Without the following momentous blues songs, rock ‘n’ roll would not be as we know it today. So Rocks Off is diving deep into some of the greatest blues songs of all time and those that shaped music forever.
Table of Contents
Top 25 Best Blues Songs of All Time
25. “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” – Etta James
Recorded in 1960 for her debut album, At Last!, released in 1961. It also featured as a B-side to her legendary single “At Last,” a landmark re-working of a Willie Dixon original, previously recorded by Muddy Waters. Etta’s voice is sultry and yet coruscates with longing and raw, throaty power. Sweeping strings and frenetic saxophone blasts turn this into an instant, iconic gem of a number.
24. “Got To Be Some Changes Made” – Otis Rush
Otis Rush was one of the greatest guitar players of all time, pure and simple. Idolized by Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, Rush set the benchmark for slow-burning blues. His unorthodox left-handed guitar style, replete with frequent passionate string-bends, was a perfect complement to his rich, tenor voice.
Like all the very best blues guitar numbers, “Got To Be Some Changes Made” builds to a scintillating, fret-shredding climax. Originally written by Albert King in 1962, Otis undeniably made this song his own when he recorded it for his Lost in the Blues album.
23. “Matchbox Blues” – Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s contribution to the blues cannot be underestimated, though he is frequently not given his dues by the artists he has influenced. “Matchbox Blues,” originally recorded in 1927 for Okeh Records, combines his trademark soaring vocals with a subtle yet virtuosic guitar melody. In many ways, Jefferson was ahead of his time.
He was a traveling bluesman, born blind, who managed to parlay his natural talent into a successful recording career as a solo guitarist and vocalist. It was virtually unheard of at the time for a performer to achieve mainstream popularity without a band backing them, but Blind Lemon Jefferson pulled it off in style.
22. “Ball N Chain” – Big Mama Thornton
Though “Ball N Chain” is frequently associated with Janis Joplin, it was originally written by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in around 1960. Thornton was a recording artist for Bay-Tone Records at that time, and had released a couple of moderately popular singles.
She also recorded “Ball N Chain” at that time, but remarkably it remained unreleased as a single until 1968, and then in an abridged version. But the song deserves to be heard in all its swaggering, hip-swinging glory. It’s not hard to see what Janis saw in it.
21. “Payday” – Mississippi John Hurt
“Payday” is a gentle, mellow kind of number from iconic country-blues performer Mississippi John. Indeed, its sweet fingerpicking guitar melody is perhaps more akin to folk than blues. With that in mind, it’s not hard to see how Mississippi John himself came to be a key figure in the folk revival.
The revival occurred in the mid-1960s when a slew of aging musicians of his ilk were drawn out of retirement by the counter-culture generation and thrust back into the spotlight. But throughout his lengthy career, “Payday” was in many ways his signature number. It’s warm, affectionate and packed with personality.
20. “Trouble So Hard” – Vera Hall
“Trouble So Hard” is undeniably a political song. And what’s more, it is also inextricably linked to the civil rights struggles of the first half of the twentieth century. Its woebegone lyrics and awe-inspiring vocal performance from soulful songstress Vera Hall make it an incredible blues song.
It also happened to be originally released in 1937, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation which saw America’s slaves restored to their freedom. As such, the song itself has become emblematic of a centuries-long struggle for freedom. Its presence can be felt in every single note.
19. “Crow Jane” – Skip James
Like Mississippi John Hurt before him, Skip James was another musician who begun to make a name for himself in the late 1920s, just as the Great Depression struck. As such, his records never sold too well and he drifted into obscurity, taking up a job as a church choirmaster.
But then his music was rediscovered thanks to the folk and blues revival, and once again his astonishing musical mastery saw the light of day. He was coaxed out of retirement and released a string of new recordings. Of these, “Crow Jane” is perhaps the greatest showcase for his charisma and remarkable fingerpicking guitar technique.
18. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” – Leadbelly
There is often debate over which of the great blues songs helped to shape the genre of rock ‘n’ roll as we understand it today. This soulful, melancholy number from the great Leadbelly himself is seldom cited, but it certainly should be, if for no other reason than it would eventually be covered by grunge pioneers Nirvana on their iconic MTV Unplugged performance in 1993.
It’s not hard to see what it was about the song which struck a chord with Kurt Cobain; the mournful, downbeat vibe chimes perfectly with the grunge aesthetic that would conquer the world so many decades later.
17. “Gimme A Pigfoot” – Bessie Smith
“Gimme A Pigfoot” has been recorded by a whole host of legendary artists including Billie Holliday and Diana Ross, but arguably the definitive version is the very first, which was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1934.
At that point, Smith was already acclaimed as the “Empress of the Blues,” and one of the most popular blues performers of her day. Therefore, this recording shows her at the height of her career and of her powers. Tragically, she would be dead within three years of this recording, in a car crash in which she was the only fatality.
16. “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” – Pine Top Smith
In his short life, Pine Top Smith virtually invented the genre of boogie-woogie piano music. His reputation is almost entirely posthumous though, as he didn’t achieve any mainstream success as a musician until years after his death.
He was famously gunned down in a bar brawl in 1929 at age 24, scarcely three months after recording “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie.” But subsequent recordings of his tunes by the likes of Bing Crosby, Count Basie, and Ray Charles have helped to keep his legacy alive.
15. “Crazy Blues” – Mamie Smith
Mamie Smith was a true blues pioneer because she was the very first African American performer to have her music recorded for widespread distribution. That was in 1920, and she helped to pave the way for the many generations of blues musicians to come. “Crazy Blues” is a landmark in another way too, it is popularly considered to be the first blues recording of any kind ever issued.
14. “Memphis Blues” – W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy is a unique figure among bluesmen. As well as an accomplished songwriter, he was a kind of musical historian. He was one of the first musicians to publish blues songs, enabling them to reach a much larger audience than they had previously.
He was also scrupulous when it came to documenting his sources, ensuring his influences were given their due. “Memphis Blues” originated as a campaign song for Edward Crump, a mayoral candidate in Memphis, Tennessee. But like so many great blues compositions, it has since taken on a life of its own.
13. “I’m A King Bee” – Slim Harpo
“I’m A King Bee” is one of the very earliest swamp blues songs by a pioneer of the subgenre, harmonica maestro Slim Harpo. Recorded in March of 1957, the song, like a lot of Slim’s back catalog, would have a far-reaching influence in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll.
Most notably, the song has been covered by the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd in their early years, indicating a clear causal link between traditional blues and the amped-up stylings of the British Invasion bands of the ’60s.
12. “My Babe” – Little Walter
Little Walter has been called the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica, a true innovator, and the only musician to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame specifically as a harmonica player. “My Babe” is the sound of an artist on top form. It was released in 1955, when he already had a string of hits in the R&B charts, and went straight to number one.
Written by Willie Dixon, the song adapts traditional gospel melodies in a secular context. As such, it is comparable to Ray Charles’s “I Got A Woman,” which was written in similar circumstances and released the same year. But even Ray Charles couldn’t eclipse the best-selling musical juggernaut that was “My Babe.”
11. “Statesboro Blues” – Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal’s blues is unlike anyone else’s. He imbues it with an exotic, world-music flavor and stunning sonic vibrancy. Take his version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” He transforms it into a guitar-rock phenomenon.
Its inclusion on the 1968 sampler album The Rock Machine Turns You On helped to launch him into the mainstream. His slide-guitar technique also influenced a generation of imitators, including The Allman Brothers Band.
10. “Born Under A Bad Sign” – Albert King
There’s a good reason Rolling Stonemagazine selected Albert King as one of its 100 greatest guitarists of all time. All you need to do is listen to “Born Under A Bad Sign” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s soulful and distinctly bluesy. But it also boasts a certain crossover appeal for the rock crowd, with its slick musicianship.
This is probably why it was chosen to be covered by the British blues-rock band Cream, in an admittedly inferior version which nonetheless helped to catapult Albert King into the mainstream.
9. “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” – Sonny Boy Williamson I
Originally recorded in 1937, “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” is a bouncy, up-tempo number from legendary vocalist and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson. It was recorded in his very first session for Bluebird Records and set the template for the remainder of the recordings he would release between then and his untimely death in 1948.
Williamson was a friend and mentor to many up-and-coming blues musicians who would go on to achieve even greater fame, among them Muddy Waters. His remarkable blues harp technique has often been imitated but never bettered.
8. “Spoonful” – Willie Dixon
Willie Dixon has been responsible for writing a significant number of the songs on this list, so it’s only fitting that he should also appear as an artist in his own right. Dixon was a remarkably prolific songwriter and performer whose work paved the way for the likes of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
“Spoonful” is one of Dixon’s finest moments. Perhaps the most popular rendition of this song came from Howlin’ Wolf, who made his inimitably raspy mark on the song when he recorded it in 1960.
7. “Stormy Monday” – T-Bone Walker
This slow, classic twelve-bar blues song continues to exert an indelible influence on guitar players to this day, with the likes of B.B. King singling it out for special praise. It was released in 1947, though Walker himself claimed it had been recorded in 1940, its release delayed because of the war effort.
Though the actual recording date has been disputed, what remains an undeniable fact is that T-Bone Walker was one of the first musicians to explore the potential of the electric guitar, and “Stormy Monday” stands as a testament to his musical prowess.
6. “Dust My Broom” – Elmore James
Elmore James’s raucous slide guitar style was perfectly suited to this traditional Robert Johnson composition. When it was released as a single in 1951, it managed to pay tribute to the original whilst creating something stirring and new. In truth, the song had been part of James’s musical DNA since his early days living and performing around the Mississippi Delta.
The single proved to be a slow burner sales-wise, but it very gradually caught on and captured the imagination of the music-purchasing public. It helped make James a name for himself and inspired a generation of budding guitar gods.
5. “Smokestack Lightnin'” – Howlin’ Wolf
Like a lot of blues songs, “Smokestack Lightnin'” evolved over a number of decades. When it was finally released as a single in 1956, it achieved immediate popularity. It reached number 11 in the R&B charts and went on to become one of Howlin’ Wolf’s most enduring hits.
A testament to the song’s quality can be found in the lengthy list of artists who subsequently recorded it or performed it live. These include Bob Dylan, The Who, The Grateful Dead, John Lee Hooker, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
4. “Mannish Boy” – Muddy Waters
As blues legends go, they don’t come much more legendary than Muddy Waters. When he died in 1983, he left behind him a legacy of sensational guitar playing and inspirational musicality. “Mannish Boy” was originally recorded in 1955. It became a significant chart hit for Waters, reaching number 5 in the R&B charts.
On the surface, the song is about puerile sexual boasting, but it has also been characterized as a profound civil rights statement. The use of the epithet “boy” to refer to a black male was a societal norm at the time, and with this song, Muddy Waters challenged the status quo and set the record straight.
3. “Hellhound On My Trail” – Robert Johnson
The mythology surrounding Robert Johnson has become a subgenre all of its own. His supposed deal with the devil in order to achieve the guitar virtuosity that startled audiences when he performed in the 1930s is a good ghost story, and neatly complements the mysteries surrounding Johnson’s life and early death.
But a lot of the dark, satanic imagery surrounding him can be traced back to this song. A masterpiece of smoldering blues which sends a chill down the spine even today.
2. “Boogie Chillen” – John Lee Hooker
“Boogie Chillen” boasts the riff that launched a million songs. It’s a solo performance from John Lee Hooker which features only his guitar, his voice and the percussive stomping of his feet. The lyrics are simple and autobiographical, portraying details of Hooker’s social haunts in and around Detroit, Michigan.
As such, it is a remarkable sociological document as well as an epoch-making blues record. It was Hooker’s very first professional recording; the song that launched his career and stormed all the way to the number one spot in the R&B charts in 1949. It’s safe to say that after “Boogie Chillen” the blues were never the same again.
1. “The Thrill Is Gone” – B.B. King
Though it was originally recorded by Roy Hawkins in 1951, “The Thrill Is Gone” would not achieve any kind of mainstream crossover appeal until it was recorded by B.B. King in 1969. The song itself is a slow, twelve-bar blues number. But in King’s capable hands it became something else altogether, one of the best blues songs of all time.
The polished guitar work as well as the soaring, full-throated vocal took the single to number three in the soul single charts and won B.B. King a Grammy Award. In short, he took a great song and turned it into a masterpiece.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our list of the 25 most influential and best blues songs of all time.