If you are a fan of the blues genre, you know that it has a long and fascinating history. This unique genre was drawn from other musical styles such as African-American folk music and jazz. It would go on to shape the genres of rock and roll, soul, R&B, and many others.
It is almost impossible to condense the best blues songs of all time down—the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame features more than 400—but in this list, we offer a start!
1. Smokestack Lightning — Howlin’ Wolf
“Smokestack Lightning” is a famous and unique song in the blues genre, thanks to its combination of earlier and contemporary blues elements. The song was recorded in 1956 and became one of Howlin’ Wolf’s most well-known hits. It was covered countless times by other artists in later years. The steady beat and single note that drone steadily under the melody is mesmerizing, making it easy to see why the song became so widely loved.
2. Born Under a Bad Sign — Albert King
“Born Under A Bad Sign” was recorded in 1967 and achieved massive success in both the blues and rock scenes. It rapidly developed a reputation as a blues standard and was covered by many other artists, most notably the band Cream just a year later. The song references both astrology and common superstitions, which the songwriters used simply because they were popular fads at the time. The result is a tune that expertly straddles the lines between blues, rock, and pop music.
3. My Babe — Little Walter and His Jukes
“My Babe” was written by blues musician Willie Dixon specifically for Little Walter. The track ended up being a huge success for both of them, reaching no. 1 on the R&B charts. It drew on gospel influences, turning “The Train (Is Bound For Glory)” into a song about a woman demanding faithfulness from her partner. Turning religious songs into secular ones has become a common trend in blues music, having been popularized by Louis Armstrong.
4. Catfish Blues — Robert Petway
Robert Petway is a fascinating figure in the history of blues music. Having recorded just 16 tracks, he is nevertheless considered one of the most influential figures of the early blues scene. His song “Catfish Blues” would go on to influence other musicians including Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix. Petway, a traveling musician, disappeared from history in 1941 and was never heard of again. Despite his short career (all his existing recordings come from just two sessions), his music remains relevant to the blues scene even today.
5. The Thrill is Gone — B.B. King
The 1970 hit “The Thrill Is Gone” had a long journey to becoming the blues standard that it remains today. It was initially recorded almost 20 years earlier in 1951 by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell. While the original track was fairly successful, peaking at no. 6 on the R&B chart, it wasn’t until B.B. King made it his own that the song became legendary. Everything about King’s slow, mournful performance is quintessential blues.
6. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out — Bessie Smith
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” is associated almost exclusively with Bessie Smith. But the song had a fascinating history before her. The song, which discusses the false optimism that comes with fleeting prosperity, was first penned in 1923, during a time when the American economy was booming. It didn’t become widely known until Smith recorded her cover in 1929, just two weeks before the Stock Market Crash that heralded the Great Depression.
7. Evil (Is Going On) — Howlin’ Wolf
The 1954 song “Evil (Is Going On)” gained attention for its unique syncopated beats and its wide variety of instrumentation. Howlin’ Wolf showcased his emotional and vocal range, alternating between his usual singing voice, an affected coarse tone, and falsetto. The song is a warning for people who become complacent in their “happy home,” especially men who travel for work and assume that their wife is alone. The lyrics ask if everything is really as happy as it seems.
8. Hoochie Coochie Man — Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters’ 1954 hit “Hoochie Coochie Man” is considered one of the best blues songs of all time and a blues standard. The title might sound a bit risque to modern audiences, but it is actually a reference to the practices of hoodoo. Nevertheless, the song was a bit scandalous for its time, dealing with topics of magic, superstition, and sexual attraction. Like other blues songs, it played off of the legend that a seventh-born child will receive special blessings—in this case, being wildly attractive in adulthood to the opposite sex.
9. I’m a Man — Bo Diddley
This song was recorded in 1955 and became one of Bo Diddley’s earliest hits. Unlike many of his other songs, including the track “Bo Diddley” recorded the same year, “I’m a Man” does not feature his signature rhythmic style. Instead, it drew on elements of earlier blues music, most particularly Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The song peaked at no. 1 on the R&B chart and was widely covered in the rock genre.
10. Cross Road Blues — Robert Johnson
“Cross Road Blues,” also called “Crossroads,” became so famous that it worked its way into the lore surrounding Robert Johnson’s career. It is about standing at a crossroads and trying to flag down a passerby; however, fans said that it was really the story of how Johnson got his musical talents by selling his soul to the devil. Despite this rumor, the lyrics don’t tell any story resembling it and don’t even make a mention of a devil.
11. I’m Tore Down — Freddie King
“I’m Tore Down” was first recorded in 1961 that would go on to have many different versions and covers. Freddie King himself rerecorded the song in 1971, giving it some slight adjustments and a longer variation. In 1994, the song was covered by Eric Clapton; many fans are most familiar with this version. Clapton’s cover was largely faithful to the original song, without many changes. Some might say that that’s a testament to how good it is in its first form.
12. Crazy Blues — Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith was one of the earliest pioneers of blues recording. Her song “Crazy Blues,” originally entitled “Memphis Blues,” was the first hit blues track of all time, selling more than 75,000 copies within a month. The song was responsible for the development of race records, and Smith is said to have been the first black artist to record a commercial blues song. “Crazy Blues” has been placed in both the Grammy Hall of Fame and the US Library of Congress for its historical significance.
13. Working Man — Otis Rush
Otis Rush’s 1969 hit “Working Man” is a highly relatable tune. The song is all about a man who works long hours coming home and wondering what else there is in his life aside from labor. Rush was widely known for his unique guitar style, which would come to shape the genre of West Chicago Blues and influence musicians such as Eric Clapton. Though it isn’t one of Rush’s most famous songs, we think it earns a place on this list.
14. I Just Wanna Make Love to You — Etta James
“I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was part of Etta James’s first album, released in 1961. The song was the B-side to “At Last,” inarguably one of the biggest hits of her career. The powerful, sultry song puts her vocals on full display. Though it was written by Willie Dixon and recorded almost a decade earlier by Muddy Waters, it isn’t hard to see why James’s cover was the one that endured.
15. Got My Mojo Working — Muddy Waters
“Got My Mojo Working” was first recorded in 1956. The lyrics describe a man who is frustrated at his unrequited love for an unnamed woman. He plans to travel to Louisiana to acquire magical talismans that will make her fall for him. Muddy Waters’ cover, released in 1957, gave the song a new life. It is widely considered a blues standard. The song is a fascinating example of the role that a variety of cultures and musical genres played in the development of blues.
16. Got to be Some Changes Made — Otis Rush
“Got To Be Some Changes Made” was recorded decades into Otis Rush’s career, but still perfectly exhibits his signature slow-burn guitar style. The 1977 track was a cover of a 1962 song by Albert King. The lyrics offer an ultimatum to a romantic partner, saying that change needs to come to their relationship or they will part ways. Rush’s mournful performance is at its best on this blues single.
17. See That My Grave’s Kept Clean — Blind Lemon Jefferson
“See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” is a 1927 blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. He recorded a second version the following year with some minor adjustments. This song is the pinnacle of early-century blues, in which the singer predicts that his own death is coming and begs the listener to maintain his grave. It is considered one of the best songs of Jefferson’s career and was famously covered by Bob Dylan among others.
18. The Sky is Crying — Elmore James
“The Sky Is Crying” was a 1959 hit by Elmore James that has become a blues standard. This mournful song topped the R&B charts at its release. It has been covered countless times by artists in every genre. The song is considered to be one of the best hits of James’ career; he died only four years later in 1963. Any aspiring blues musician needs to have this cover under their belt.
19. Hide Away — Freddie King
“Hide Away” is a song that exemplifies the way the blues scene worked in the 20th century, with musicians borrowing musical styles and song elements from one another. The track went through many adjustments from musician to musician before Freddie King released it in 1961. True to form, it has since been covered countless times. The song is featured in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and on Rolling Stones’ list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
20. Wang Dang Doodle — Koko Taylor
“Wang Dang Doodle” was an early example of electric blues. Recorded by Koko Taylor in 1964, the Willie Dixon composition is a playful party track with plenty of gibberish lyrics and outlandish characters. The title refers ambiguously to a street brawl or party, with repetitions of “We’re gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.” Taylor’s cover was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame for its significance to the development of the genre.
21. Sunshine of Your Love — Cream
British band Cream came onto the blues scene in the late 1960s, launching the career of Eric Clapton among others. Their 1967 hit “Sunshine Of Your Love” is a poetic song that combines elements of psychedelic rock, blues, and pop. It is considered a modern blues track thanks to its use of blues chord progressions and scales. Though it’s certainly different from classic blues standards, it is a masterpiece in its own right.
22. Baby Please Don’t Go — Big Joe Williams
Delta blues master Big Joe Williams covered the mournful “Baby Please Don’t Go” in 1935. It’s considered an early blues standard, with some music historians calling it the most widely-covered song in the genre. The lyrics speak from the point of view of a man in prison, begging his lover to wait for him until his time is served. The song, which was later inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, set the stage for many later blues musicians.
23. Ball and Chain — Big Mama Thornton
Big Mama Thornton was one of the principal players of the mid-century blues scene. Many of her songs went on to be popularized by other artists, including Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin. Her song “Ball And Chain,” released in the early 1960s, wasn’t widely known. However, it attracted the attention of Joplin, who drew much of her musical inspiration from Thornton. Joplin covered the song with some tempo adjustments, increasing its popularity. The song is now named on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.”
24. The Seventh Son — Willie Dixon
Willie Dixon was one of the most prolific and influential blues composers of the 20th century. But many of his songs were recorded by artists such as Muddy Waters, Etta James, and many others. Dixon recorded the song himself in 1955, though it would go on to be covered by many other artists. The song hinges on the idea in New Orleans folklore that the seventh child in a family has unusual luck, an idea that fascinated Dixon.
25. Boogie Chillun — John Lee Hooker
“Boogie Chillun” (also sometimes written as “Boogie Chillen”) was recorded by John Lee Hooker in 1948. Accompanied by electric guitar, it is one of the earliest examples of electric blues. It also became famous for its unique musical style, which alternated spoken and sung lyrics. It is considered to be at least partly autobiographical. The song’s instrumentals were pioneering in the genre, and many musical historians consider it an example of proto-rock and roll.
26. Stone Crazy — Buddy Guy And Junior Wells
“Stone Crazy” was recorded in 1961 and tells the classic blues story of a man chastising his lover for hurting him. The title comes from the opening lyrics: “Woman, you must be stone down crazy… Yes I wanna know how could you treat me so dirty baby, You must think my little heart is made of iron.” The title also lent itself to Guy’s 1979 album, nearly two decades later.
27. Dimples — John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker’s song “Dimples” is proof that not every blues song is about something sad. The 1956 song describes all the things that the singer loves about his lover and how he feels like he could watch her all day. Its unique subject matter pairs well with its unusual, loping time signature. The track is widely considered one of Hooker’s most famous, even hitting charts in the UK a full eight years after it was first released.
28. Graveyard Dream Blues — Ida Cox
“Graveyard Dream Blues” is a standard track of the early blues genre. Written and first recorded by Ida Cox, it is best known for its 1923 cover by Bessie Smith. The lyrics describe a woman walking down to the graveyard to plead with the caretaker to let her reunite with her dead lover, only to have him refuse. At the end of the song, she wakes to realize she was only dreaming.
29. ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do — Bessie Smith
“’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” or “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” is one of the earliest recorded blues songs and has become a standard of classic blues. First recorded in 1922, the song drew heavily on influences of jazz and vaudeville music. The result was a fusion of the genres and a more upbeat, energetic song that is all about being able to do what you want. It’s amazing that a 100-year-old song can feel so relatable.
30. I Can’t Quit You Baby — Otis Rush
In another legendary piece of teamwork between composer Willie Dixon and Otis Rush, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” topped the charts. The 1956 song describes a man who can’t free himself from an extramarital affair. It has become a blues standard. Dixon said that the song was based on Rush’s own life and he encouraged the singer to make it his own, in order to draw out the emotions in his performance. Call it manipulative, but Rush certainly delivered.
31. I’d Rather Go Blind — Etta James
It is almost impossible to choose the best Etta James song, but “I’d Rather Go Blind” is certainly a contender. This 1967 hit straddles the line between the blues and soul genres and has been covered extensively by musicians of all kinds. James worked on the idea for the song together with her friend Ellington Jordan. Music historians have pointed out that James had recently beaten a heroin addiction at the time of recording, adding an element of personal emotion to the track.
32. How Long, How Long Blues — Leroy Carr
“How Long, How Long Blues” is a blues standard from the early days of the genre. Recorded in 1928, the song would go on to influence many other blues musicians, some of whom even borrowed its melody. The lyrics liken waiting for a train to waiting for a lover who won’t be returning, leading the singer to declare that if she ever decides to come back, he will reject her.
33. Get Back — Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy was a prominent figure in the early blues scene before gradually transitioning to the mid-century music industry. Throughout his career, he combined elements of urban blues and folk music to create a revolutionary sound. His song “Get Back” is one of the most famous pieces of music used in antiracism education, with the lyrics: “They said if you white, you’s alright, If you is brown, stick around, But if you’s black, oh brother, Get back, get back, get back…” It’s so well-known that many people quote it without even realizing where it comes from.
34. Let The Good Times Roll — Louis Jordan
“Let The Good Times Roll” is a 1946 blues standard. The song is in a jump-blues style, with a happy, upbeat theme. Unsurprisingly, the song originated in New Orleans, where musician Louis Jordan got the idea from a friend. But it wasn’t until four years later that he developed the final song and recorded it. “Let The Good Times Roll” is considered the most important song of Jordan’s career. It topped the R&B charts in 1947 and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
35. Red House — Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix composed “Red House” by drawing on inspiration from classic blues songs. The track was the first one recorded by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and released in 1967. For the rest of his career, he used it as a standard song in his live performances, often improvising off the original track. The song bears a strong resemblance to other slow blues songs from the early 1960s, including ones from Elmore James and Albert King.
36. Someday Baby Blues — Sleepy John Estes
“Someday Baby Blues” was first recorded in 1936, making it one of the early blues standards. Though it was written and first released by Sleepy John Estes, the song was covered countless times throughout the decades. Not only was it covered by B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and many other influential blues musicians, but it also inspired later songs.
37. I Ain’t Superstitious — Willie Dixon
Willie Dixon’s 1961 song “I Ain’t Superstitious” is an up-tempo blues song that defies the typical elements of blues in many ways. It uses atypical chord progressions and relies on humorous, tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The singer begins each verse with the insistence that he is not superstitious, then goes on to say that he is beset by bad luck: “Well, I ain’t superstitious, black cat just crossed my trail, Don’t sweep me with no broom, I just might get put in jail.”
38. All Of Your Love — Magic Sam
Released in 1957, “All Of Your Love” is a standard of Chicago blues. This romantic song begins with the singer promising someone all of their love if they only agree to be together. As the song continues, however, it becomes clearer that the answer is still no. By the end of the song, the singer simply pleads for them to change their mind. We don’t know what happened, but we can guess.
39. If Trouble Was Money — Albert Collins
“If Trouble Was Money” is a later blues hit, having been released in 1984. But the song is proof that blues is an enduring genre, even after getting pushed out of the mainstream by rock and roll and pop music. The song effortlessly combines the mournful nature of classic blues with a wry twist, saying: “If trouble was money, I’d swear I’d be a millionaire.” Despite the fact that it came 60 years after the birth of blues, it is still one of the great tunes of the genre.
40. Good Morning School Girl — Sonny Boy Williamson I
“Good Morning School Girl” was first recorded in 1937. Its influence on the development of blues throughout the subsequent decades has made it a blues standard. It was extensively covered by other well-known blues artists, including Muddy Waters and Smokey Hogg. The song also appears across blues styles and other genres, having been recorded in the style of Texas blues, acoustic country blues, Chicago blues, and later, R&B and rock and roll. Some of the covers slightly altered the song’s title to “Good Morning Little School Girl,” “Good Morning Schoolgirl,” or other variations.
41. Stormy Monday Blues — T-Bone Walker
It is most commonly called “Stormy Monday” or “Stormy Monday Blues,” but technically, this classic blues song’s full title is “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday is Just as Bad).” It was first recorded in 1948 and is one of the earliest examples of electric blues, using electric guitar and a slow West Coast blues tempo. The song was extremely popular through the late 40s. Other famous blues musicians of later decades, including B.B. King, would credit the song as inspiring them to start learning electric guitar.
42. Sweet Home Chicago — Robert Johnson
“Sweet Home Chicago” was recorded in 1936 and is considered a blues standard. The song would go on to influence countless other blues artists both lyrically and stylistically. It became so famous that it is now considered by many to be the unofficial anthem for Chicago. It came under popular attention again after it was included in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers, and most people can still sing the chorus today. Funnily enough, the original lyrics aren’t actually about Chicago, despite the repeated single line—but we’ll let it slide.
43. Highway 49 — Big Joe Williams
“Highway 49” is an early blues song dating from 1935. This original recording was by Big Joe Williams, one of the most influential Delta blues musicians. The song is about a man hitting the highway to search for his lover, who—presumably—has left him. He says that he will bring a jug of wine and a bottle of whiskey, and that if he can’t find her, he will sit on the side of the road and drink his sorrows away. The song was most famously covered by Howlin’ Wolf in 1971.
44. Hell Hound on My Trail — Robert Johnson
Continuing in the lore of early blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil comes “Hell Hound On My Trail.” The 1937 track describes the singer’s need to “keep moving” because he is being relentlessly pursued by a demonic hound. He looks for relief in the company of his lover but isn’t sure if they will even have time to spend together. Some music historians have called this track the best performance of Johnson’s career. That might be up for debate, but there’s no arguing that the song belongs on this list.
45. Mannish Boy — Muddy Waters
“Mannish Boy” might be called the last song in a series, following Muddy Waters’ own “Hoochie Coochie Man” and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.” The two musicians had developed a call-and-response composition style, each playing off the themes of the other. This song was released in 1955 and dealt with themes of sexual prowess and maturity. Some interpretations, however, were political, comparing the lyrics “I’m a man (yeah), I spell M, A, child, N” to the ways society saw white men versus black men.
46. Help Me — Sonny Boy Williamson II
Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded “Help Me” in 1963, basing the tune on an instrumental track from the previous year. The song rapidly became known as a blues standard. Its popularity led to a peak at no. 24 on the R&B chart and an induction into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame. It is widely considered one of Williamson II’s best songs and was a staple of his performances for the rest of his career (despite the fact that he died just two years later in 1965).
47. Pride and Joy — Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Pride And Joy” is another modern blues song, falling more specifically under the umbrella of electric blues or blues rock. Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded the track in 1983, releasing it as his first single; it would go on to be considered one of the best songs of his career. It is considered to be a blues track because of its use of a 12-bar blues arrangement; it also fuses elements of other genres, a hallmark of contemporary blues. The song also deviates from classic blues in its subject matter, which focuses on the singer’s love for his partner.
48. Leaving Trunk — Taj Mahal
“Leaving Trunk” is a lesser-known song from Taj Mahal’s debut blues album of the same name. It has since become recognized as part of one of the most original and influential blues records of the late 1960s. Performed alongside American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sleepy John Estes, this song and its album went on to influence artists in other genres. Some of the most notable influences outside blues itself include the music of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and The Beatles.
49. Rollin’ and Tumblin’ — Muddy Waters
Also known as “Roll and Tumble Blues,” this blues standard was initially recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern. Hundreds of Delta and Chicago blues musicians have covered this Delta blues classic, but perhaps the best known is the cover by Muddy Waters. The earliest version dates from 1929; Waters gave the song a Chicago blues makeover in 1950. The cover would be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Modern audiences might be more familiar with the cover of the song by British band Cream, but even this one was based on Waters’ own cover.
50. The Memphis Blues — W.C. Handy
“The Memphis Blues” is a southern rag first recorded in 1912. Originally performed by W.C. Handy, the song has been recorded by many artists since. The song is subtitled Mr. Crump, supposedly in reference to Edward Crump, a Memphis mayoral candidate whose campaign jingle was written by Handy. The song remains one of the great blues classics of all time. It is also one of the earliest blues songs and could even be called proto-blues.
51. Big Chief — The Meters
Composed in the early 1960s by Earl King, “Big Chief” was made famous in 1964 by Professor Longhair. The whistling first chorus and blues piano, with lyrics written in a mock American-Indian pidgin style, took New Orleans by storm. It continues to be a standard piece played by musicians and bands in the area, especially during Mardi Gras. The song includes at least a twelve-horn ensemble. “Big Chief” references Mardi Gras Indians, black participants in Mardi Gras who dress in costumes inspired by Native American clothing.
52. Boom Boom — John Lee Hooker
Recorded in 1961, “Boom Boom” quickly became a critical and popular success. It topped the pop and R&B charts the following year. For the duration of the early 1960s, the song was an R&B band tour staple. The song’s stop-time hook preps one of the blues’ most distinctive guitar riffs. Hooker wrote the song from his experience of always being late for concerts, when the bartender would say, “Boom boom, you’re late again!”
53. Dust My Broom — Elmore James
This song was originally recorded in 1936 as “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom” by American blues singer Robert Johnson. However, it was popularized by Elmore James’s 1951 cover, “Dust My Broom.” James brought his slide guitar technique to his adaptation of Johnson’s original triplet figure. This became known as a staple in blues guitar riffs and inspired numerous other musicians to adapt the song into other genres, including rock and roll.
54. Hound Dog — Big Mama Thornton
While “Hound Dog” may be most famous as a cover by Elvis Presley, it was originally sung by Big Mama Thornton. Many maintain that her original is far superior to Presley’s version, though this is a matter of hot debate. This song was Thornton’s single hit record and sold more than half a million copies. Listening to her version makes it easy to see why it landed in the R&B charts for 14 weeks and spent half that time at number one. Though Presley’s cover might be better known to history, blues fans know that it started with Thornton.
55. Spoonful — Willie Dixon
“Spoonful” is one of those songs that can haunt you long after you listen to it. First recorded in 1960 by Howlin’ Wolf, this is one of Willie Dixon’s most famous—and most debated—songs. This song became a standard in the blue genre with many industry artists releasing covers of their own. The song was most popularized by Etta James’s and Harvey Fuqua’s duet R&B cover in 1961 and in the later 1960s by the British rock band Cream.
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