Skip to main content

15 Songs Charting the History of 20th-Century Blues

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.


Having evolved from the music of African slaves in the southern states of the United States in the mid 19th century, blues music has spread far and wide and has influenced many other genres such as jazz and rock. 'Country blues', as the earliest blues is now called due to its rural roots, developed in different southern regions, such as the Mississippi Delta, Memphis and Texas before spreading north, east and west to industrialised areas and cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. Blues from industrialised centres became known as 'urban blues'.

The following playlist features songs in chronological order of release, so you can compare and hear the development of blues as it progressed and diversified.

1. "I Got the Blues" by Anthony Maggio (1908)

This was composed in full by Anthony Maggio, a white, classically-trained composer on hearing a repeated riff played on guitar by an elderly black man while crossing the Mississippi River. On asking the title of the song, Maggio was told it's "I Got the Blues". Maggio's greatly expanded version of what he heard as a repeated guitar riff is considered to possibly be the earliest blues songs ever published. Although Maggio has given it more of a ragtime-style accompaniment, it features the typical 12-bar blues form, uses 'blue notes', and, of course, has "Blues" in the title.

2. "Memphis Blues" by W.C. Handy (1912)

WC Handy is called the "Father of the Blues". Although it's a title he bestowed upon himself, he certainly does deserve recognition for his many achievements. After moving to Memphis in 1909, Handy became closely associated with the city, especially Beale St., the musical epicentre of Memphis blues, and his song "Memphis Blues" is one of the earliest recordings of blues music ever made.

Handy was musically educated, and in addition to performing and composing, he was involved in teaching music, managing other artists and running a publishing company. He was greatly influential in the development of Memphis Blues.

3. "Moonshine Blues" by Ma Rainey (1923)

It wasn't until the 1920s that blues music came to the serious attention of the recording industry. This was due to the so-called 'Great Migration', a large movement of people (including black blues players and singers) from the South heading to industrial regions such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit seeking work and opportunities. It marks a change from the birthplace of rural blues to the urban sophistication of city-based blues with styles in each city developing independently but also influencing each other.

The earliest recordings date from this period, and Ma Rainey in the video was one of several women singers around at the time known as 'classic female blues' singers. Classic female blues was mixed with folk and theatrical elements and featured several accompanying instruments or solo piano. Other singers of this form, which was popular for around a decade, included Mamie Smith (the first black woman to record a blues song), Lucille Hegamin and Bessie Smith.

4. "Statesboro Blues" by Blind Willie McTell (1928)

Blind Willie McTell was influenced by the Piedmont blues (East Coast blues) style of acoustic guitar finger-picking, which was quite similar to ragtime. You can hear in the 1928 video of his "Statesboro Blues" his lively and intricate accompaniment that goes on throughout the song.

5. "Cross Road Blues" by Robert Johnson (1936)

Robert Johnson recorded his famous 'Delta blues' song "Cross Road Blues" (more commonly known as just "Crossroads") in 1936. It has become an iconic song, helped by the legend that Johnson met the Devil at a crossroads and sold his soul in return for great musicianship. The song has been covered many times, notably by Cream in the late 60s. Johnson's original version is in typical Delta blues style of the period featuring just vocals and bottleneck acoustic guitar accompaniment.

6. "Stormy Monday" by T-Bone Walker (1948)

"Stormy Monday" or "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)" to give it its full name is a good example of 'west coast blues'. It makes full use of the rapidly advancing sound recording and mixing techniques available at the time with brass and solid electric guitar soloing strongly featured.

7. "Hoochie Coochie Man" by Muddy Waters (1954)

Written by Willie Dixon, the song was first performed by Muddy Waters and has been associated with him ever since despite many other covers over the years. Muddy Waters was from Mississippi and a Delta blues singer and guitarist before moving to Chicago where he became highly successful and closely associated with modern Chicago blues, especially with this song.

8. "This is the End" by Buddy Guy (1958)

Born in 1936 in Louisiana, Buddy Guy has played with many legends and superstars of blues and blues-rock. At the time of this release, Buddy Guy was making a name for himself on a level with older, famous blues guitarists such as Muddy Waters. Over the next few years, he would come to the attention of many younger rock guitarists who looked up to him and were influenced by him. These included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Mike Bloomfield and many more.

9. "Boom Boom" by John Lee Hooker (1962)

John Lee Hooker is known for his updated Delta blues approach with electric guitar over acoustic. This is one of John Lee Hooker's most famous songs and It has been covered by many recording artists, including the Animals, the British band who actually had a hit with it in the U.S.

10. "Candyman" by Mississippi John Hurt (1963)

The annual Newport Folk Festival began to recognise acoustic blues musicians such as the Delta bluesman, Mississippi John Hurt as authentic folk musicians. This marks a significant development because it meant that the typical folk festival audience, who were mainly all white, were being exposed to blues music by black musicians, for the first time in many cases. And they loved it. Being 'folkies' they loved the guitar, bottleneck, harmonica style of blues, and it had to be acoustic. This is the crowd that booed Bob Dylan for daring to play an electric guitar at the festival in 1965.

11. "Steppin' Out" by John Mayall's Bluebreakers (1966)

John Mayall was a central focal point in the development of British Blues, which at first mostly featured covers of songs previously written and performed by American blues legends. Unlike in the U.S., acoustic American blues music was recognised in Britain as an authentic folk style as early as the 40s. Later, in 1958, Muddy Waters visited England and treated British audiences to their first live taste of electric blues, which was embraced with open arms.

Just a few years later, a whole generation of young rock musicians had been influenced, and John Mayall's Bluebreakers was a temporary home to many notable, up-and-coming British blues-rock musicians of the 60s, such as Eric Clapton (who's also playing in the video), Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and Mick Taylor. Young rock musicians on both sides of the Atlantic idolised the older American blues musicians and often covered their songs. That and guesting on stage with them regenerated interest in blues, especially electric blues, and resulted in blues-rock taking off in a big way.

12. "Yer Blues" by John Lennon and the Dirty Mac (1968)

Actually it's a Beatles track from their 'White Album' but this video version featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and others is more interesting. It was part of the Rolling Stones' "Great Rock and Roll Circus" event and, if nothing else, it's an example of British-composed blues.

13. "Blues at Sunrise" by Albert King (1973)

Born in Mississippi in 1924, Albert King is another blues legend with a career spanning over four decades. He was known as one of 'the three kings of the blues' along with two other blues greats who just happened to have the same surnames: B.B. King and Freddie King. His most famous recording was the blues standard "Born Under a Bad Sign" in 1967, which was covered by Cream a year or two later. He recorded his song "Blues at Sunrise" as well as his album of the same name at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1973, but it wasn't released until 1988.

14. "Pride and Joy" by Stevie Ray Vaughan (1982)

Stevie Ray Vaughan was born in Dallas in 1954 and became associated with Texas Blues, with its multi-instrument backing and powerful electric guitar solos. He contributed greatly to developing the modern Texas blues and blues-rock sound, and he played this version of "Pride and Joy" at the Montreux Festival in 1982 with his band Double Trouble.

15. "The Thrill Is Gone" by B.B. King (1999)

At the risk of ending on a cliché, I've given the last spot of the century to B.B. King playing and singing his most played song, "The Thrill Is Gone". I've given him pride of place for the sheer length of service he's given to blues fans and blues musicians worldwide. The song is much older than 1999, so he's not introducing anything new, he's just doing what he does best: playing the blues.

© 2021 Chas Mac