What are the 20 Most Essential Blues Songs?

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11. “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters (1955)

As many African Americans left the South and moved north to Chicago, the blues shifted from rural and acoustic to urban and electric. One of the first stars of the South Side was McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, whose “Mannish Boy” is three minutes of swaggering badassery set to the genre’s most infamous start-stop riff.


12. “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf (1956)

Chester Arthur Burnett’s biggest hit remains one of the greatest full-band blues ever set down on tape, with its slow-motion groove courtesy of guitarist Hubert Sumlin and pianist Hosea Lee Kennard. Howlin’ Wolf’s vocals, however, are the song’s centerpiece, and you can hear the whole history of America in his howls.


13. “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten (1958)

Cotten wrote this gentle train song when she was a teenager in the 1910s, but her career didn’t take off until four decades later, when a new generation of folkies discovered her unique picking style (which she developed by flipping a right-handed guitar and playing it left-handed, a technique known as “Cotten picking”). 


14. “Mojo Hand” by Lightnin’ Hopkins (1960)

Romantic betrayal is one of the great blues themes, and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ signature hit goes to extremes to prevent it. His vocals are stoical as he recounts a long journey to Louisiana to procure a mojo hand, but his expert guitar playing conveys all the hardship and grief of a hardened heart.


15. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan (1965)

Dylan is more closely associated with Woody Guthrie than Lead Belly, but he understood blues as a form of folk music. On this famous tune from Bringing It All Back Home, he reimagines the genre as a loquacious expression of countercultural angst, complete with taffy riffs and beatnik surrealism. 

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