I must confess, I am no blues expert. Nor am I a fan of all branches of the genre. Chicago blues, for example, I can live without. It is only really acoustic blues that interests me, and even a big chunk of all that I find pretty tedious. If I was to try and nail down the kind of blues I really like I would perhaps call it Delta Blues, but, really, I don’t know what I am talking about. Southern Blues? Country Blues? Yeah, maybe. I was watching a documentary the other day and Chuck D, the rapper from Public Enemy, spoke about the wailing of cats at night; they don’t do it, he said, consciously, there is no decision involved, they simply have to, they feel compelled to. It struck me immediately that that is what I look for in the blues, that is what I feel drawn to; it is the sound of someone compelled to howl into the void.
1. Nobody’s Fault but Mine by Blind Willie Johnson
The story goes that young Willie was blinded by his stepmother, who threw lye in his face, which just goes to show that evil stepmothers are not simply the stuff of fairytales. Nobody’s Fault but Mine is equal parts terrifying and uplifting.
2. Spike Driver Blues by Mississippi John Hurt
Nothing to do with the academy award nominated luvvie English actor. Proof that the blues can be pretty.
3. Preachin’ Blues [Up Jumped the Devil] by Robert Johnson
Probably the most well-known name on this list. Robert Johnson is, of course, said to have sold his soul to the devil in return for his ability to play the guitar. In reality, his talent was probably the product of long dextrous fingers and practice, but that doesn’t sound half as romantic.
4. A Spoonful Blues by Charley Patton
Would you kill a man? [Yes I would, you know I’d kill him] just ’bout a…
A song about either sex or drugs. Or both, maybe. Indeed, in the youtube comments section for this song some wag suggests that vaginal openings [his phrase, not mine] look like spoons. Voila. Mind blown. In any case, whatever it is, Charley would do anything for it.
5. Death Letter by Son House
I remember hearing someone a while ago say that the blues isn’t only about agony and hardship, but that it is equally about humour. In fact, the structure of blues songs, he said, is like a joke, with obvious punchlines. I think you can see something of that in Death Letter.
Son House sets up the joke with this:
I got a letter this mornin, how do you reckon it read?
Then he delivers the punchline:
It said, “Hurry, hurry, the gal you love is dead.”
And, yes, you could say that is grim, but it is funny too. It is funny because it’s, like, pretty much the fucking worst news you could get in a letter.
6. Statesboro Blues by Blind Willie McTell
Let’s face it any bluesman whose name begins with the descriptor ‘blind’ is going to be great. It’s just one of the laws of the universe. McTell sings in a nasally whine reminiscent of Bob Dylan; and the tune is a jaunty thing, meaning that lines like ‘My mama died and left me reckless/My daddy died and left me wild, wild, wild’ take on something of a celebratory flavour.
7. Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues by Skip James
As far as I am aware a killing floor is the place where livestock is butchered in a slaughterhouse; so the killing floor, metaphorically speaking, i.e. in terms of this song, would be a bad place. I guess. Of course, Skip may simply have worked in a slaughterhouse.
8. Fixin to Die Blues by Bukka White
I’m lookin’ funny in my eyes and I believe I’m fixin’ to die, believe I’m fixin’ to die
I’m lookin’ funny in my eyes and I believe I’m fixin’ to die
I know I was born to die but I hate to leave my children cryin’
Yep. Not a lot you can say about that.
9. Make me a Pallet on the Floor by Willie Brown
Noted more as a accompanist to Son House than a soloist. I love his voice.
10. Catfish Blues by Robert Petway
Apparently very little is known about Petway. There is only one photo available of him and there is no record of his death. We have this song though; that’s enough.
11. Going Down to the River by Mississippi Fred McDowell
There seems to be two versions of this song. One slower and entirely acoustic, and this one. Makes me want to shoot alligators.
12. Canned Heat Blues by Tommy Johnson
With his staggeringly weird falsetto, Johnson sounds like some kind of Morrissey sings the blues novelty act. Canned Heat Blues is about the practice of imbibing a potent and, I would imagine, lethal alcoholic drink made from Sterno. According to wiki: it is said to have become popular during the Great Depression in hobo camps, or “jungles”, when the Sterno would be squeezed through cheesecloth or a sock and the resulting liquid mixed with fruit juice to make “jungle juice” or “squeeze.”