101 Best Blues Songs Of All Time

Blues music is already a timeless art form. Rising from the musical traditions brought over by Africans on slave ships, the genre evolved out of people going through the hardest of times.

The best blues songs aren’t necessarily the happiest, but they are deep and meaningful. Here the best blues songs ever.


“Crossroads” by Robert Johnson

Song Year: 1936

Perhaps the seminal blues song “Crossroads,” also known as “Cross Road Blues,” features Robert Johnson’s slide guitar, which is intrinsic to Delta blues. Though the song never mentions anything supernatural, it supposedly tells of a deal Johnson made with the devil, selling his soul for musical ability.

That story took 30 years to take hold, coming to prominence in the 1960s. If Johnson did sell his soul, he didn’t get to enjoy his Satanic windfall very long, as he died at age 27.

“The Thrill Is Gone” by B.B. King

Song Year: 1969

Though B.B. King didn't write “The Thrill Is Gone,” he made it a blues standard. Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell wrote it in the 1950s, and it had a top-ten hit, but it’s a B.B. King tune.

There was some pushback in the blues community for using strings on the track, but it became King’s signature piece.

“Got My Mojo Working” by Muddy Waters

Song Year: 1957

In the case of “Got My Mojo Working,” Muddy Waters captures the spirit of the blues— an art form borne of bad times but often paints pictures of overcoming those difficulties. Waters brings a swagger to the piece that’s hard to top or replicate in the oeuvre.

“Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker

Song Year: 1948

John Lee Hooker brought elements of Delta blues to Detroit and made his own sound. With its driving rhythm (handled almost exclusively by Hooker’s foot stomping), “Boogie Chillen,” perhaps more than any other, arguably stands as “That One Song” that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll.

“Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton

Song Year: 1952

While everyone knows Elvis’ version of “Hound Dog,” much has been made of accusations that he and his team stole the song from Big Mama Thornton. Truthfully, songwriting legends Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the song in 1951 for Thornton; she had a number one hit with it.

“I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Muddy Waters

Song Year: 1954

Muddy Waters recorded “I Just Want to Make Love to You” twice. The 1954 version had Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter, among others, play in the band on this number four hit. In 1968, he re-recorded it for his album Electric Mud, which spawned several blues classics.

Foghat, in 1972, covered the song, and it brought the band its first hit.

“Killing Floor” by Howlin’ Wolf

Song Year: 1964

Fans of Howlin’ Wolf, born Chester Burnett, clamored that he was the greatest blues singer of all time. The growl in his delivery and the life experience you hear make a convincing case. He also played harmonica, though at least part of the song’s hook is the jangly guitar riff that’s instantly recognizable.

“Pride and Joy” by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble

Song Year: 1983

When you play on a David Bowie album, and the world starts talking about you as the Next Great Blues Guitarist, you need to be able to back all that up. Stevie Ray Vaughan had no trouble.

His first single, “Pride and Joy,” introduced him to the world as a frontman. Had he not died in a plane crash a scant seven years later, Vaughan surely would have gone on to be a living legend.

“Shave ’Em Dry” by Lucille Bogan (billed as Bessie Jackson)

Song Year: 1935

Lucille Bogan was one of the first female blues singers ever recorded, and she did her best to make sure no one forgot her. Modern music critics have occasionally referred to her as the Cardie B of the 1930s.

“Shave ‘Em Dry” is undoubtedly one of the dirtier songs you’ll ever hear and uses the F-word, among other nuggets.

“Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson

Song Year: 1936

Johnson received songwriting credit on this classic, but musicologists identified several songs before it that likely informed its creation.

The song is full of geographical mishmashes and mentions California more than Chicago, but the general feeling is that Chicago represents any exotic destination.

Seemingly everyone has covered this song, including The Blues Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, and even President Obama sang it with B.B. King and Buddy Guy in 2012.

“Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy

Song Year: 1914

Born to formerly enslaved people, W.C. Handy knew about the blues. He wrote (or adapted, depending on whom you ask) “Memphis Blues” as an instrumental, and while promotors later added lyrics, that version never took off.

The original instrumental, which Handy played on the trumpet, remains a blues standard today and did a great deal to bring blues to the music-consuming public.

“The Sky Is Crying” by Elmore James

Song Year: 1959

While Stevie Ray Vaughan arguably had a more successful version of this song in the 1980s, Elmore James was as big a name in blues as Vaughan ever became. James’ slide guitar evokes the rainstorm that was said to have occurred when he improvised “The Sky is Crying” during a recording session.

“Black Snake Moan” by Blind Lemon Jefferson

Song Year: 1927

A prime example of the Texas Blues that Blind Lemon Jefferson pioneered, “Black Snake Moan,” is a sad song about whatever demons torment us. In Jefferson’s case, it was his blindness, but it didn’t slow him down.

A different version of the song, titled “That Black Snake Moan,” made the rounds in 1926, but the 1927 rendition remains the textbook version.

“Born Under a Bad Sign” by Albert King

Song Year: 1967

During the whole Age of Aquarius business in the 60s, a song with astrological leanings seemed like a sure thing. When songwriters Booker T. Jones and William Bell penned “Born Under a Bad Sign” for Albert King with that very thought, their work was rewarded, cracking the top 50 on the R&B charts.

King’s guitar work (left-handed, at that) on the song directly influenced bluesmen like Eric Clapton.

“Evil” by Howlin’ Wolf

Song Year: 1954

Willie Dixon was a driving force behind the emergence of the blues, writing, playing, singing, and producing for years. He wrote “Evil” and played bass on Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition of it.

Wolf provides his signature shout-like singing along with harmonica, while piano legend Otis Spann provides piano licks we’d hear again and again from the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.

“Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters

Song Year: 1954

Another Willie Dixon-penned blues standard, “Hoochie Coochie Man,” has become so associated with the blues that parodies of the genre often parrot it without being aware.

This song, complete with its stop-start interludes, was Waters’ first foray into the blues while playing the electric guitar. The experiment seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

“Hellhound on My Trail” by Robert Johnson

Song Year: 1937

“Hell Hound on My Trail” takes the familiar theme of the bluesman as a rambler and turns it darkly on its head. Johnson’s wanderer is on the move because he’s running from something. Many critics call this his finest piece if for no other reason than the bottleneck slide playing he does.

“Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters

Song Year: 1955

Though filled with sexual boasting, “Mannish Boy” was more of a political statement than macho braggadocio. Waters and co-writers Mel London and Bo Diddley knew what it was like to be Black men in the South, so the song asserts manhood since white Southerners would only ever refer to them as “boy.”

“Spoonful” by Howlin’ Wolf

Song Year: 1960

“Spoonful” is another blues standard British band Cream would cover a few years after its release. It’s also one of seemingly hundreds of blues songs recorded for Chess Records in Chicago, home of Wolf, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, and truckloads of other seminal blues artists.

“Sno-Cone, Parts 1 and 2” by Albert Collins

Song Year: 1965

Often hailed as the “Master of the Telecaster,” Albert Collins’ “Sno-Cone” was two different songs, sometimes released on separate 45s and sometimes grouped together.

The Telecaster gave Collins a signature sound, and adding the almost percussive horn section to the mix cemented both iterations of “Sno-Cone” as exemplary Texas blues songs.

“Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson

Song Year: 1927

Another entry in the itinerant musician genre, “Matchbox Blues,” finds Blind Lemon Jefferson singing about how he moves from town to town easily because he doesn't have enough possessions to fit into a matchbox.

“Tell Mama” by Etta James

Song Year: 1967

Is there a bluesier woman than Etta James? She seems to have embodied the genre, and her reaction to the song tells its own blues story.

The song was a hit, scoring on the soul charts, crossing over to mainstream pop, and garnering critical praise for her vocal performance. Her response? She admitted that while, sure, “Tell Mama” made her some money, she hated the song and hated singing it.

“‘Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” by Bessie Smith

Song Year: 1923

Bessie Smith wasn’t the first to record “‘Taint Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” but her recording was the first to become a blues standard. Her version retains the Vaudeville-style accompaniment envisioned by songwriters Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins, though later covers shucked more and more of that feel in favor of harder-core blues riffs.

“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” by John Lee Hooker

Song Year: 1966

The history of blues songs is rife with disputes over who wrote what and when. John Lee Hooker was a big part of those disputes, as he had a habit of taking songs, adapting them, melding them, and making them his own.

“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” probably came from the similarly titled “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” by Rudy Toombs, though there are striking differences. When George Thorogood covered Hooker’s version in 1977, he added parts of another song, perhaps in the spirit of John Lee Hooker.

“Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf

Song Year: 1956

Smokestack lightning was a term for the sparks that sometimes flew from the smokestack of trains as they churned down the tracks at night. For Howlin’ Wolf, who grew up working in the fields in Mississippi, those sparks represented freedom.

Longing for freedom is intrinsic to the blues and infuses his playing and singing on “Smokestack Lightning.”

“Red House” by Jimi Hendrix

Song Year: 1967

While Jimi Hendrix is widely considered a rock god, he was performing “Red House” before he was a star, having come up learning at the feet of the great blues guitarists a generation ahead of him.

The song is as much associated with him as “Purple Haze” is, and he played it live throughout his career. Listening to different recordings gives one the feeling that Hendrix loved playing it.

“Texas Flood” by Stevie Ray Vaughan

Song Year: 1983

When you can’t get in touch with your baby, you rationalize that maybe the rainstorm has rendered her unreachable. Then you start wondering if she’s with someone else.

That’s the gist of “Texas Flood,” another instant classic from Stevie Ray Vaughan. The song features the muscular solos and gravelly singing voice that made Vaughan an instant icon.

“Wang Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor

Song Year: 1965

Willie Dixon wrote it, and Howlin’ Wolf recorded it, but “Wang Dang Doodle” didn’t become a hit until Koko Taylor released her cover in 1965. Buddy Guy played on the recording, and Dixon himself sang backing vocals.

As a crossover hit, “Wang Dang Doodle” went to 13 on the R&B charts and 58 on Billboard’s pop chart.

“I’d Rather Go Blind” by Etta James

Song Year: 1967

It’s not often that the B-side of a classic song becomes a classic itself, but that’s what happened with “I’d Rather Go Blind,” which started life as the B-side to “Tell Mama.”

Etta James said she got the idea for the song after visiting a friend in prison. It’s the old tale of fearing the loss of a love, and the narrator would rather lose her sight than watch her man walk away.

“A Little Less Conversation” by Guitar Shorty

Song Year: 2004

Mac Davis co-wrote “A Little Less Conversation for Elvis Presly in the late 1960s, and it did well for the superstar. But Guitar Shorty’s 2004 cover infuses the song with a much bluesier feel, and his wailing guitar helps push the narrative along— that this is taking way too long, and can we just get to the fun part?

“Back Door Man” by Willie Dixon

Song Year: 1970

Willie Dixon had a hand in writing many songs on this list for other artists, but he sang this one. “Back door man” refers to someone having an extra-marital affair, and if anything can cause the blues, that’s it.

Howlin’ Wolf recorded a version many people love, but it’s Dixon’s song, and The Doors covered it later.

“Big Chief” by Professor Longhair

Song Year: 1964

A quintessential example of blues piano, “Big Chief” has a New Orleans flair that’s helped along by the whistling (which songwriter Earl King performed on the track).

Due to its feel, the song has come to be associated with New Orleans, and musicians there play it often.

“Mess Around” by Ray Charles

Song Year: 1953

Ahmet Ertegun was president of Atlantic Records when he wrote “Mess Around,” and he didn’t write it specifically for Ray Charles. However, legend has it that the studio staff had trouble getting Charles to loosen up and be behind the piano during the recording sessions.

On a whim, Ertegun presented the song to Charles, and the plan worked. “Mess Around” was one of Charles’ early big hits.

“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett

Song Year: 1966

Mack Rice wrote and recorded “Mustang Sally” in 1965, but his friend and fellow singer Wilson Pickett laid down a version of it a year later that took the charts by storm. It went to number four and spawned a mess of covers, including the version in the film The Commitments that put the song on the charts again in 1991.

“You Shook Me” by Willie Dixon

Song Year: 1970

“You Shook Me” is yet another song that Willie Dixon wrote, watched someone else (Muddy Waters, in this case) record, and then made his own version.

Since his 1970 cover of his own song, “You Shook Me,” has received treatment from acts as diverse as Heart and Jimmy Page, Etta James and Bryan Adams, and Joe Bonamassa has taken a swing at it.

“Born In Chicago” by Paul Butterfield Blues Band

Song Year: 1965

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band showed that white musicians could play the blues just as well as anyone else.

“Born in Chicago” paints a picture of growing up around violence, with the narrator’s father telling him he needs a gun. Parent of the year? No. Great blues song? Absolutely.

“Catfish Blues” by Robert Petway

Song Year: 1941

This song became the backbone for Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone,” from which The Rolling Stones took their name. That alone cements Robert Petway’s place in music history.

“Catfish Blues” became known not from Petway but from Jimi Hendrix covering it at Woodstock and eventually morphing it into “Voodoo Chile.” Government Mule covered it, too. It’s now a rock staple, though its origins lie in the blues.

“Stone Crazy” by Buddy Guy

Song Year: 1962

Buddy Guy recorded “Stone Crazy” with Chess Records, but his time with the company was fraught with conflict, as the powers that be had no interest in capturing the feel of his live shows in the recording studio.

As a result, the company hampered Guy’s career, “Stone Crazy” never got much promotion, and the world would have to wait a few years for full exposure to Guy’s singular voice and playing style.

“See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” by Blind Lemon Jefferson

Song Year: 1927

Blind Lemon Jefferson continues his streak of singing really sad blues. What’s sadder than spending time thinking about the condition of your gravesite? Jefferson sings about horses drawing his coffin to the gravesite, the lonely wind blowing, and the sound of the shovel against the dirt. Man, that’s sad.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” by Bessie Smith

Song Year: 1929

Though “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” was written in the early 1920s when life was pretty good, Bessie Smith didn’t record it until 1929, after the market crash.

As a result, the song, about the vagaries of life and how easy it can be to go from rich to poor, took on new meaning, as so many in her audience knew firsthand just how tough an economic downturn could be.

“I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Otis Rush

Song Year: 1956

Otis Rush recorded this Willie Dixon tune in 1956, using his singular style of guitar playing, known as West side guitar. It makes a song by Otis Rush readily identifiable, and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is as much a showcase for Rush’s guitar work as it is yet another piece of blues history composed by the inimitable Willie Dixon.

“Leaving Trunk” by Taj Mahal

Song Year: 1967

A leaving trunk is something any rambling bluesman needs. When he’s caught up with a married woman, that leaving trunk sometimes gets packed in a hurry.

“Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway

Song Year: 1931

Most members of Generation X had no idea who Cab Calloway was before they snuck in to see the R-rated “The Blues Brothers,” but they walked out of the theater singing Calloway’s call-and-response scat lyrics.

Those Gen Xers, like the white audiences who first heard Calloway sing in the ‘30s, had no idea what the song was about— a fast woman who abuses drugs, runs with a cocaine addict, and can only dream of a better life. Hidden by 1930s slang that white audiences of the time didn’t understand, the sordid song faced little criticism or censorship.

“How Many More Years” by Howlin' Wolf

Song Year: 1951

Howlin’ Wolf brings it with his harmonica playing on “How Many More Years,” and that’s not even the best thing about the song.

That honor goes to the humor in the song, which may have been unintentional, but is still there. Howlin’ Wolf was a giant of a man, standing at 6’6”, and yet the song is about how he’s sick of getting pushed around by his woman. She must have been something.

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream

Song Year: 1967

Cream was essentially the world’s first supergroup, with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker making up a legendary ensemble, but Bruce and Baker famously hated each other.

As with The Police a decade later, clashing egos and the resulting tension led everyone to push themselves. The yield was classics like “Sunshine of Your Love,” an instant blues classic.

“Ball and Chain” by Big Mama Thornton

Song Year: 1968

Sadly, most of Big Mama Thornton's recognition for “Ball and Chain” came to her because Janis Joplin recorded it. Thornton had a hit with “Hound Dog,” but then Elvis made it a worldwide hit; then Joplin did the same with “Ball and Chain.”

Thornton might not have made the biggest splashes on the charts, but we still see her influence as a blues singer.

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” by Bo Diddley

Song Year: 1962

Willie Dixon wrote “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover,” and it became one of Bo Diddley’s last hits.

While many consider it a rock song, it’s got too many blues elements to fall into such a broad category. Plus, Willie Dixon wasn't in the business of writing rock songs.

“The Midnight Special” by Leadbelly

Song Year: 1934

Huddie William Ledbetter, known to the world as Leadbelly, wrote “Midnight Special” about the train that went past the prison in Sugar Land, Texas, where he was for a time. That’s so blues, isn’t it?

Anyway, when the light of that train shone on a prisoner, it was considered good luck and a sign that he would get out soon.

“Stop Breakin’ Down” by Robert Johnson

Song Year: 1938

The ringing falsetto Robert Johnson displays near the end of each chorus of “Stop Breakin’ Down” is a signature for the man, as many songs in his short career display flashes of that same sound.

Recorded during the last session of Johnson’s life, The Rolling Stones covered it on Exile on Main Street.

“Stormy Monday” by T-Bone Walker

Song Year: 1947

T-Bone Walker was an early adopter of the electric guitar and made the instrument an integral part of his blues output. “Stormy Monday” employs a 9th chord throughout, an added-tone chord that makes a chord sound bluesier and becomes a staple in Walker’s chord repertoire.

“Sinner’s Prayer” by Ray Charles

Song Year: 1957

This Lowell Fulson tune was Ray Charles’ cover of the song and is the rare slow-tempo song that still allows a pianist (in this case, Charles) to show off his solo chops. Charles plays a few lightning-fast riffs that leave no question as to his abilities.

“I’m in the Mood” by John Lee Hooker

“I’m in the Mood” by John Lee Hooker

Song Year: 1951

Supposedly inspired by the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s “In the Mood,” “I’m in the Mood” sounds nothing like that Big Band Swing staple. Still, it spent a month at number one and allegedly sold over a million copies (allegedly because record sales figures were quite a bit murkier then than they are now).

“I Ain’t Drunk” by Ike Turner

Song Year: 1954

Slippery, chromatic horns go with Turner’s tongue-in-cheek denials of being hammered. It’s much more charming if you don’t know about his violence against national treasure Tina Turner.

“Green Onions” by Booker T. & The MG’s

Song Year: 1962

“Green Onions” is one of those songs that:

  1. Has no words, so you’d be forgiven for not knowing the title.
  2. You have heard before, even if you swear you haven't (once you hear it, you’ll be like, “Oh, yeah. I know that one.”
  3. Plays in tons of movies and TV shows (“The Sandlot,” “Quadrophenia,” “American Dad!”).

“Further On Up The Road” by Bobby “Blue” Bland

Song Year: 1957

Sometimes listed as “Farther Up the Road,” this early Texas blues song is about karma, essentially— at some point down the line, someone’s going to hurt you as you hurt me.

“Everyday Now” by Texas

Song Year: 1989

In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was a blues boom in and around the UK. Scotland’s Texas stood out from the crowd with this soulful take on the blues. Sharleen Spiteri’s vocals seethe with heartache, and the harmonica burns pretty hot.

After minor success in the US, Texas remains a hit overseas.

“Do The Rump” by Junior Kimbrough

Song Year: 1997

This posthumous release from Junior Kimbrough reminded the world that he had a command of the electric guitar that puts him up with some of the blues greats from years back.

Kimbrough was discovered in the 1970s playing in a bar near the University of Memphis. His fan base remains small but dedicated.

“Boom, Boom, Out Go The Lights” by Little Walter

Song Year: 1957

Little Walter didn't invent the idea of holding a microphone in his hands behind his harmonica, but he’s the man who made it commonplace. He is also credited as the first musician to use distortion, as he explored sound possibilities and made noises with his harp no one had heard before.

“I’m a Man” by Bo Diddley

Song Year: 1955

One of Bo Diddley’s earlier hits, this song inspired Muddy Waters’ similarly-themed “Mannish Boy.” It’s probably the first occurrence of the classic blues guitar riff that appears on blues records in every decade, most popularly, perhaps, on George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone.”

“A Man Of Many Words” by Buddy Guy

Song Year: 1972

Possibly influenced by Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle,” Buddy Guy first recorded “A Man of Many Words” in 1972 with Junior Wells, complete with a B3 organ and frenetic guitar solos.

It’s full of the same swagger and cocksure bragging in many Buddy Guy tunes. It’s a minor blues classic, but that doesn’t dilute the song’s power.

“My Head’s in Mississippi” by ZZ Top

Song Year: 1990

Coming off the mainstream success of 1983’s “Eliminator,” ZZ Top recorded “My Head’s in Mississippi.” It’s textbook ZZ Top in that the band wrote a straight-up blues song, rocked it up pretty well, and then had drummer Frank Beard add a beat on electronic drums. The result was an out-of-the-ordinary for a blues song that, at its heart, is still a blues song.

“Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes

Song Year: 1971

A list of this sort would be incomplete without entries including Eric Clapton, so “Bell Bottom Blues” addresses any omissions.

Blues songs can often deserve criticism for being melodically similar. “Bell Bottom Blues” bucks that trend. Plus, it has Clapton playing multiple guitar tracks on the recording.

“C.C. Rider Blues” by Ma Rainey

Song Year: 1924

Originally issued as “See See Rider Blues,” this is one of those songs that nobody knows who wrote it. Ma Rainey was the first to record it in 1924, but it was part of Black minstrel shows before that.

“C.C. Rider Blues” is a classic because it’s a bridge from Vaudvillean performances to the blues.

“Every Day I Have the Blues” by B.B. King

Song Year: 1955

Any musician who’s ever played in a blues bar has been called upon to perform “Every Day I Have the Blues.” It probably originated in St. Louis in the early 20th century but was first recorded in 1935. Twenty years later, B.B. King wrote a version that snagged him a Grammy.

“Eyesight To The Blind” by Sonny Boy Williamson II

Song Year: 1951

As far as full-throated harmonica playing goes, it’s hard to find a more driving and insistent example than Sonny Boy Williamson II’s work on “Eyesight to the Blind.” He was one of many to cover the song, including The Who (though theirs was more of an adaptation for “Tommy” and not really a cover), but his version has a strut that the others don’t.

“Hideaway” by John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton

Song Year: 1963

An instant standard, “Hideaway” is another of those tunes that almost every blues player has performed at least once. It was composed and performed by Freddy King, but as many players have covered it over the years, it’s evolved into several versions.

John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers turned in this blistering performance with Eric Clapton in 1963.

“I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters

Song Year: 1948

True to form, Muddy Waters took a few songs, messed around with them, mashed them together, and came up with “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” But being Muddy Waters, the result was always more than a simple rip-off or mashup.

When Waters arrived there, Chicago blues was already a thing, but his electrified sound took things to an entirely new level.

“It Hurts Me Too” by Elmore James

Song Year: 1957

Elmore James took this blues standard initially recorded by Tampa Red in 1940 and turned it into a blues anthem that had power behind it. James recorded a version in 1957 that failed to chart, but a later recording, released after James’ untimely death at age 45 in 1963, reached number 25 on the R&B charts.

“Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson

Song Year: 1938

Most people get the blues when they think of dying. In the case of “Me and the Devil Blues,” the unfortunate narrator doesn’t just think about dying but wakes up one day with the devil knocking on the door. The lyrics don’t say if he pretended he wasn’t home.

“The Seventh Son” by Willie Dixon

Song Year: 1955

Willie Dixon had already mentioned the mythical seventh son of a seventh son in “Hoochie Coochie Man,” but he further explored the mysticism of that archetype from folklore in “The Seventh Son.”

Aside from all that big-word stuff, it’s a blues shuffle that cooks, and the harmonica solo is top-notch.

“Trouble No More” by the Allman Brothers Band

Song Year: 1969

Perhaps more than on any other song, the Allman Brothers flexed their blues bona fides on “Trouble No More,” recorded for the band’s debut album. Taken from a Muddy Waters interpretation of another song that was itself a sort of remake of another, “Trouble No More” is one of those songs about which it’s hard to say exactly who wrote it.

“Voodoo Chile” by Jimi Hendrix

Song Year: 1968

Jam bands may owe their existence to this track from Jimi Hendrix. He adapted “Catfish Blues” to create “Voodoo Chile,” which also led to “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” but the element of note is that this song was one of the first studio jams.

At 15 minutes long, it’s much more than verse-chorus-solo-bridge-chorus. Jimi shines bright on this one.

“Shake Your Moneymaker” by Elmore James

Song Year: 1961

The hardest evidence of the importance of “Shake Your Moneymaker” to the blues genre may be that more than 100 artists have recorded covers of it, and that doesn’t count the countless acts, big-name and otherwise, who’ve played it live.

“True Lies” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Song Year: 1997

Kenny Wayne Shepherd was a blue wunderkind when he debuted on the national scene. The driving blues guitar riff h lays down throughout “True Lies” was all a lot of people needed to hear to recognize that he was the real thing.

“Down So Long” by Sting

Song Year: 1985

Admittedly mocked by his bandmates for being a rich Englishman trying to write a blues song, Sting persisted and played “Down So Long” as part of his first solo tour supporting “The Dream of the Blue Turtles.”

With Branford Marsalis on sax and Kenny Kirkland on keys, he had some admirable assistance. The song is a simple blues piece, but it’s got the transcendent joy of truly great blues songs.

“Baby Scratch My Back” by Slim Harpo

Song Year: 1965

Slim Harpo himself called “Baby Scratch My Back” his attempt at rock ‘n’ roll. Listening to it, you can hear what he means.

“Bumble Bee” by Memphis Minnie

Song Year: 1930

Memphis Minnie grew up playing around Beale Street in Memphis before enjoying a decades-long career. A guitar-playing woman was unusual. When she plugged in, people were beside themselves. Nevertheless, she persisted.

“Give Me Back My Wig” by Hound Dog Taylor

Song Year: 1971

Hound Dog Taylor died a mere four years after recording this ebullient break-up song. Our narrator had bought his woman a wig. Now that she’s leaving, he’s demanding it back.

Taylor’s solo work is nothing to smile at, even if the subject matter causes a chuckle.

“I'm a King Bee” by Slim Harpo

Song Year: 1957

An unusual structure makes “I’m a King Bee” stand out from much of the standard blues repertoire, as much of it uses the standard 12-bar blues progression. Slim Harpo used a modified progression, so it can feel a bit off-kilter to those accustomed to straight, 12-bar blues.

“I’m a King Bee” was a favorite cover for band members in the early days of both The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd.

“Let the Good Times Roll” by Louis Jordan

Song Year: 1946

“Let the Good Times Roll” represents the first instance of jump blues on this list. The song spent six months on the charts in the 1940s, becoming one of Jordan’s biggest hits. In the aftermath of WWII, that comes as no surprise.

“Sweet Black Angel” by Robert Nighthawk

Song Year: 1949

Lucille Bogan and Tampa Red both recorded versions of “Sweet Black Angel” in the 1930s, but it was Robert Nighthawk’s 1949 recording that inspired B.B. King to write and record “Sweet Little Angel.”

We mentioned earlier that Chess Records butted heads with Muddy Waters. The label was, in fact, choosing to promote Nighthawk over Waters.

“Working Man” by Otis Rush

Song Year: 1969

Otis Rush was a left-handed guitarist who, rather than changing the string order on his right-handed electric guitar, instead turned it over and played it upside-down so that the high E string was on top rather than the bottom.

A bad habit of keeping his pinky hooked under the low E string gave him a distinctive sound. “Working Man” would become a standard Chicago blues piece.

“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jimmy Reed

Song Year: 1961

All rock, blues, and country music have the same roots. But “Bright Lights, Big City” is a rare example of a song that the listener can hear all those roots. Blues, rock, and country artists have interpreted “Bright Lights, Big City” for over half a century.

“Blue and Lonesome” by The Rolling Stones

Song Year: 2016

Though recorded in the 21st century, “Blue and Lonesome” could pass for a blues standard from the genre's early days. If Mick Jagger’s voice weren’t so instantly recognizable, you’d never know it was recorded with state-of-the-art equipment by a rock band.

“Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker

Song Year: 1962

One of Hooker’s two songs to make the Billboard Hot 100 chart, “Boom Boom,” became an enduring classic. Both of those facts may owe to critics calling it Hooker’s best pop song, and it certainly has a little more pep than most blues songs.

“Dust My Broom” by Elmore James

Song Year: 1937

At the time of Robert Johnson’s death, Elmore James took Johnson’s same Delta blues style and adapted it for use with bands.

James’ slide guitar work on “Dust My Broom” is iconic. Even if you don’t think you’ve heard his opening riff before, you have.

“Help Me” by Sonny Boy Williamson II

Song Year: 1963

The pleading in the song’s title has nothing on that which we hear in Williamson’s wailing harmonica.

“Help Me” is another blues tune that everybody has covered— from Van Morrison to Joan's “What If God Was One Of Us” Osborne. That’s a weird collection of musicians.

“I Know What You’re Putting Down” by Louis Jordan

Song Year: 1947

The first half of the 20th century saw a movie genre called race films that would eventually give rise to the blaxploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s. But in the 1940s, “Reet, Petite, and Gone” was a race film— forgettable— that featured blues magic from Louis Jordan, and he performed “I Know What You’re Putting Down” in the movie.

“Little Wing” by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood

Song Year: 2008

Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” isn’t the bluesiest blues song to ever blues, but when you put Eric Clapton on anything, well, you’ve got some blues going on. Adding Steve Winwood, with his high tenor that cries over the backing harmonies, then you’ve really got something.

“Life by the Drop” by Stevie Ray Vaughan

Song Year: 1991

Stevie Ray Vaughan wrote some killer blues songs, but “Life by the Drop” wasn’t one of them. Texas drummer Doyle Bramhall, who played with both Vaughans— Stevie Ray and Jimmie— has that honor. Stevie Ray recorded it shortly before his death, and it was released posthumously, making it all the more bittersweet.

“Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues” by Buddy Guy

Song Year: 1991

How many bluesmen live long enough to sing about their grandbabies? From his seventh studio album, Buddy Guy makes his musical comeback after ten years of limiting his recordings.

“Rock Me Mama” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup

Song Year: 1944

“Rock Me Mama” would evolve into “That’s Alright (Mama),” which Elvis, Led Zeppelin, and even Elton John would work into their live shows. The song’s appeal to rock players demonstrates further how important the blues were to the development of rock music.

“The Things That I Used to Do” by Guitar Slim

Song Year: 1953

Specialty Records higher-ups thought Guitar Slim’s music would only appeal to Black audiences in the South, so they let Ray Charles produce the recording session that gave us, among others, “The Things That I Used to Do.”

The song blew up, charting into 1954 and serving as a direct influence of subsequent soul music.

“You Don’t Exist Any More” by Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials

Song Year: 1986

While Percy Mayfield and His Orchestra recorded “You Don’t Exist Any More” in 1954, the 1986 debut album from Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials made the song a hit. It still gets cheers from audiences worldwide as the band is a fixture at blues festivals year-round.

“Blues Before Sunrise” by Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell

Song Year: 1934

Leroy Carr wasn’t the top-billed name here for nothing. His blues piano work on “Blues Before Sunrise” cements him as one of the greats. Scrapper Blackwell’s guitar isn’t lacking, but Carr’s piano licks are so tasty it’s hard to notice anything else on the record.

“Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds

Song Year: 1920

While there’s a vaudevillian manic happiness underlying the sound of “Crazy Blues,” Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds recorded one of the first songs decrying violence against Black women.

“Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee

Song Year: 1949

Jerry Lee Lewis had a country hit with “Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” but without Stick McGhee’s contributions to jump blues (like this one), Lewis wouldn’t have had much of an act.

“Five Long Years” by Ike and Tina Turner

Song Year: 1966

“Five Long Years” is a far cry from the shouting soul of “Proud Mary,” but it’s no less powerful. Tina Turner’s singular voice fits the song perfectly, and Ike’s intricate guitar fills behind her help drive the song through the chord changes.

“Still Rainin’” by Jonny Lang

Song Year: 1998

Not even 17 when he recorded “Still Rainin’,” Jonny Lang has the voice and electric guitar chops of a 60-year veteran. He’s the kind of player that, when you hear something he recorded at age 15, you say, “No way.”

How can a kid that young have this much swagger and be able to back it up?

“Shame, Shame, Shame” by Jimmy Reed

Song Year: 1963

Jimmy Reed picked up an electric guitar upon arriving home from WWII. He became one of the godfathers of electric blues. In 1963, “Shame, Shame, Shame” found him playing through an amp while blowing on the harmonica. His music had a big effect on Elvis Presley.

“Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” by Taj Mahal

Song Year: 1996

Taj Mahal was playing blues rock with the likes of Ry Cooder before striking out on his own and playing more blues and less rock. “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” shows off his ability to write a nice melody and play a melodic guitar solo.

Top Blues Songs Ever, Final Thoughts

With so many great examples of blues music and its sub-genres, it’s a task to narrow the best down even to 100 or so. But great musicians have a way of rising to the top no matter what they’re playing, and these best blues songs capture most of the essence of blues music.

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