Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Greatest Blues Songs of All Time, Part II

Greetings to all and sundry, and welcome to the second part of The Greatest Blues Songs of All Time! As with the previous installment The Greatest Blues Songs of All Time, Part I, I have culled another 50+ songs from the lowdown, dirty Delta vaults for your insatiable blues addiction. And it is an addiction, isn't it? Some folks just can't find the beat (rather like Steve Martin in The Jerk), or denigrate the blues as some sort of degenerate Southern folk music, not quite up to snuff for their highbrow tastes. Well, it's either in you or it aint, I suppose.

As I muddled through a mountain of albums and CDs, I found the selection process quite daunting. Honestly, one hundred songs does not in any way encompass the amount of great blues tunes that should rightly be acknowledged. So, perhaps later down the line I'll have to get around to adding another 50 or 100 songs to the list that merit mentioning. For me, it is just a whole lotta fun listening to them all again! As with the first installment, there is no definitive order or even alphabetizing of the artists. I just plopped the tunes in as I came across them, or remembered them, or cross-referenced one song after listening to another. To be honest, I am certain I am missing several important songs, and a week or two from now I'll have a Homer Simpson "D'oh!" moment of dumb recognition. I can live with that.

Whenever possible, I have stuck with the original version of each song, unless the original is unavailable or another blues artist has so usurped the song that their adaptation is the definitive version of the tune; at least, in my subjective opinion.

Death Letter Blues
For you guitar aficionados, Son is playing a National resonator guitar with a copper slide. "Death Letter" is considered one of the great Delta blues tunes of all time, and concerns a man who gets a letter informing him of the death of his lady love. The song goes on to tell of the man going to the morgue, the burying ground, and his resultant depression coming home all alone.

Walkin' Blues
What is interesting about this song is Son House is playing a Robert Johnson song based on Son House's My Black Mama. What goes around comes around.

Grinnin' in Your Face
A proud man singing a powerful song unadorned with musical accompaniment.

Evil (Is Going One)
Yet another Willie Dixon composition that Howlin' Wolf made his own. Wolf's demonic growl of the word "evil" is, in and of itself, evil.

Dallas Blues
The first true blues song ever published. Couldn't find an actual version by Wand, if one exists, but here's a jazzy version by Louis Armstrong from 1929.

St. Louis Blues
That's Louis Armstrong on the coronet backing Ms. Smith. What a booming voice Bessie had! Also, along with Armstrong on the horn, that's a harmonium (yes, a harmonium) played by Fred Longshaw.

Blues Before Sunrise
Lordy, do I love Elmore's slide guitar - you can't help but feel energized! John Lee Hooker does a smoldering, slowed-down version.

The Sky is Crying
One of Elmore's most copied songs, and for good reason. Albert King does a more refined version, which in turn was used as the basis for Stevie Ray Vaughan's version.

Kind Hearted Woman Blues
Said to be the first song recorded by Robert Johnson, "Kind Hearted Woman" is a lyrical reply to "Cruel Hearted Woman Blues" by Bumble Bee Slim.

Hellhound on My Trail
One of the songs that fed the legend that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the Crossroads.  According to another legend, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac could never finish his version of the song due to his growing schizophrenia and recurrent nightmarish visions of a devil dog in his dreams.

Traveling Riverside Blues
I really like Led Zeppelin's slide version, and Robert Plant also paraphrased the infamous lines from Johnson's original "I want you to squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg" and rolled it into the "The Lemon Song" from Led Zeppelin II.

Got My Mojo Workin'
Another song written by one person but made famous by someone else. Preston Foster wrote it, Ann Cole first recorded it, but Muddy made it his own, but not without lengthy litigation after Muddy changed the lyrics and tried to copyright the song as his own (borrowing blues tunes was not a new phenomena started by Cream, Zeppelin and The Stones).

Rollin' Stone
Speaking of the Stones, this is where Keith and Mick got the name for their band.

I Just Want to Make Love to You
So many reasons to love this song! It was written by Willie Dixon, it is growled by Muddy Waters, Otis Spann is playing piano, Jimmy Rogers is on guitar, and Little Walter offers up a great bit on the blues harp. Then, of course, there is the delightfully over-the-top 1970's live version by Foghat. Long live sex, drugs, rock-and-roll and cow bells!

Since I've Been Loving You
On Zeppelin's first two albums, Jimmy Page and Co. stayed relatively safe, refining blues covers rather than venturing off into their own compositions; however on the splendid Led Zeppelin III, they recorded the mammoth "Since I've Been Loving You". Largely undubbed, you hear it pretty much as it was recorded in studio, complete with John Bonham's squeaky bass drum pedal. I also love the acoustic blues romp Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp from the same album. The best song about a dog ever.

I Don't Need No Doctor
Of course, most people remember the absolutely ferocious Humble Pie version, but don't forget the fine original by Ray Charles.

Drown in My Own Tears
A beautiful song from Ray. Joe Cocker did a soulful version with Mad Dogs & Englishmen.

Cry Me a River
Speaking of Joe Cocker, many folks have covered "Cry Me a River", like Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Shirley Bassey, but no one blew the roof off this song like the spastic Cocker, Leon Russell and a cast of thousands. Okay, maybe hundreds. There's a lot of damn people on that stage.

Detroit Moan
One of the great Ms. Spivey's lesser known tunes, but the horns are fabulous! Mentions of Detroit's Hasting Street (one of the crucibles of the blues up North)are a timely reminder of Detroit's contribution to the blues (John Lee Hooker, anyone?).

Dope Head Blues
Love the mention of sniffles. Lonnie Johnson's drop-tuned guitar is crazy, aint it?

Trouble in Mind
Many people have sung this song, but Big Bill really brings out the blues in it.

Key to the Highway
I've already explained in previous articles how Broonzy borrowed/copied/stole this song from fellow bluesman Charlie Segar as a response to critics who claim British blues bands from the 60s and 70s were coldblooded thieves. Sorry to burst your revisionist, politically-correct bubble, but cannibalism in the blues has gone back to the very beginning. Here are fine young cannibals Eric Clapton and Duane Allman with their great version from Derek and the Dominos.

Whipping Post
The Allman Brothers early 70s Fillmore East concerts were legendary, and rightly so. "Whipping Post" is one of their own great compositions, but they were equally superb covering other blues legends, like on Muddy Waters' Trouble No More.

Baby Please Don't Go
This song is has more variations than Lincoln has pennies. It originated in old prison work songs like "Another Man Done Gone" and blues standards such as "Turn Your Lamp Down Low". I think I enjoy Lightnin's simple acoustic version most of all.

Black Cat Blues
A great shuffle number from Lightnin'. I chuckle every time I hear "Morgan Davis wine"! 

Prodigal Son
A superb 12 string rendition by the good Reverend, copied note for note by The Rolling Stones. Except for all the difficult picking leads, and good vocals.

Devil Got My Woman
Three-finger picking with open D-minor tuning. It's a bitch to play and I've never got the subtle nuances down.

22-20 Blues
Some absolutely awesome piano runs here from the multi-talented Skip James. Robert Johnson stole Skip's song when he recorded 32-20 Blues.

Mean Old World
T-Bone originally recorded this song in 1942, but I prefer this 1945 version. It is widely-considered as the first great blues tune played on electric guitar. You can definitely hear its influence on later rock and roll songs. Little Walter does a mean blues harp version.

Grape and Barley Rag
One guitarist who brought blues to an another level. And an Irishman at that! What the hell, here's another great acoustic tune As the Crow Flies from 1974.

Going Down
An advanced blues master class for would-be guitar and piano hotshots. Just to take the wind out of their sails.

Stack O' Lee
One of the great blues storytellers at work here.

Nothing Is Easy
A smoldering bit of early Tull jazz-blues from the stellar album Stand Up, before they started composing album-long prog songs. I also love Someday the Sun Won't Shine for You  from Tull's first album This Was (that's Mick Abrahams on guitar - he split after this album to form the blues band Blodwyn Pig).

Midnight Special
The first version of Lead Belly playing this song was recorded in 1933 by musicologists John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Interestingly enough, it was recorded in Angola Prison where Lead Belly was spending time for attempted murder

Gallis Pole
This is a remarkable recording from the Library of Congress, showing quite plainly why Lead Belly was referred to as "The King of the 12 String". Depending on which legend you believe, Ledbetter got the nickname Lead Belly from surviving a a shotgun blast to the stomach (he had also been stabbed in the neck while in prison, which is why he always wore a bandana around his neck), or his ability to down moonshine. Either is probably true.

A lot of guitarists have names for their guitars, but only B.B. King has Lucille.

Thrill Is Gone
B.B.'s greatest hit.

Little Red Rooster
Yet another song written by Willie Dixon, first recorded by Howlin' Wolf, but I love Big Mama's ad lib crowing interspersed throughout the song.

Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan straps on an electric guitar and pisses off the folk music establishment. I can imagine Dylan getting equally pissed off at Johnny Winter for utterly embarrassing Dylan with Winter's smoking slide version.

Help Me
Interestingly enough, Sonny Boy II was born two years before Sonny Boy I (1912 and 1914). And in memory of Alvin Lee (who died March 6th at age 68), here's Ten Years After's monumental live version of Help Me from 1973.

Eyesight to the Blind
Because of tight-fisted policies of Chess Records, I can't offer the recording of this song that I'd like to, so here's this one. Also, here's another great version I found with just Sonny Boy singing A Capella, accompanying himself on the harp.

Room to Move
Based on Sonny Boy Williamson's "One Way Out", this Mayall tune is a great bit for the blues harp. I know, I've played it often.

When the Levee Breaks
A fabulous early release from 1929, which in turn unleashed the greatest progressive blues cover of all time from Led Zeppelin

Bumble Bee
Memphis Minnie's best known work. Minnie once had a guitar contest with Big Bill Broonzy in a Chicago Bar. A jury of fellow blues players awarded Minnie the prize: a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of gin.

Highway 49
The best nine-string guitarist around. Not that there are many nine-string guitarists around, but you get my meaning. Supposedly one of the meanest son-of-a-bitches ever to play the blues, Big Joe was the quintessential ramblin' bluesman, playing anywhere there was someone to listen around the world.

Bright Lights, Big City
Allegedly, Jimmy was such a raging drunk that his wife, Mary, would sing along with him in case he was too wasted to remember the words. 

On the Road Again
The best example of 1960s psychedelic blues, originally written by bluesman Floyd Jones and absconded by Canned Heat. Love the tambura drone throughout the song. I get high just listening to it. Damn, where is that bag of Fritos? 

I'm a King Bee
Slim Harpo's style was known as "swamp blues", a Louisiana derivation of blues that has a slow tempo and probably goes good with a bowl of jambalaya. The Stones adored Slim Harpo and covered many of his tunes, such as Shake Your Hips.

One of the most fun blues sing-alongs of all time. Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Turtle Blues
Raw blues as only Janis could sing it. She also did a mean version of Bessie Smith's Black Mountain Blues.

P.S. I shall leave you with a special farewell gift. While bopping around YouTube, I happened upon an extraordinary radio show from 1964 (on WTBS-FM Cambridge, MA), featuring the legendary Delta blues pickers Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. If you have 35 minutes or so to spend, it is well worth the time. The sound quality is great for the period.