Last month, in The Weary Blues, I set out my 20 favourite blues tracks, mainly from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, the two traditional homes of the blues. Over the past half century the blues have travelled well beyond their origins and become anything but traditional. So here is a brief attempt to trace that journey. As ever, this is a personal, eclectic, even eccentric collection. There are 20 tracks split into three groups. The first group comprise singers whose work reveals the early influence of the blues on jazz, soul and country: Billie Holiday, Etta James, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash and Dr john. Then we move to blues-flavoured rock, from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, through the Sixties British blues boom to contemporary reworkings as different Ian Siegal and The Black Keys. Finally, a set of tracks that show the influence of blues on ‘world music’ (a phrase I hate, but that seemingly has become indispensible today).
It is perhaps both fitting and poignant to end with three tracks from Malian artists. It was out of the slave trade and the transportation of millions from West Africa and the Sahel to the Americas that the blues emerged, formed out of the traditional songs that the slaves brought with them. Over the past few decades the influence has flowed in the opposite direction as American blues has travelled back across the Atlantic to shape the contemporary music of West Africa and the Sahel. And nowhere more so than in Mali, a nation that has in recent years produced an astonishing line-up of outstanding musicians. The Islamist takeover of the north has silenced that music and driven many into exile. I might pull together my favourite Malian music in a post soon. In the meantime, enjoy the weary blues going forth.
Billie Holiday, ‘Taint nobody’s business if I do
Her voice may have been thin, her range limited, but, boy, could you feel her pain and sorrow. For many the greatest jazz vocalist, Lady Day was also a blues singer to the core. And this one was as personal as they come.
Etta James, I’d rather go blind
Etta James, who died last year, is a surprisingly neglected singer. It may be sacrilege to say so, but in my view she possesses a voice as glorious as Aretha Franklin’s. And this is a song of heartbreak as never there was.
Ray Charles, Lonely Avenue
A key musical bridge between blues and gospel, on the one side, and r ‘n’ b and soul on the other.
Nina Simone, Don’t smoke in bed
One of those singers who can move, almost without you noticing, from blues to jazz to r’n’b to gospel. Wonderful voice, and an attitude to match.
Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison blues
I hate country. But I love Johnny Cash. Go figure. Probably because Cash may have sung in the idiom of country but he always brought with him a blues sensibility.
Dr John Such a night
Jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, r’n’b, pop, zydeco, boogie woogie, blues – it’s impossible define what exactly Dr John plays. He is a one-off.
Jimi Hendrix, Red House
There’s little to add to the million words already written about Hendrix. So just listen…
Janis Joplin, A piece of my heart
A voice to break your heart.
Peter Green, I’ve got a mind to give up living
Long before Fleetwood Mac descended into being an execrable pop band, it was a fine blues combo led by Peter Green, perhaps Britain’s greatest blues guitarist (yes, better than Clapton or Beck). This is one of his lesser known tracks, but it’s one of my favourites.
Allman Brothers, Stormy Monday
Britain, strangely, has a far better tradition of blues rock than the USA. The Allman Brothers are perhaps the best of the American blues rock bands.
Taj Mahal, Catfish blues
For more than 50 years Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, or Taj Mahal, has been pushing the boundaries of the blues repertoire. This is one of his more recent tracks.
Dr Feelgood, Roxette
When I was 12 I wanted to be Wilko Johnson. I still do.
Ian Siegal, Revelator
A little bit of Howlin’ Wolf reborn in the deep south (of England).
The Black Keys, Howlin’ for you
Where the blues meets grunge.
Souad Massi, Raoui
North African Arabic music has always had historical and geographical affinities with the blues of West Africa and the Sahel. And in recent decades it has borrowed more consciously. Sauad Massi is an Algerian singer who would undoubtedly be better known were she singing in English.
Yasmin Levy, Me voy
Yasmin Levy is a Ladino/flamenco singer who draws upon Jewish, Arabic and Spanish influences. This is less music influenced by the blues than music that has always felt like the blues.
Dhaffer Youssef, Tarannoum
Tunisian singer and oud player. A Sufi, Youssef says he clandestinely listened to jazz while attending Qur’anic school as a boy.
Ali Farka Touré, Amandrai
The pioneer of the contemporary wave of Malian blues. The influence of John Lee Hooker on his playing is clear. On this live track he is joined by Bassekou Kouyate who also features on the final track in this list.
Tinariwen Matadjem Yinmixan
Perhaps the greatest exponents of ‘desert blues’, Tinariwen was first formed more than thirty years ago in an Algerian refugee camp by a group of Turaeg and Berber musicians from Mali. The band has, over the decades, had a shifting cast of band members. The music remains sublime.
Bassekou Kouyate, Segu Blue
Wonderful, wonderful track from the Malian ngoni player.
Interesting list. but none of the swagger i love in the blues (to quote ian Siegal). Glad to see a Dr. Feelgood song there. Stormy Monday and Key to the Highway are all-time great blues songs. Surprised at no Chicago Blues as that was the first move of blues from rural roots. Muddy Waters & Paul Butterfield would do. Mind you, like the music itself, any discussion of blues is a good thing. My faves include Juke Boy Bonner, early Fleetwood Mac, Sue Foley, Jo-Ann Kelly, Jimmie Vaughan, John Primer and Joe Louis Walker.
Wayne, Chicago blues (including Muddy Waters) were in the original Weary Blues list. I ignored the fact that the blues came to Chicago from the Delta and took both as ‘the two traditional homes of the blues’. This list was to spotlight developments beyond Chicago and the Delta, and the idea is to show as varied a selection as possible, rather than restrict it what is normally considered blues-influenced music. There are dozens of tracks that I would have loved to get in here, but…
Thank you for replying. It’s my nature to enter discussions midway and miss the point. i always enjoyed blues music but really started collecting it in the 90’s. My love of guitar music was not finding any creativity among other artists, which is ironic , given the tight prescriptions of the blues format. Also i always like a little social commentary with my music and only the blues offers a chance at that since Joe Strummer’s passing.
On the international front I like Julian Sas, Big Gilson and the Vargas Blues Band. I also marvel at the number of blues festivals around the world. There is one somewhere in Tuscany that is calling my name…
Thank you again ,Kenan for continuing my musical education – I’d missed out on so much, now you provide a great resource! Tom
Pleasure. It’s my musical education too 🙂
Great selection! The Black Keys. Wonderful tunes! Grown So Ugly is one of my favourites. Thanks.
Thank you, thank you….great selection!