Over the past hundred years, blues music has mutated and transformed itself repeatedly, borrowing from other styles and traditions as it migrated from the South over to Texas and up to Chicago. Winnowing such a massive catalog down to a handful of tracks would be impossible, but here are 20 songs essential to the blues and its long, storied history.
This article appears in the May/June 2015 “Blues Issue,” now available on newsstands.
1. “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith (1920)
Smith’s debut single looms impossibly large over popular music: It’s the first vocal recording by an African American, the first blues recording, and the first race record. Ninety-five years later, “Crazy Blues” has more than history to recommend it, as Smith’s jazzy delivery sounds just as sly and mighty as ever.
2. “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson (1927)
This itinerant preacher and musician has traveled from the dusty streets of Texas to the very edge of the solar system. One of his biggest hits, an all-but-silent prayer based on an18th-century hymn, was included on the gold record that NASA shot into space on the Voyager spacecraft in 1977.
3. “Stackolee” by Mississippi John Hurt (1928)
It wasn’t the first tune to recount the exploits of the notorious St. Louis pimp Lee Shelton, but Hurt’s version may be definitive. He describes the violence that Shelton perpetrated in a spry sing-song melody: “At twelve o’clock they killed him,” he sings, with no small relief in his voice. “They’s all glad to see him die.”
4. “Diddie Wah Diddie” by Blind Blake (1929)
From 1926 until 1932, Blind Blake cut more than 80 records of potent Piedmont Blues, a subgenre that used deft finger-picking to mimic ragtime melodies. “Diddie Wah Diddie” shows off his agile fretwork as well as his winking vocal delivery. Everybody but the censors knows what diddie wah diddie means.
5. “Last Kind Word Blues” by Geeshie Wiley (1930)
Little is known about Geeshie Wiley, but the small body of work she left behind reveals the deep pain associated with blues music. “Last Kind Words” is a steely, world-weary lament of lust and loss. “If I get killed, please don’t bury my soul,” she sings over an ominous strum. “I prefer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.”