16 Gospel Blues Songs You Must Hear
Gospel blues has a long history reaching back to the likes of Blind Willie Johnson and Rev Robert Wilkins right through to recent work by Kelly Joe Phelps and Ry Cooder. It’s not surprising, given the close relationship between the spirituals and the blues. It’s a genre rich in musicality, spirituality and inspiration. Here are 16 gospel blues songs that are really worth listening to.
Blind Willie McTell: I’ve Got to Cross the River of Jordan
Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, sang Bob Dylan. True, but McTell also left us a fine collection of gospel blues songs, including River of Jordan, which focuses our attention on the inevitable journey we all must take across Jordan – on our own, facing the consequences of our lives. There’s some fine slide playing on the song and McTell’s vocal performance is strong and compelling. The song is essentially another version of Nobody’s Fault but Mine.
Check out Mark Millers 2010 album, The Gospel Songs of Blind Willie McTell.
Blind Willie Johnson: Dark Was the Night
Arguably Willie Johnson’s masterpiece, it is making its way across the universe as part of the musical offering on the Voyager space craft. Recorded in 1927, it features Johnson’s inspired slide playing which creates an incredible other-worldly, eerie effect and his agonized moaning. You really cannot hear the words of this old spiritual which focuses on Christ’s trial in the Garden of Gethsemane, but Johnson’s vocals and slide work more than evoke this terrible hour. Click here for our more detailed look at this song.
Rev. Robert Wilkins: Prodigal Son
Wilkins’ compelling retelling of the gospel story of the prodigal son was recorded in 1935, six years after he had recorded the same song with secular lyrics. Now, having turned his back on the blues and an ordained minister, he re-recorded the song, and eventually performed it at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. For more on the song, go to here.
Skip James: My God is Real
The music of Skip James, the most enigmatic of all the Delta blues figures, was ominous, bleak and mysterious, made primarily for his own emotional release. James was an exceptional guitarist, with a trademark E-minor tuning and an eerie falsetto vocal delivery. After making some seminal blues recordings, in 1931 he moved to Dallas, where he served as a minister and led a gospel group. His My God is Real, speaks of a deep, very personal experience of faith.
Josh White: My Soul is Gonna Live with God
White was a prolific blues artist and civil rights activist in the first half of the twentieth century. He took a clear anti-segregationist and international human rights political stance and recorded a number of political protest songs. He also recorded gospel songs under the moniker, The Singing Christian. His 1935 My Soul is Gonna Live with God puts his guitar playing chops and his fine singing on display and focuses on the Christian hope for after death.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Rock Me
Rosetta Tharpe was a major star during the 1940s and 50s and was an inspiration to the early generation of rock’n’roll artists. She grew up immersed in the church and her faith was a constant inspiration to her music throughout her life. Rock Me, one of her most loved songs, was written by Tommy Dorsey and first recorded by her in 1938. An instant hit, the song contains various Biblical and hymn references. Isaiah 41 comes to mind: “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.” The song was also another of Blind Willie McTell’s gospel recordings, under its original title, Hide Me in Thy Bosom, in 1949.
Find our tribute to Rosetta Tharpe here.
And check out this fine recent version by Brooks Williams, accompanied by Hans Theessink:
Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Got to Move
Fred McDowell’s song was brought to prominence by the Rolling Stones on their Sticky Fingers album. It’s essentially a song about the Christian hope of resurrection – “when the Lord get ready, you got to move!”
For a great recent version, check out Paul Thorn’s take on his Don’t Let the Devil Ride album. Check out our conversation with Paul, including his comments on the song here
Sister Fleeta Mitchell & Rev. Willie Mae Eberhard: Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Most people are more familiar with Robert Plant’s version of this old spiritual, but Fleeta Mitchell and Willie Mae Eberhard’s stripped down version which appears on Art Rosenbaum’s 2007 album of traditional field recordings is well worth checking out. The song is based on Jesus’s words in Luke’s gospel when he said, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.” For Christians, the power of evil personified by the “Adversary” is under judgement because of the coming of Christ and ultimately we are not to despair, because good will triumph under the Lordship of Jesus.
Mississippi John Hurt: Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me (Don’t You Hear My Saviour Calling?)
John Hurt is renown for his blues and his rhythmic, alternating bass guitar style, with fast syncopated melodies. Reputed to be a gentle soul, his music is quite transcendent, whether blues or gospel. Here Am I, Oh Lord Send Me is a fine example of his technique and is based on Jesus’s words in John’s gospel about the fields being ready for harvest. The song has a devotional feel about it, with the singer offering himself for God’s service.
Rev. Gary Davis: I Am the Light of this World
Born blind, black and in the American South, Davis had little going for him, and yet he became a master of the guitar, ending up in New York City where he was recognized for the musical genius he was. Davis stayed faithful to his calling as a minister of the gospel until he died and only in the last decade of his life was he persuaded to sing blues songs publicly. His ragtime, blues and gospel performances are all outstanding. I Am the Light of this World recalls the words of Jesus in St. John’s gospel.
Check out Ian Zack’s riveting biography of Gary Davis – reviewed here.
Larry Norman: Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?
Blues-based rock, rather than strictly blues, but this song from Only Visiting this Planet in 1972 puts to rights the misconception that the blues is the devil’s music. Norman, the father of Christian rock, takes up the line from Salvation Army founder William Booth almost a century earlier and then proclaims loudly, “there’s nothing wrong with playing blues licks.”
And in a similar vein, check out Lurrie Bell’s The Devil Ain’t Got No Music, from his 2012 album with the same title.
Eric Bibb: I Want Jesus to Walk With Me
Often played by Eric Bibb in his concerts, he captures completely the dual nature of this old spiritual – on the one hand mournful about the trials and tribulations of life, and yet hopeful about the reality of the presence of Jesus in the midst of those trials. As Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Click here for our recent interview with Eric.
Walter Trout: Brother’s Keeper
From the 2012 album, Blues for the Modern Daze, Walter Trout’s dazzling technique, intensity and emotion seizes you, along with the hard-hitting lyrics. The song recalls the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and calls for more neighbourliness in our relations. Trout reminds us that “Jesus said to feed the hungry, Jesus said to help the poor,” and finishes he song with a searing criticism of modern “so-called Christians” who “don’t believe in that no more.” For more on the song go to here.
And click here for our interview with Walter where he talks about the song.
Ry Cooder: Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right
Ry Cooder has produced one of the best gospel albums ever in Prodigal Son, reviving and updating a number of old gospel songs as well as a couple of his own. We could have picked almost any song from the album for inclusion, but his excellent version of Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger right is surely a song for our times, with xenophobia at an all time high. Strangers, sojourners and immigrants were all to be treated with care and welcome according to the Hebrew bible – “And if a stranger dwell with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 19:33-34). And reflected in the words of Jesus in Matthew 25 – “I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me … When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? … Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
Find our take on Ry Cooder’s album here
Kelly Joe Phelps: Goodbye to Sorrow
Phelps’s 2012 album, Brother Sinner and the Whale, is arguably the best gospel roots album ever. Phelps’s guitar work and slide playing, as always, is immaculate, and the songs are a remarkable testament to Phelps’s rediscovered faith. They brim with creativity, inspiration and spirituality. His reworking of the old hymn, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah is masterful, but we’ve chosen his own Goodbye to Sorrow here, which is simply a wonderful song and packed with theology:
“My God came to earth a humble man
As part of a divine and master plan
When they crucified our Saviour He set the captives free
That death would lose dominion over you and over me
I have said goodbye to sorrow as I lay before the cross.”
Click here for Down at the Crossroads’ comments on this album here.
Blind Boys of Alabama: Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Singing together since 1944, the Blind Boys have been singing blues tinged gospel for an awfully long time and you’d be hard pressed to pick the best of. For a good list, check out Paste’s take here. We’ve gone with this sparse arrangement of another Blind Willie Johnson song, Nobody’s Fault but Mine, which is full of the personal regret and heartache. The plaintive harmonica, the slide guitar and the tight harmonies combine to make this an outstanding version of the song.
If you’re interested to find out more about the relationship between the blues and faith, get yourself a copy of The Gospel According to the Blues, by Gary W Burnett.