1. Geeshie Wiley – “Last Kind Words Blues”

For a little-known artist who left even less in the way of recorded evidence behind, Geeshie Wiley has become a surprisingly well-anthologized artist. Through the crackling hiss of vintage ‘78 transfers, Wiley’s voice moans enigmatically, the words occasionally obscured, while an accompanist strums away on a minor-key figure that makes the mysterious lyrics all the more poignant and haunting. With the scant few original copies trading at exorbitant prices, the many digital anthologies on which the song has been collected are the best option for experiencing this starkly ethereal recording.

2. Furry Lewis – “When My Baby Left Me”

One of a handful of blues artists who made their initial impact in the ‘20s only to be largely forgotten until the early-‘60s folk revival, Furry Lewis’ 1972 recordings captured on Shake ‘Em On Down are arguably inferior to his vital early recordings. That said, “When My Baby Left Me,” despite its somewhat clichéd title, is cut through with a palpable sadness made all the more affecting by Lewis’ dejectedly resigned delivery that ebbs and flows with his gently slashing slide work.

3. Charley Patton – “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone”

The so-called “Father of the Delta Blues” and, according to at least one critic, one of the most significant artists of the 20th Century, Charley Patton left a veritable treasure trove of recordings. Packaged and repackaged with alternate takes, recordings, etc., digesting the whole of the blues legend’s catalog can be a daunting task. “Some These Days I’ll Be Gone” is full of pathos, lyrically representative of the form he helped birth and in possession of an instantly recognizable melody, something often lacking in such primitive blues recordings.

4. Lucille Bogan – “Shave ‘Em Dry”

One of the most controversial and profane of the so-called “dirty blues,” Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry” still has the potential to shock listeners more familiar with the light-hearted, decidedly G-rated songs of Tin Pan Alley recorded at the same time. Bawdy and unapologetically sexual, “Shave ‘Em Dry” is a bracing listen when viewed not only in its original context, but also as heard by contemporary ears. Bogan’s compilations are one of the few sets of vintage blues recordings to now be emblazoned with the much more contemporary “Parental Advisory” stickers.

5. Bukka White- “District Attorney Blues”

Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters are better-known Delta bluesmen, and “‘Fixin to Die Blues” is a better-known composition, but there is perhaps no Delta Blues more quintessential than “District Attorney Blues” by Bukka White, the man who gave B.B. King his first guitar. A song of love interrupted by incarceration, of the intangible pain of being taken from one’s home, “District Attorney Blues” was recorded in 1940 just months after White finished a two-year bid in Parchman. Fittingly, the session took place not in the Delta region, but in Chicago, which was about to become the genre’s new hotbed.

6. Townes Van Zandt – “Waiting ‘Round to Die”

Townes Van Zandt’s classification as a country artist is testament to both the shortsightedness of genrefication itself and more specifically, the inability of countless critics to recognize the blues when they hear it. Case in point: Townes’ biggest song, “Waiting ‘Round to Die.” Never mind the familiar minor chord progression. In a lament capable of bringing tears to eyes that have seen some shit, Townes finds self-determination choosing the mode of his despair as well as the path of his own self-destruction. What could be more bluesy than that?

7. Lead Belly – “The House of the Rising Sun”

“The House of the Rising Sun” has seen as many singers (from Guthrie to Burdon) as its house as seen poor boys. So, with that many legendary versions of the tune out there, why choose this one for our list? Maybe because Lead Belly’s is the only version that sounds like it could have actually been recorded in The House of the Rising Sun. And that’s not just due to the ambient sound of the recording; it’s a product of Lead Belly’s unmistakable shrill, a voice that celebrates excess even as it warns you about it.

8. Big Bill Broonzy- “This Train (Bound for Glory)”

Although his name isn’t as well-known as other blues legends such as Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958) is considered one of the progenitors of the Delta blues style. A particular favorite with African-American audiences in the ’20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, Broonzy moved from a country style of blues to a more urban sound. Recorded just a few years before his death, “This Train (Bound for Glory)” is a return to Broonzy’s original sound. It is a song he recorded a few times, but the essential version comes on a 1956 album he cut for Smithsonian Folkways, complete with a gospel choir, which provides a ghostly call and response to Broonzy’s derisive vocals.

9. Muddy Waters- “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man”

No essential blues list is complete without Muddy Waters. Choosing just one Muddy Waters song, though, is an impossible task. Just edging out “Mannish Boy” is “Hoochie Coochie Man,” Waters’ take on the Willie Dixon standard. Featuring a lyric where the narrator brags about the magical effects his sexual prowess has on women. Waters always flaunted his sexuality in song, but “Hoochie Coochie Man” moved mere innuendo into something more explicit. “He gonna make pretty womens, jump an’ shout,” Waters boasts at one point. Initially released in 1954, Waters would go on to release various live versions of the song, the most memorable coming from his At Newport 1960 album.

10. Howlin’ Wolf – “I Asked Her for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)”

Few vocalists left a mark on the blues quite like Howlin’ Wolf, and “I Asked Her For Water” is a perfect example of what made him great. Musically, the song doesn’t vary from its lone chord progression: all of the dynamism is in Wolf’s voice. His is a guttural wail filled with the desperation of a man crawling away from the specter of death as it marches toward him in an insistent stomp. Howlin’ Wolf brought more than pain to the blues; he brought dark, despondent edge.

11. Lightnin’ Hopkins – “Short Haired Woman”

At one point, blues and country shared some musical DNA, and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ work is crucial to understanding their connection. “Short Haired Woman” features just Hopkins and his guitar, and the latter is the real star of the show here. Hopkins’ lyrics take a backseat to his signature fingerpicking style, evoking real twangy feeling out of his instrument without appearing self-indulgent or show-offy. It’s a trick that many of Hopkins’ disciples have failed to pull off.

12. T-Bone Walker – “I’m Still in Love With You”

Blues purists may scoff at the = idea of electric blues, but it’s a style that has had an immeasurable impact on what has come since. Walker, in particular, was incredibly adventurous for his time, and “I’m Still in Love With You” is a note-perfect encapsulation of how he mixed blues with big-band jazz to create something unique. Walker’s voice is smoother than your typical bluesman, and Walker’s guitar cedes attention to the persistently present saxophone. Still, from the 12-bar structure to the lonely subject matter, this has the DNA of the blues running right through it.

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