Check out this episode of Meet the Music: A Capella to Zydeco.
If you happen to be new to the blues, then here’s your way in. Seven classic songs to get you started on what will be a life-ling appreciation!
“Dr. Burnett shares a little history of the Blues and his deep love for the Blues. In our conversation, we discussed the impact of women blues singers like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Memphis Minnie. Listen as Dr. Burnett lists his suggested artists and songs for new listeners.”
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And here are my seven recommendations for getting started in listening to the blues:
Robert Johnson: Kind Hearted Woman, recorded in 1936, just a couple of years before he died as a young man of 27, poisoned, it seems by a jealous husband. Johnson was a jaw-droppingly good guitarist and a fine singer. He only recorded 29 songs, but Johnson has probably been the most influential blues artist on the whole of rock and roll. Eric Clapton says Johnson was his most formative influence and he has a great version of Kind Hearted Woman on his Me and Mr Johnson album from 1996. Keb’ Mo’ who is one of today’s great blues artist also has a fine version on his 1994 Keb’ Mo’ album.
Blind Willie Johnson: The Soul of A Man recorded in 1930. Willie Johnson was an exponent of gospel blues, and his slide playing, which he did with a penknife, was just outstanding. He’s a remarkable singer, at times a sweet tenor, at other time utterly raw. His music is making its way around the universe on the Voyager space probe launched in 1977 on a golden disk containing a sample of earth’s music. Quite what aliens might make of Johnson’s eerie slide playing and moaning on his song Dark Was the Night, is anyone’s guess! (Check out Tom Waits’ version of Soul of a Man on the 2016 tribute album, God Don’t Never Change, with various artists including Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Lucinda Williams, and Luther Dickinson.)
Mississippi John Hurt: Louis Collins John Hurt was a sharecropper who recorded some songs in 1928, which were not terribly successful. He was then rediscovered in 1963 and recorded a number of albums and performed on the university and coffeehouse concert circuit before he passed away. By all accounts he was a lovely man, and his guitar playing is just delightful. (The version here is Lucinda Williams with Colin Linden on guitar on a tribute album called Avalon Blues. Check out also Rory Block’s tribute album – just her and her guitar, also Avalon Blues)
Memphis Minnie: In My Girlish Days. Before the men began playing the blues, it was the women who were the big stars – women like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey. Memphis Minnie was a performer, a guitar player and singer, mostly in the 1930s and 40s. The poet Langston Hughes described her electric guitar as “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill” – but she was quite a talent. I’ve gone for her In My Girlish Days. You can hear a great version of this on Rory Block’s 2020 album, Prove it on Me, where she plays tribute to the women of the blues. Rory Block is an outstanding acoustic guitar player, and check out also her tribute to these women in her 2018 album, A woman’s Soul: a Tribute to Bessie Smith.
B.B. King: The Thrill Has Gone. This is B.B. King’s signature tune. King was a great singer, but an outstanding guitarist – one of those guitar players where you can tell who it is from just hearing a single note. The song is on a number of albums, but you can find it on a 2006 album of the same name, along with other great B.B. King numbers.
Muddy Waters: Hootchie Cootchie Man. Recorded in 1954. Muddy Waters is known as the father of Chicago blues. He was a Mississippi sharecropper who moved to Chicago in the 1940s and popularized electric blues. He has been a hugely influential figure on rock’n’roll, and the insistent riff that drives Hootchie Chootchi Man is one of the most famous in all blues music. Eric Clapton has a great version on his 1994 From the Cradle album.
Allman Brothers Band: Statesboro Blues on At Fillmore East from 1971 is an old Blind Willie McTell song. Bob Dylan has a famous song which says, nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell. The Allman Brothers’ version has become a classic version of the song and rightly so, featuring Duane Allman’s fabulous slide guitar playing.
Larkin Poe: God Moves on the Water, on 2020’s Self-Made Man. Larkin Poe are two exceptionally talented sisters, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, both amazing guitarists and wonderful singers. They really bring the blues up to date with their own compositions and the way they cover old blues songs. And they are one of the most exciting bands you’d see live. God Moves on the Water is an amended version of an old Blind Willie Johnson song.