well-known for her raunchy style. “Runaway Blues” doesn’t disappoint.

 

“The Sky is Crying” (1959) – Elmore James

Elmore James was the leading innovator of the electric slide guitar. “The Sky is Crying” is the instrument’s signature song. Stevie Ray Vaughan famously covered it.

 

“Red House” (1967) – Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix is as much of a blues artist as anyone on this list. He’s cut from the same cloth as Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker. He moved the blues forward throughout the late 1960s.

“Red House,” from his debut album Are You Experienced, is his most straightforward blues song. The studio version is under 2:30, but live performances would stretch over 15.

 

“I’m a Man” (1955) – Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley was both a blues icon and an early rock n’ roll innovator. His confident swagger makes “I’m a Man” one of the best blues songs.

 

“Wang Dang Doodle” (1966) – Koko Taylor

What is blues slang? There’s plenty, but perhaps the most fun is “Wang Dang Doodle.” Have to ask? Then you’ll never know…

Koko Taylor has rightly been called “The Queen of the Blues.” Her take on Willie Dixon/Howlin’ Wolf’s classic proves why she is.

 

“Pony Blues” (1929) – Charley Patton

If I were making a personal list of the 50 best blues songs of all time, at least 10 of the spots would belong to Charley Patton.

One of the earliest blues legends, Patton’s huge, gravelly voice is second to none. “Pony Blues” is a foundational blues song.

 

“Walking Blues” (1930) – Son House

My favorite blues singer is Son House, and I’m in good company. Jack White says his favorite song is House’s “Death Letter Blues,” which the White Stripes famously covered.

The emotional impact of Son House has to be heard to be believed. He puts everything, and I mean everything, into each performance, each syllable.

Though he recorded into the 1970s, his most potent songs are his earliest, such as 1930’s “Walking Blues.”

 

“Pride and Joy” (1983) – Stevie Ray Vaughan

You couldn’t have a list of the best blues songs without mentioning Stevie Ray Vaughan, who singlehandedly moved the blues forward in the 1980s.

He was able to balance hard blues with pop music, as hits like “Pride and Joy” show.

 

“If You See My Rooster” (1936) – Memphis Minnie

Memphis Minnie is one of the few female blues artists who played guitar, and she was one of the best. Her voice is also just as strong as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey’s.

Fun “If You See My Rooster” is proto-rock n’ roll.

 

“Further on up the Road” (1977) – Eric Clapton

Related: The 16 Greatest Guitarists of All Time

Guitar god Eric Clapton is well known for his love of the blues. He began with John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, created heavy blues with Cream, and has gone back to the blues well many times since.

As far as the best blues songs of the 70s go, it’s hard not to choose “Further on Up the Road.”

 

“You Shook Me” (1969) – Led Zeppelin

If you were making a list of the best blues rock songs, Led Zeppelin would likely have many top 10 spots.

Their heaviest blues album was their self-titled debut, which includes colossal “You Shook Me.”

 

“My Journey to the Sky” (1948) – Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Like Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a fantastic singer and an influential guitarist. Her lead playing is transcendent on gospel classic “My Journey to the Sky.”

If I were making a top 100 blues songs list, Sister Rosetta Tharpe would appear many times.

 

Juke (1952) – Little Walter

Little Walter has been called the king of the harmonica for good reason. He innovated the instrument and brought it into the electric age.

Instrumental “Juke” is his signature song. It sounds as fresh as it did the day it was recorded.

 

Going Down Slow (2004) – R.L. Burnside featuring Lyrics Born

Why is blues music so good? Because it never stops evolving.

Hill country blues legend R.L. Burnside teamed up with hip-hop group Lyrics born for 2004’s extraordinary A Bothered Mind. If you’ve ever wondered what blues and hip-hop would sound like together, “Going Down Slow” is the perfect example of how it’s done.

 

“Don’t Start Me to Talking” (1955) – Sonny Boy Williamson II

Like Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson II re-invented blues harmonica in the 1950s and 60s. He’s equally well-known for his intelligent, emotional, straightforward songwriting. “Don’t Start Me To Talking” shows why.

 

“Statesboro Blues” (1928) – Blind Willie McTell

“No one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell.”

So said Bob Dylan on his most famous outtake and perhaps best song, “Blind Willie McTell.”

He’s right. The Atlanta 12-string guitarist has a truly unique style, from his fingerpicking and slide playing to his plaintive vocals.

McTell’s classic “Statesboro Blues” was made famous by the Allman Brothers Band. Definitely one of the best blues songs.

 

“Blues Deluxe” (2003) – Joe Bonamassa

Joe Bonamassa is one of the few contemporary guitar gods. He’s written and recorded some of the best modern blues songs, including the title track from his 2003 album Blues Deluxe.

 

“Ball and Chain” (1968) – Big Mama Thorton

A big influence on Janis Joplin, Big Mama Thorton had one of the strongest voices in blues history. Incredibly, Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company recorded “Ball and Chain” before she did, as Janis saw her perform it once and decided to make it her own.

What do you think are the best blues songs? Let us know in the comments!

Related

The 30 Greatest Folk Songs of All Time

The Top 16 Movies About Music

The 21 Best Drinking Songs to Raise Your Glass To

Written by Erik Ritland

Erik Ritland is a songwriter, musician, journalist, and podcaster based in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s released over a dozen albums since 2002, most recently Old Dog Almost Gone (2021), the first-ever multimedia album, and his latest collection of all original material, A Scientific Search (2020). During his 15+ years as a music journalist, Erik has written hundreds of articles for Music in Minnesota, Something Else Reviews, his own blog Rambling On, and more. In addition to continuing his music career, Erik currently runs The Cosmic American, a music journalism website, and is the editor of Music in Minnesota.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Loading…

0

Comments

0 comments

songs about anxiety

The 21 Best Songs About Anxiety

who is yungblud

Who is Yungblud? Everything You Need to Know About the Popular “11 Minutes” Singer