<< Blues Classroom
1. Lost Your Head Blues (1926) Listen
Like most blues singers of the "classic" or "vaudeville" style that dominated the 1920s, Bessie Smith drew on a variety of related genres, from Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville standards to early blues and jazz forms. Smith, however, sang every piece with a vocal strength and emotional conviction that few, if any, of her contemporaries matched. This ability to personalize the songs she sang made them powerfully resonant for her audience, as evident in this track, a tale of love lost to which any rejected lover can readily relate. Although she explored other fields, including film, theater, and swing and pop music styles, her potential contributions to them were cut short by her death in 1937 following a car accident. Nonetheless, few dispute that Bessie Smith was and remains the "Empress of the Blues."
2. Stack O' Lee (1928) Listen
Mississippi John Hurt spent the majority of his life as a laborer in Avalon, Mississippi. With a guitar style characterized by elaborate fingerpicking and a highly elegant and rhythmic approach, his music was more akin to that of the Piedmont region of the Southeastern US than of the Mississippi Delta near which he lived. Although several of the sides he recorded in 1928 were popular upon their release, Hurt's recording career ended with the onset of the Great Depression. Unlike all but a few solo country bluesmen, however, Hurt lived to see a dramatically expanded interest in his music during the blues revival of the 1960s, when his still-impressive skills and gentle demeanor, even when relating a tale of the murderous Stack O' Lee, made him a widely revered live and recorded favorite among college and festival audiences.
3. The Panama Limited (1930) Listen
Though born just outside the Mississippi Delta around 1906, Booker (Bukka) T Washington White's highly percussive style of slide guitar, readily evident on this track recorded in 1930, was influenced strongly by such Delta musicians as Charley Patton and Son House. Like most of the first generation of country bluesmen to be recorded, White's musical career was severely curtailed by the Great Depression. However, the recordings he made in 1937 and 1940, on either end of a stint in Parchman Farm, are now widely regarded as some of the last and best traditional country blues ever recorded. Despite the success of one of themthe now standard "Shake 'Em On Down"White spent the following decades laboring in Memphis, playing electric blues as an occasional sideline, until Bob Dylan's cover of his song "Fixin' to Die Blues" prompted his "rediscovery" and a revived musical career that lasted until his passing in 1977.
4. Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues (1930) Listen
Like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James recorded a handful of sides in the late 1920s, the legacy of which led to his "rediscovery" in the 1960s, when his undiminished skills brought him success as a live and recorded musician. Also like Hurt, James developed a style quite unlike that of the Mississippi Delta near which he lived. Characterized by atypical, frequently minor-key guitar tunings and falsetto vocals, it has since become known as the "Bentonia" style, after the town in which James lived most of his young life. Few styles so efficiently convey a feeling of unease or haunted despair, making many of James' recorded performances, both in the 1920s and 1960s, some of the most harrowing in the blues, and some of the most evocative of the oppressive societal conditions in which he long lived.
5. Trouble So Hard (1937) Listen
Of the many singers recorded by folklorist John Lomax and his wife Ruby during their trips through the South, Vera Hall was one of their favorites. Possessing "the loveliest voice [they] had ever recorded," Hall sang in a strong style, unaccompanied by musical instruments, and frequently in a call-and-response form (called "following after" by Hall) with other singers, particularly her cousin Dock Reed. This style was considered old even when Hall was first recorded in 1937; together with her tremendous memory for both spiritual and secular songs, this made her a direct link to late 19th century African American traditions. Interestingly, Hall's performance had lost none of its impact at the dawn of the 21st century, when electronic musician Moby extensively sampled it for his global hit song "Natural Blues."
6. Cross Road Blues (1937) Listen
Robert Johnson's tangled legacy of music and myth casts perhaps the largest shadow in blues history. Though small, his recorded legacy29 compositions and 41 tracks from late 1936 to mid-1937reveals a musician of determined songcraft who compiled and manipulated common blues motifs into concise, resolutely individual, and frequently haunting songs. In addition, he played with stunning musicianship, his highly emotive voice matched by a masterful guitar technique that foreshadowed the birth of electric urban blues and directly inspired Muddy Waters, Keith Richards, and countless others. This track is an archetypal Johnson performance, and while its lyrical and musical elements have since been incorporated either partially or completely into hundreds of other performances, it retains a unique power to effectively convey loneliness and despair.
7. Mannish Boy (1955) Listen
Built upon what is arguably the most swaggering and certainly one of the most well known blues riffs of all time, "Mannish Boy," recorded in 1955, is a powerful distillation of the revelatory sound that Muddy Waters and his band had been crafting in the clubs of Chicago and beyond since the late 1940s. With amplified instruments atop a steady and stomping beat, this was the Delta blues electrified for the city, played with a decidedly urban confidence and sexuality. It's also an interesting reply to the nascent rock 'n' roll of Waters' label mate Bo Diddley, whose "I'm A Man," recorded two months earlier and storming to the top of the R&B charts, was itself based strongly upon the 1954 Waters hit "Hoochie Coochie Man."
8. When Will I Get To Be Called A Man (1957) Listen
One of the most widely recorded of blues musicians, Big Bill Broonzy's career was long and varied, taking him from success as a solo performer and accompanist during the 1930s boom of Chicago "city blues" to a reinvented, yet revelatory role as a leading performer of "folk blues" during the 1940s and 1950s. Along the way, his direct support of blues artists new to town, among them Muddy Waters, helped incubate the birth of a new sound, while his travels abroad helped trail blaze the paths upon which the blues would eventually spread worldwide. He was also, as evident on this track, a superb guitar player and moving singer, with an enormous repertoire of standards and originals, among them many that tackled social issues with a directness and strength infrequently heard in the blues.
9. John Henry (1958) Listen
Though both performed solo in a variety of styles, including electric blues and R&B, Sonny Terry (harp) and Brownie McGhee (guitar) achieved their broadest fame playing acoustic folk blues as a duo. First hooking up in the early 1940s, when each relocated to New York City from the Southeast, Terry and McGhee worked together through the early 1970s. Together with their fellow New York City residents and compatriots Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Josh White, the duo was integral in making the blues part of the American folk-music repertoire, as well as providing many audiences in both Europe and the United States their first exposure to the music. This song, a folk standard in both the European and African American traditions, amply displays the interplay between Terry's country blues harp and McGhee's intricate "Piedmont" style guitar picking.
10. Shot on James Meredith (1966) Listen
J.B. Lenoir arrived on the Chicago blues scene in the late 1940s. Backed most often by two saxophones, as opposed to the customary harmonica, his sound was unique among his peers; also atypical were his often forthright lyrics and willingness to address topical issues, as with a political "Eisenhower Blues" that was quickly removed from the market upon its 1954 release. Nonetheless, Lenoir, working in a combo format, did chart local and occasionally national hits throughout the 1950s, establishing a solid reputation as a master of the boogie before stripping down his sound and band for a series of recordings in the mid-1960s, from which this track is taken. Featuring Lenoir and his acoustic guitar, and occasional drums, these stark, moving recordings are resolutely topical, addressing issues of racism and war with a frankness more common to protest music than blues.
11. Three O'Clock Blues (1971) Listen
In the early 1950s, a new blues sound, considerably more "uptown" than that which had come before, began to emerge from Memphis. Crafted by a loose affiliation of young musicians known around town as the "Beale Streeters," it took its cues from the sustained electric tone and prominent soloing of T-Bone Walker on hits like "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)," and the fuller instrumentation of small R&B and jump-blues combos like Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Incorporating broad instrumentation, such as horns, and a smooth singing style that frequently incorporated gospel touches such as melisma (sustained singing of one syllable over several notes), this urbane style was taken nationwide in 1952 by a series of hits from the Beale Streeters, including this, B.B. King's first number one hit.
12. Fishin' Blues (1971) Listen
Born Henry St. Clair Fredricks, Taj Mahal has explored a truly global scope of music since first recording in the late 1960s, investigating and absorbing influences from the Caribbean to West Africa to Hawaii and beyond. Throughout his musical journeys, however, he has rarely strayed far beyond his foundation in the country blues, using it to find and create links between the blues and other musical forms of the world. This track, taken from Mahal's third album, demonstrates his command of the country blues form, and is played with an authentic approach that was striking at the time of its release in the late 1960s, paired as it was with a contemporary electric blues sound on the balance of the album. The song itself has roots stretching to the beginning of the 20th century, and quite likely earlier.
13. Big Chief (1971) Listen
While the contributions of neighboring states Mississippi and Texas often overshadow it, Louisiana has long been a cradle of the blues. New Orleans in particular, with its stretches of bars and nightclubs within and outside the French Quarter, has been an important musical "school" for city musicians of many genres, particularly blues and early R&B. Pianists have long been prominent in this milieu, among them Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as "Professor Longhair." Longhair's distinctive style, blues based yet highly influenced by complex Latin and Caribbean rhythms, remains so associated with and evocative of New Orleans and its cultural mixture that even now, twenty years after his passing, it seems to always be in the city's air, as integral to it as the humidity.
14. The Other Woman (2000) Listen
Since the decline of the "classic" or "vaudeville" blues era in the early 1930s, the vast majority of dominant figures in the blues have been men. With the rise of electric blues, however, several female blues singers rose to legendary status as unmatched interpreters of the blues, among them Koko Taylor, Etta James, and Janis Joplin. Shemekia Copeland is now frequently called the next step in this line of blueswomen. Possessing a highly emotive and incredibly strong voice, Copeland draws solidly upon blues traditions for her style, yet is resolutely current in her approach, incorporating elements of the R&B and hip-hop with which she grew up into her performances, and addressing both current events and such timeless themes as unknowingly becoming "the other woman."
15. Da Thrill is Gone from Here (2002) Listen
While his performance as an itinerant Delta bluesman in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" displayed Chris Thomas King's knowledge of and talent for traditional Delta blues, as a musician he actively seeks to bring blues history and heritage into the new century, where this rich heritage can continue to inform musicians and listeners that may not be familiar with it. Initially doing so by playing straight modern electric blues, King has since the mid-1990s diversified his approach, forging a unique hybrid of modern hip-hop sounds and blues styles from numerous eras. As evident on this track, this mixture displays the intriguing results of combining live acoustic and electric guitars with electronic beats and samples, while directly demonstrating the links between blues and hip-hop lyrical expression.
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