Blues All The Time: 20 Essential Songs from the Blues’ First Century

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6. “Hard Time Killin’ Floor” by Skip James (1931)

Hailing from Yazoo City, Skip James was a master of Mississippi’s distinctive three-finger picking style and is a remarkable guitar player. On his biggest hit, however, it’s his voice that haunts you. He sings in a high, wild falsetto that turns this Depression-era tale of economic crisis into an expression of existential woe. 

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7. “Love In Vain” by Robert Johnson (1937)

“Love In Vain” may not be Johnson’s most famous tune, but it’s certainly one of his most human. Bidding a lover farewell, he briefly considers the futility of finding contentment in another person, and as he watches the train disappear down the line, we catch a glimpse of the man emerging from the crossroads mythology. 

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8. “Black Girl (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)” by Lead Belly (1944)

Huttie Ledbetter’s vast repertoire covered the breadth of American music: work songs, play songs, ballads, jigs, reels, and even waltzes. But his most famous tune is an epochal blues about a man’s fear of an unfaithful woman. “Tell me, where did you sleep last night?” he demands. “In the pines,” is her ambiguous and unsettling response. 

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9. “That’s All Right Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (1946)

Crudup’s 1946 hit is most often associated with a pimply teenager named Elvis Presley, who covered it during his first session at Sun Studio. But Crudup’s original has all the ingredients that would define rock and roll: a chugging drumbeat, a dexterous boogie riff, and some supremely excitable vocals. 

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10. “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker (1948)

Mississippi native Hooker was working at an auto plant in Detroit when he recorded one of the first electrified blues numbers, and it’s not hard to hear the industry’s influence in his first smash hit. He doesn’t sing the lyric so much as he narrates the song with cool affect, and his central riff sounds spare and mechanized: part hot-rod rev, part assembly-line repetition.

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