An Introductory Blues Playlist

Examples of the blues from the 1920s to the 1960s, from the Mississippi Delta to Texas to Chicago. As you listen, keep in mind the great themes of the genre: betrayal, unhappiness in love, poverty, mistreatment, hard work, crime, violence, addiction.

A woman’s unique perspective on the fate of a prisoner:

Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the mysterious and highly-influential Delta guitarist, rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in return for musical success.

James Cone has said that the blues are secular spirituals. Lightning Hopkins describes his vision of a secular heaven in his 1963 song “Going to Build Me a Heaven of My Own,” which hearkens back to the earlier style of country blues.

An orchestrated Chicago-style blues from the 1950s:

Lee Kizart’s “I Got the World in a Jug Baby and the Stopper in my Hand” is unusual in the genre because Kizart’s instrument was piano, not guitar. Kizart, from Tutwiler, Mississippi, honed his skills in roadhouse taverns.

We will be talking in depth about Mamie Smith’s 1920 “Crazy Blues,” the first commercial blues recording, a little later on.  

Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” encompasses a lot of these themes. The lyrics could refer to the hard times of the Great Depression, or to being unjustly imprisoned, but being on the “killing floor” is also a metaphor for being deeply depressed.

On the other hand, one blues scholar claims that being on the hard time killing floor means that your woman has literally tried to kill you. Read more: