31 Best Blues Songs You Really Ought to Know

Blues music was born during the 19th century in the United States. In the 1860s, early bluesmen would sing songs cultivated from intertwining church music, folk hymns, and common “pop” music they’d hear from time to time.

Blues music began as a deeply southern genre, rising from the depths of the Mississippi delta. As African-Americans moved north, the Chicago blues movement came to the forefront.

For a comprehensive taste of some of the best blues songs ever recorded, check out this list featuring artists like Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, and John Lee Hooker.

Death Letter Blues – Son House

Delta blues artist Son House was one of the genre’s most enigmatic performers. Even his early recordings on sub-par equipment have a palpable quality. Part fire and brimstone due to his preacher background, his songs like ‘Death Letter Blues’ have a way of working themselves into the listener’s spirit. In this song, Son House sings about finding out about the death of his lover via an early morning letter.

Related: Here are the best losing someone songs.

Baby Please Don’t Go – Lightnin’ Hopkins

“Baby, please don’t go down to New Orleans. You know I love you so.” Big Joe Williams wrote this tortured-romance blues lament at the height of the Great Depression in 1935. Over a decade later, in 1947, Lightnin’ Hopkins released his own version. This is one of the blues’ most recorded songs, with other versions featuring the work of Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee Hooker.

Get Back – Big Bill Broonzy

A protest song at its core, this blues number tackles issues of African-American war veterans’ experience in the ’40s after returning home from fighting in World War II. Big Bill Broonzy felt white soldiers were receiving preferential treatment and decided to channel his anger with his music. Though no label was brave enough to record it, he performed ‘Get Back’ live so other bluesmen could cover it. A recording of the tune was finally released after his death in 1958.

Related: Check out the top protest songs.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Lead Belly

One of the most beautiful yet haunting tunes you could ever listen to is Lead Belly’s ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night.’ The early blues-folk song by Lead Belly tells the pensive tale of a man inquiring as to where his woman has been late at night. In the ’90s, grunge-rock band Nirvana resurrected this tune for their infamous live MTV Unplugged performance.

Recommended: Our pick of the best Lead Belly tracks.

Cross Road Blues – Robert Johnson

The blues are steeped in myth and lore, and no other artist left behind a more mysterious legacy than Robert Johnson. One of delta blues’ trailblazers, as the legend goes, he sold his soul to the devil at “the crossroads” in exchange for otherworldly musical ability. Supposedly, this rural intersection resides somewhere among the quiet streets of Clarksdale, Mississippi, not far from where he was born in the small town of Hazlehurst.

I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James

Behind this blues-soul crossover, classic is the story of a woman struggling with a failed relationship when she sees her ex with a new flame. Etta James helped co-write this emotional hit in 1967, and many modern artists have gone on to record it. It’s received attention from many genres thanks to pop star Beyonce’s rendition, blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s cover, and Rod Stewart’s 1972 recording.

Related: Find this song on our list of songs about splitting up.

Smokestack Lightnin’ – Howlin’ Wolf

The bluesman with an almost mythic legacy howls softly in between lyrics for his tune ‘Smokestack Lightnin.” A song including the beloved blues symbol of a train, this hit single would become one of Howlin’ Wolf’s signature tunes. Its haunting, dark tone has made it highly licensable over the years. It has appeared in various shows and films like True Blood and, appropriately, The Wolf of Wall Street.

Related: See more songs with lightning in the lyrics.

Hoochie Coochie Man – Muddy Waters

“I got a boy child’s coming. He’s gonna be a son of a gun.” Muddy Waters’ ‘Hoochie Coochie Man,’ celebrating coming of age masculinity, is one of those blues songs fans must experience as a live performance in their lifetime. Originally released by Muddy Waters and perfected and electrified by modern blues artists like Buddy Guy, this rowdy tune is one of the blues genre’s timeless hits.

Related: If you liked this, you gotta check out our list of best muddy waters songs.

Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out – Bessie Smith

A hit during the roaring ’20s penned by blues pianist Jimmi Cox, Bessie Smith’s cover version featuring trumpet turned out to be eerily prescient when she released it in September of 1929. A song about fleeting material wealth, the U.S. stock market crashed in October 1929, just weeks after the single’s debut. Smith’s biggest hit song of her career was ‘Downhearted Blues.’

Hear My Train Comin’ – Jimi Hendrix

One of several tunes Jimi Hendrix wrote geared towards the classic blues genre, ‘Hear My Train Comin” deals with redemption and stepping into what blues writers often symbolically viewed as “salvation” when using a train as a lyrical metaphor. The first blues original he recorded and performed with his band, Red House, was partly inspired by blues legend Albert King’s music stylings.

Related: Head over to our playlist of train songs.

Juke – Little Walter

Chicago blues artist Little Walter significantly influenced future harmonica players due to his work in the 1950s. Aside from playing the harmonica alongside the towering bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, he released his own harmonica instrumental, ‘Juke,’ in 1952. The song became a hit and is still often covered by blues harmonica players today.

Related: Listen to more good harmonica songs.

Born Under a Bad Sign – Albert King

A timeless electric blues stunner about a life stricken with constant bad luck, Albert King blazed the blues trail with hits like ‘Born Under a Bad Sign.’ Aside from his songwriting prowess, King developed a unique way of playing guitar. He played the guitar made for a right-handed person upside down, giving him extra control over bending the lighter strings. He also often utilized alternate tunings for his songs as well.

Related: Hear more from his repertoire on our pick of the best Albert King songs.

The Thrill is Gone – B.B. King

Multi-Grammy award winner B.B. King got his biggest hit with Roy Hawkins’ 1951 pensive blues standard ‘The Thrill is Gone.’ The modern blues number put B.B. King on the map and gave him legendary status among fellow blues musicians. King ultimately contributed the “B.B. King Blues Box” to guitar players everywhere. This particular blues box features a six-note scale that is often an extension of a minor pentatonic scale that is perfect for soloing in blues and rock genres.

Didn’t It Rain? – Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Nicknamed the “Godmother of Rock and Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a game changer in the early blues scene. She was one of the rock and roll movement’s earliest stars because of her impressive guitar work, showmanship, and lyrical storytelling. A rare blueswoman, singles like ‘Did It Rain?’ and ‘Strange Things Happening’ were favorites among her fans. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday is Just as Bad) – T-Bone Walker

Often referred to as ‘Stormy Monday,’ this 12-bar blues number is T-Bone Walker’s biggest hit. Not only did T-Bone Walker pioneer the West Coast Blues movement, but he was one of the first to electrify the genre, trading in a woody, acoustic guitar sound for an amplified, rocking sound. The single ended up making the rounds in blues music communities, with artists ranging from B.B. King to the Allman Brothers recording cover versions.

Related: Ugh, is it Friday yet? Here are some songs about Mondays.

Boogie Chillen – John Lee Hooker

Singing about nights spent dancing at blues bars and clubs with his song ‘Boogie Chillen,’ the track’s production is minimalistic but genre-defining. Blues artists such as Hooker, and delta musicians like Son House, would use their voice, a lone acoustic guitar, and percussive stomps and claps to fill out the recording. This signature style can be heard in Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen,’ which features unique percussive sounds due to the bottle caps he attached to his shoes while recording.

Spoonful – Howlin’ Wolf

One of the many contributions by blues songwriter Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf recorded his tune ‘Spoonful’ in the early 1960s. In 1956 fans gave the “King of Rock N’ Roll” the nickname Elvis the Pelvis after seeing him gyrate on TV. Likewise, if you attended a Howlin’ Wolf show in the ’60s, you’d witness him having a little innocent physical fun with the sexually-charged ‘Spoonful’ number during his on-stage set.

Match Box Blues – Blind Lemon Jefferson

“… wonderin’ will a matchbox hold my clothes.” Blues icon Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote this line in his song ‘Match Box Blues’ in 1927 and gave rise to a recurring, meaningful symbol in many blues-inspired tunes. Artists like Sam Cooke would go on to use lyrics referencing a matchbox as a way to convey to listeners that he’s in a down-and-out situation. Blind Lemon Jefferson hailed from Texas and grew up singing in churches before releasing early blues tunes.

Hey, Hey Baby – Big Bill Broonzy

“I love you, baby, but I sure ain’t gonna be your dog.” Lyrics are sparse throughout Big Bill Broonzy’s ‘Hey, Hey Baby,’ but the emotive instrumentation does all the talking. Classic blues subject matter is on hand for this track, with the protagonist reeling over a lover mistreating him. Eric Clapton covered this emotional track for his acoustic blues album Unplugged in 1992.

Killing Floor – Howlin’ Wolf

In his younger days, Howlin’ Wolf was known as Chester Burnett. When Burnett was growing up, yodeling was a popular musical technique. The only problem was that he couldn’t yodel. Instead of letting it keep him down, he got creative. He began howling instead of yodeling, and it became his trademark, leading to the memorable stage name Howlin’ Wolf. One of his most raucous tunes, ‘Killin’ Floor,’ compares a relationship the protagonist is into doing prison time.

Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters

No song captures the bravado of blues music and manhood like Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy.’ Written after he moved to Chicago from the south, Waters wrote it as a way to claim his adulthood for himself despite the racism and stereotyping he had endured. Fellow blues artists like Buddy Guy continue to perform the rocking song, one of the blues genre’s most recognizable hits.

Related: This song is on our Goodfellas songs playlist.

Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker

Though Hooker’s music is quintessential blues, his cross-genre hit ‘Boom Boom’ placed high on both pop and R&B charts. The song’s infectious beat and gritty vocals make it a staple for the genre, with many artists, including English blues-rock group The Animals, covering it. Hooker wrote it because he was constantly late to a weekly gig, and every time he was tardy, the bartender would say, “Boom boom, you late again.”

I Was Young When I Left Home – Bob Dylan

In 1962 Bob Dylan sat down in a small apartment in Minnesota with simple recording equipment and taped his pensive tune ‘I Was Young When I Left Home.’ Since its initial recording, the song focusing on going through hard times has helped many individuals find comfort while dealing with different issues. Considered to be one of his blues compositions, Dylan has kept it in the repertoire throughout the years, and he re-released it several times on compilation albums.

See That My Grave is Kept Clean – Blind Lemon Jefferson

One of delta blues’ most enduring compositions, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s reflective, conversational ‘See That My Grave is Kept Clean’ has been a favorite of fellow artists for many years. Fellow delta blues songwriter Son House utilized the song’s melody for one of his tunes. Bob Dylan and B.B. King went on to release renditions of this classic. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s original release dates all the way back to 1927.

I Can’t Quit You Baby – Otis Rush

Willie Dixon was one of the most prolific writers in the blues genre. For his song ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby,’ recorded by Otis Rush, Dixon wrote it about a romantic relationship Rush was involved in at the time. The song became a blues standard due to its popularity and universal relatability. Though the song was originally released in 1956, Rush continued to play it live for decades after its initial release.

Related: These cover songs are as good as the originals.

Pride and Joy – Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble

One of blues music’s most highly ranked albums, Texas Flood, belongs to guitar impresario Stevie Ray Vaughan. Through his guitar work, smooth vocal vibrato, and classic blues songwriting, he established his own brand of the genre while staying true to its unmistakable roots. Vaughan wrote ‘Pride and Joy’ in a traditional Texas blues format, one of his favorite songwriting composition styles. The lyrics feature him confessing his love for his woman to listeners in a way only a bluesman can pull off.

Little Red Rooster – The Rolling Stones

Rock group The Rolling Stones was one of the bands responsible for the blues music revival of the 1960s. They released several blues covers during their recording career and electrified them to fit their sound. Among these memorable covers is Willie Dixon’s ‘Little Red Rooster,’ which features slide guitar and commentary on life in the southern states of America.

I’m Tore Down – Freddy King

Boasting soft vocal lines and intricate guitar fills, Freddy King’s ‘I’m Tore Down’ was originally written by pianist Sonny Thompson in 1961. For Eric Clapton’s 1994 blues tribute album, From The Cradle, he covered this King tune and kept close to the original. International musicians like Northern Ireland’s Gary Moore have also covered this blues classic.

Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues – Skip James

No blues singer gives such a haunting, spiritual performance as songwriter Skip James. In the 1960s, during the blues revival in the states, fans who discovered James’ music (originally released during the Great Depression) reignited his career. His performances garnered much attention at blues festivals and concerts due to his unique picking style and alternate tunings like open D minor, which gave his songs an emotional, expressive feel.

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – George Thorogood

A classic blues drinking song written by Rudy Toombs in the 1950s, it was one of many of his hits to place high on Billboard charts. Blues legend John Lee Hooker recorded the hit in 1977, and George Thorogood’s electrified cover was released around the same time as Hooker’s. Thorogood’s version became the most popular rendition listeners gravitated toward.

Related: You’ll enjoy these popular bar songs.

Police Dog Blues – Blind Blake

Piedmont blues songwriter Blind Blake pioneered this subgenre, focusing on a more rolling, bouncy feel to the guitar work. He was one of the early inventors of what is now known as “ragtime guitar,” and his Gullah Geechee cultural background heavily influenced his music. Amazon Prime’s first installment of Jim Grant’s series Jack Reacher features one of the blues/ folk artist’s most popular songs, ‘Police Dog Blues.’

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About Ged Richardson

Ged Richardson is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of ZingInstruments.com. He has been featured in Entrepreneur, PremierGuitar, Hallmark, Wanderlust, CreativeLive, and other major publications. As an avid music fan, he spends his time researching and writing about new and old music, as well as testing and reviewing music-related products. He's played guitar in various bands, from rock to gypsy jazz. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel, where he geeks out about his favorite bands.

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