Hit me with your best blues artist and album recommendations.
May 19, 2009 12:03 PM   Subscribe

Almost every type of music I love is inspired by blues. What are the quintessential blues artists and albums I should explore to really get a basic understanding of the genre?
posted by DrDreidel to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Robert Johnson and Son House are a good place to start.
posted by creasy boy at 12:09 PM on May 19, 2009

This is essential.
posted by otio at 12:09 PM on May 19, 2009

Seconding Robert Johnson. Really fantastic.
posted by gwenlister at 12:17 PM on May 19, 2009

Blues isn't really an album genre--think singles and compilations.

I like Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music and love John Fahey's American Primitives albums. Not all blues, but all wonderful--and, besides, I think that a key to understanding blues is understanding its relationship to gospel and folk music.

Also, check out Charley Patton, Lightnin' Hopkins and Bessie Smith.

If I had to pick one electric blues album, it might be Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues. It might also be the Black Keys' Chulahoma EP.
posted by box at 12:25 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A vote for Muddy Waters "Hard Again" and Willie Dixon's "I Am the Blues."
posted by Atom12 at 12:30 PM on May 19, 2009

Lightnin' Hopkins was a prolific blues artist & served as my introduction to the blues some 40+ years ago. Listening to his music, it's difficult to believe that it's just a guy with a guitar and not a full ensemble playing.
posted by torquemaniac at 12:31 PM on May 19, 2009

Muddy Waters. Robert Johnson. Reverend Gary Davis. Jay McShann. Paul Butterfield. Those are my current favorites.
posted by RussHy at 12:34 PM on May 19, 2009

The Wikipedia article on the Blues is a good place to start.
posted by RussHy at 12:36 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

BB King, "Live at the Regal"

Howlin' Wolf, "His Best"

Freddie King, "Hideaway: The Best of Freddie King"

Albert King, "Born Under a Bad Sign"

"John Mayall's Bluesbreakers Featuring Eric Clapton"

Buddy Guy, "A Man and the Blues"

seconding Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. You get nowhere without them.
posted by wabbittwax at 12:37 PM on May 19, 2009

Howlin' Wolf. And for slightly more modern blues, don't forget Taj Mahal & Albert King. (Taj still tours, his live shows are fantastic.)
posted by gnutron at 12:39 PM on May 19, 2009

early zz top.
posted by lester at 12:44 PM on May 19, 2009

For modern electric blues - I like Harvey Mandel, who was a pioneer of modern electric blues from Chicago.
posted by torquemaniac at 12:47 PM on May 19, 2009

Skip James, John Lee Hooker, Junior Kimbrough, Big Joe Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton and Bukka White are all essential.

It's a very, very big tent, though, with a lot of styles under it - I'd definitely pick up the allmusic or Penguin guides and do some browsing. There are plenty of blogs (e.g.) that will let you get free samples of the things that sound interesting to you.

Seconding the recommendation of looking into compilations - some of the most beautiful, eerie, play-it-over-and-over tracks I've come across in recent years (e.g. Joe Townsend's "If I Could Not Say a Word", which is available here) have been on comps. Two that I come back to a lot are The Friends of Charlie Patton and American Primitive.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:49 PM on May 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Muddy Waters would be an excellent place to begin. But for "a basic understanding of the genre", you'll need to go old school. Any of the artists here with an adjective in front of their name are fine candidates. To the ones already mentioned, I would add Blind Lemon Jefferson.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:02 PM on May 19, 2009

posted by Pollomacho at 1:16 PM on May 19, 2009

If I were you, I'd start with some good compilations, and see whose voices and whose guitar styles really connect for you. One great place to begin is with the Smithsonian folkways collections. And once you find a few you like, read up on them - wikipedia's fine, but Alan Lomax's The Land Where Blues Began is great... and you'll see who influenced who, and where different styles of the Blues originated, and you can buy more recordings from there...

That being said, I think these are must haves, in rough chronological order from early to modern.

Robert Johnson
Charlie Patton
Blind Lemon Jefferson
Muddy Waters
Howlin Wolf
John Lee Hooker
Mississippi Fred McDowell
Junior Kimbrough
R.L. Burnside
Taj Mahal
Keb Mo'
posted by ab3 at 1:18 PM on May 19, 2009

Bo Didley.
posted by Flood at 1:23 PM on May 19, 2009

Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. Amazing women - they lived and loved it.
posted by freya_lamb at 1:26 PM on May 19, 2009

John Lee Hooker - Live at the Cafe au Go-Go (and Soledad Prison) is one of my favourite albums (but I agree with box that albums aren't necessaryily part of experiencing the blues, especially as a lot of early artists only made fairly disparate recordings). Son House's Delta Blues and Spirituals is a fine example of his work. There are some amazing songs on this Howlin' Wolf collection too.

I first started listening to blues when I was sixteen, it can be a pretty daunting canon to tackle. All the suggestions above are solvent and worth significant investment.
posted by Edwahd at 2:03 PM on May 19, 2009

As long as you buy blues made before 1960 you'll be OK. There are some iconic people, but really every member of every subspecies the genre contributed to the sound.

20s and 30s blues is a good document of the roots of jazz.
(Bessie Smith, Pinetop Smith, various other Smiths)
40s and 50s acoustic blues forms the roots of folk music:
Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes, Sis. Rosetta Tharp)
Plus all of the 50s-60s Chicago Urban blues guys listed above.

In the 60s you have to be more choosy, and don't bother with anything after 1971 (though there is some rare good stuff, it's buried in a pile of yeccch).

The Black Keys? Come on, y'all that's great rock and roll but...I mean, come on.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:27 PM on May 19, 2009

... and don't bother with anything after 1971

Don't take this advice - you'll miss out on Junior Kimbrough's Most Things Haven't Worked Out and Sad Days, Lonely Nights, R.L. Burnside's Acoustic Stories, Robert Lockwood, Jr.'s Delta Crossroads, and John Jackson's Front Porch Blues - along with a slew of other great records. It's worth doing some digging and exploring to find the good stuff.
posted by ryanshepard at 3:33 PM on May 19, 2009

Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy are my favorite of the older acoustic players
My favorite electric players are Elmore James and Sister Rosetta Tharp
posted by kid_dynamite at 3:35 PM on May 19, 2009

I know nothing of the blues, but a trivia show on TV said that W C Handy was the father of the blues.
posted by djgh at 3:37 PM on May 19, 2009

Mel Brown, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King.

Some newer guys like Steve Strongman really channel the origins of blues.
posted by WilliamWallace at 3:43 PM on May 19, 2009

They're old school (1950's?) but have some great blue's elements and are just plain awesome - "The Ink Spots" (originally discovered on the Fallout 3 soundtrack)
posted by katala at 4:36 PM on May 19, 2009

I have been listening to the North Mississippi Allstars, Junior Kimbrough, Samuel L Jackson (yes, the actor, playing on the soundtrack for the movie Black Snake Moan), and RL Burnside lately.
posted by dfriedman at 5:53 PM on May 19, 2009

Lightning In A Bottle is a pretty good movie from a few years ago. It's a mixture of a concert and a documentary (although it favours the concert aspect more) and traces the progression of the blues from its origins in African music to modern Blues-influenced rockers.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:22 PM on May 19, 2009

I am going to go in a very different direction than many of the above recommenders.

Note that blues (arguably) reached its apex in individually sold singles. Albums came later and were basically just an excuse to put a bunch of singles together and resell them. I would therefore try to get something with a lot of singles by different artists and listen to that if you really want a quintessential blues exploration/experience. Buying a whole bunch of single-artist albums is perhaps not the best idea.

I would look at CHESS BLUES, which is a 4 cd compilation of great blues singles. If you listen to that you will have a great exposure to Chicago electric blues, which is a kind of Grand Central Station for the development of the form -- it seems like everything goes there and comes from there. I would also look at the Smithsonian collection THE BLUES. If you listen to those you'll get a very good idea of which artists you like. You'll also hear a lot of themes that get repeated by different artists.

In my opinion someone who hasn't trained himself to hear the blues by exposure to some of this basic stuff might reasonably be expected to have a tough time enjoying blues from the 20s and 30s.
posted by Mr. Justice at 9:01 PM on May 19, 2009

Someone I haven't seen mentioned here yet is Hound Dog Taylor, who played a Chicago bottle-neck slide that was out of this world. His debut s/t with the Houserockers is fucking genius and essential.
posted by klangklangston at 12:49 AM on May 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not an album, but the PBS series The Blues is pretty great.
posted by electroboy at 7:06 AM on May 20, 2009

Hound Dog Taylor is amazing and essential. I'm also a fan of Elmo/Elmore James.
posted by zennoshinjou at 7:26 AM on May 20, 2009

For a recent artist, check out Joe Bonamassa.
posted by jpdoane at 12:46 PM on May 24, 2009

The song "Lost John" by Sonny Terry. I can just feel how alone he was, blinded at a young age. And he spent countless hours alone with his harmonica. This song makes my jaw drop.

Also check out Big Walter Horton (Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell is a great one)
Anything by William Clarke. Not so much for his vocals, but his playing.
I could go on forever, but these stand out in my mind.
posted by kapu at 1:48 AM on May 25, 2009

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