A few weeks ago I sat together with my good friend Mathias and we decided to make a project about music we both love. We started out creating, sharing and listening to our personal playlists, talked about the musicians, their music and the stories we knew or experienced.
Beyond tape was born, where we try to regularly share great playlists and stories just like you (or your parents) did in times where analog magnetic tape was prevailing. We think music is best perceived in (and beyond) thematic blocks, so we will define one topic for every issue where we can try to tape our thoughts.
For our first project we thought about our favorite darling, the Blues:
What is it that I enjoy so much about this music genre? What artists have had a big influence on me? And what is this feeling of Blues anyway all about?
We thought of limiting ourselves to a maximum of twenty songs, not an easy task given the fact that there are so many good recordings around.
A final note beforehand: I have taken many text passages from the corresponding Wikipedia articles, these are always linked. Thanks to the authors and music enthusiasts for the research and the extensive background knowledge, without them this article would not exist.
Another massive research source for me is Lawrence Cohn’s wonderful book Nothing but the Blues which I highly recommend reading.
1. Arthur William ‘Big Boy’ Crudup: “That’s All Right” (1946)
Let’s start with a song that is best known as the debut single recorded and released by Elvis Presley, ultimately introducing rock ’n’ roll to the world.
I would name Presley as an early strong musical influence, but I was impressed when I found out that this song was actually written and originally performed by Delta Blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Arthur William “Big Boy” Crudup.
Presley even later highly recognized him by saying:
If I had any ambition, it was to be as good as Arthur Crudup.Elvis Presley
2. Big Mama Thornton: “Hound Dog” (1952)
Born in Alabama as Willie Mae Thornton in 1926 she was unique in a male-dominated Blues world. I just love her energetic and rich voice, which was heavily influenced by early gospel music. Thornton stated that she was louder than any microphone and didn’t want a microphone to ever be as loud as she was. Not to forget, she is also a brilliant self-taught harmonica player.
Again here Presley covering this outstanding song four years later making it even more famous, but I really prefer her version).
See the magic for yourself in this tv show:
3. Muddy Waters: “Mannish Boy” (1955)
Everything’s gonna be alright this morning.
Muddy Waters, being named the father of modern Chicago blues, was originally from Clarksdale, Mississippi and had been heading to the blues capital of the Fifties very early. Without doubt, he is one of the greatest blues artists of all time.
Let Muddy describe his music with his own words:
There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues — the blues we used to have when we had no money.
Of course, there are a lot of excellent live recordings from this song out there.
I really like this version together with Buddy Guy (g), Junior Wells (hca) and Bill Wyman (b) where they played at The Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974:
4. Roosevelt Sykes: “Hush Oh Hush” (1956)
Sykes was born in Elmar, Arkansas (1906) and grew up near Helena. Like many bluesmen of his time, he traveled around beginning at the age of 15 playing to all-male audiences in a sawmill, turpentine stills and levee camps along the Mississippi River. Later he also moves to Chicago like Muddy Waters.
This song has this groovy blues feeling:
If you are furthermore interested in his life check out this 1972 documentary about his life & music.
5. Mississippi Fred McDowell: “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” (1959)
McDowell was born in Rossville, Tennessee and moved to Memphis and then all around Mississippi, working very hard in the cotton industry. Although commonly regarded as a Delta blues singer, McDowell may be considered the first north hill country blues artist to achieve widespread recognition for his work.
I do not play no rock and roll
I get the goosebumps every time I listen to his music:
6. John Lee Hooker: “Tupelo Blues” (1959)
Named the Mr. Blues, he definitely helped to bring the genre into the mainstream. Mississippi-born, he also developed his own driving-rhythm boogie style, distinct from the 1930s–1940s piano-derived boogie-woogie.
Hooker personally had a big influence on me with his laid-back but distinctive-powerful Country Blues:
Bonus Live Version from Montreal, are you ready for the voodoo?
7. Howlin’ Wolf: “Spoonful” (1960)
Another Mississippi-born blues-super-hero with his booming voice and imposing physical presence who move to Chicago i wouldn’t miss in this list is Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf.
Several of his songs, including Smokestack Lightnin, Killing Floor and Spoonful have become blues and blues-rock standards.
I couldn’t do no yodelin’, so I turned to howlin’. And it’s done me just fine.
Here him howling on this blues song written by Willie Dixon, which was later popularized by Cream in the late 1960s:
There is also an excellent live performance at the 1964 American Folk Blues Festival which they made look like a cozy after-hours bar.
8. Booker T. & the M.G.’s: “Green Onions” (1962)
Booker T. Jones is synonymous with the Hammond B3 organ.
At 17, he recorded the instrument’s anthem Green Onions with his band Booker T and The MG’s. The organ sound of the song became a feature of the Memphis soul sound.
Have a look how he talks about getting in contact to his first Hammond organ from early on and how he learned to play it:
You also need to see this super-cool performance from 1967 with his band (keep an eye on the bass line and the player).
Booker T. Jones himself was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1944 growing up in a lower-middle-class family, and later moved to California. He was musically a child prodigy, playing the oboe, saxophone, trombone, double bass, and piano at school and organ at church. If you have time dig into his and the bands’ colorful discography.
9. Sonny Boy Williamson II: “Help Me” (1963)
Alex or Aleck Miller (1912), known later in his career as Sonny Boy Williamson, was an American blues harmonica player, singer and songwriter. Miller used various names, including Rice Miller and Little Boy Blue, before calling himself Sonny Boy Williamson, which was also the name of a popular Chicago blues singer and harmonica player. To distinguish the two, Miller has been referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Fun-Fact: The song, a mid-tempo twelve-bar blues, is credited to Williamson, Willie Dixon, and Ralph Bass and is based on the 1962 instrumental hit Green Onions by Booker T. and the MGs. (see above)
I also had to listen a few times, technically it is an Interpolation (Replayed Sample) of Hook / Riff (quoted, I’m not a musician myself)
10. Michael Bloomfield: “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” (1965)
Michael was actually ranked №22 on Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and worked with a bunch of bands during his life, most importantly with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
11. R. L. Burnside: “Jumper On The Line” (1968)
Another Mississippi-based personal guitar super-hero is Robert Lee Burnside, born in 1926. He played music for much of his life but received little recognition before the early 1990s. He learned mostly from Mississippi Fred McDowell (see above), who had lived near Burnside since Burnside was a child.
Truly authentic see him playing this song (most-probably on his own land) with babies crying in the back:
Also one of his sons Cedric Burnside is now finally stepping in his father’s footsteps, evolving the epic dry sound even further. Have a look at old videos from their farm and you know where the good vibes originated.
12. Jimi Hendrix: “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (1968)
No need to introduce Johnny Allen Hendrix. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes him as “arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music”.
Born in Seattle, he had been moving to Clarksville, Tennessee after the army. His career began in the 60s just where every cool blues kid was hanging around.
I picked this song because from early on Hendrix was some kind of magician to me who somehow learned the Voodoo Blues (from somewhere or someone) and then used his power to cast the spell on everybody.
Because I’m a voodoo child, voodoo child
Lord knows I’m a voodoo child, baby
Learn more about the song behind the scene.
13. B.B. King: “The Thrill Is Gone” (1969)
I’ve had the chance to see B.B. King and his superb band (with two drummer line-up) and it was an unbelievably great concert. It is such a pleasure seeing him play and almost being one with his guitar, put simply “The King of the Blues”.
Born as Riley B. King (1925), he introduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced many electric blues guitarists later.
When released as a single in December 1969, The Thrill Is Gone became one of the biggest hits of King’s career.
14. The Rolling Stones: “Shake Your Hips” (1972)
The Rolling Stones were probably one of my first vivid encounters with the blues and stayed as a steady inspiration (Thanks dad!).
Especially their album Exile on Main St. (recorded 1970–1972) with a focus on Blues, Rock and Roll, Swing, Country and Gospel gave me a great introduction to their musical influences and their blues idols.
Exile on Main St. was originally met with mixed reviews before a positive critical reassessment during the 1970s. It has since been viewed by critics as the Rolling Stones’ best work and has been ranked highly on various lists of the greatest albums.
The Stones recorded this song in London, but reworked it at Keith Richards’ villa in the South of France, where the band was staying on their “exile.” It was recorded to sound like a ’50s record.
The song was originally recorded in 1966 by Louisiana swamp blues artist Slim Harpo. It was Mick Jagger’s idea to record it for the album — he is a big fan of Harpo.
Although I really like Harpo’s original version, I prefer the version by the Stones. It has this open boogie and free-floating tune that feels like a very long jam session, probably also because of Mick Taylor on guitar.
15. Townes Van Zandt: “Chauffeur’s Blues” (1977)
Chauffeur Blues is a song originally recorded by Memphis Minnie as “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” in 1941 and subsequently covered by many other artists, e.g. Jefferson Airplane.
This version by American singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt has this special bluesy slide-feeling although he is normally famous for country folk songs like Waiting around to Die or Dead Flowers.
His biography actually reads like a blues song itself: Much of Van Zandt’s life was spent touring various bars, often living in cheap motel rooms and backwood cabins. For much of the 1970s, he lived in a simple shack without electricity or a phone.
As our topic is going “beyond” the blues this is definitely a path to step into and feel the country blues.
16. The Black Keys: “Busted” (2002)
No wonder I completely fell in love with this blues-band from Akron, Ohio: Dan Auerbach (guitar, vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) have chosen to cover this R.L. Burnside classic Skinny woman on their first debut studio album The Big Come Up honoring and at the same time developing the blues since 2001.
Even in their latest more commercial breakthroughs, they seem to have not forgotten about their musical roots, combining pop, rock and blues to something that feels familiar and modern-contemporary at the same time. I’m looking forward to whatever they are working on and going to a concert is still on my todo-list.
See for yourself for a great intro to Auerbach’s skills and approach.
17. Ali Farka Touré: “Savane” (2006)
File under hypnotic blues style, this is actually (blues) music from Mali (West Africa).
Ali Farka Touré is also known as “the African John Lee Hooker”, king of desert blues or simply one of the greatest guitarists ever to come out of West Africa.
His music is widely regarded as representing a point of intersection of traditional Malian music and its North American cousin, the blues. The belief that the latter is historically derived from the former is reflected in Martin Scorsese’s often quoted characterization of Touré’s tradition as constituting the DNA of the blues.
I personally not only like his music but also his (critical) thinking and approach towards the philosophy of being a global citizen:
Whether in the United States or in Mali, I think that there are only cities and distances separating us but our souls, our spirits are the same. They are the same thing. There is no difference…Because they are people who should be united.
18. Gary Clark Jr.: “Bright Lights” (2011)
In the tradition of big texan blues artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Texas Alexander, or Jimmie Vaughan I would name Gary Clark Jr. as a true descendant of pure and raw blues, passing the sound and the feeling to the next century. Vaughan and others in the Austin music community actually helped Clark along his musical path.
He was also greatly honored by playing at the White House event titled “In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues.”
The full event is a must-see and one of the personal highlights in blues history.
19. Daniel Norgren: “Howling Around My Happy Home” (2013)
Born in 1983 in Sweden he is working through a small indie label called Superpuma records and has been playing on festivals and venues in Europe so since 2006.
I prefer his extensive long songs paired with hypnotic repeating basic blues riffs and improvising along to never-ending jam-like sounds.
20. Nicolas Jaar: “John The Revelator” (2009)
I would like to close my personal list of blues songs with a traditional gospel call and response tune called John the Revelator and its modern interpretation. For me again it’s amazing how far you can go with the blues musically speaking.
Born in 1990 Nicolas Jaar is one of the talented artists i know of, especially when on stage with his Band Darkside. Jaar himself characterizes the project as blues-oriented and more guitar-influenced which really resonates with me.
All Jaar’s music — whether songs or (club) tracks — have a tendency towards abstraction and experiment and a certain melancholy and sadness in common, listen for yourself in this NYC Live Set.
The full beyond tape on Spotify for your listening pleasure:
The full playlist on Apple Music: