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The blues has a history that goes back well over a hundred years and is music that has a timeless quality to it. Songs that were recorded anywhere from 25, 50, 60, 80 or even 100 years ago still possess the haunting groove they did when they first hit the airways. In this two-part series, we consider some of the classics to wrap your ears around. In this first part, we look at six great bluesmen, who are a great start for anyone looking to explore the blues in depth. The second part on six great blues women is coming soon.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Awful Dreams
Samuel ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins’ (15 March 1912 – 30 January 1982) was a Texas bluesman who’s seemingly simple combination of guitar and vocals can literally stop you in your tracks. Hopkins had a very long career, with over 1000 estimated recorded songs. In telling his life story, Hopkins said that as a child, Blind Lemon Jefferson heard him sing and told him to keep it up. The jury is out on whether there’s any truth to that, but why should we doubt it. Hopkins was a mesmerising performer according to those who saw him live, and it transcends on the screen watching him today. There aren’t many words to aptly described Awful Dreams. It just cuts through your soul with lyrics “It sounds like the world is gonna end/Somebody passed and dropped the bomb.” To avoid some confusion, it’s worth noting that the song is sometimes also listed as Abner Silver and Awful Dream. Hopkins has a massive back catalogue going across many labels and at times recorded the same song more than once. As well as a musician who blows your mind, he also keeps you on your toes. Awful Dreams appears on numerous compilations but appears to have had its first appearance on the 1962 album Mojo Hand.
Junior Wells – Snatch It Back And Hold It
Often partnered with the legendary Buddy Guy, Junior Wells (born Amos Wells Blakemore Jr) is also known for his association with Muddy Waters, in whose band he replaced Little Walter on blues harp. Junior Wells (9 December, 1934 – 15 January 1998) had notable blues links before encountering the two aforementioned as his teachers were Junior Parker, also his cousin, and Sonny boy Williamson II. Hailing from either Memphis, Tennessee or West Memphis Arkansas (it’s the blues – locations are sometimes not quite a precise art), Wells started his career at a relatively young age. Snatch It Back And Hold It features on his debut album, Hoodoo Man Blues, which was released on the Delmark label in November 1965, and one of Wells’ earliest collaborations with Buddy Guy. It’s probably one of the best albums you could start with, as I did. Snatch It Back And Hold It is a cracking song that you can’t help but dance to, whether you are doing chores or just supposedly sitting back and absorbing the sound. I first came across it in a video that often does the rounds of Rory Gallagher jamming it backstage with Gerry McAvoy as they warmed up for a show, and yet another blues addiction spawned thanks to the Irish guitarist!
Muddy Waters – Mannish Boy
It’s perhaps no understatement for some to say that Muddy Waters (April 4, 1913 – April 30, 1983) is the ultimate bluesman. Born McKinley Morganfield, he was recorded on the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi by Alan Lomax in 1941 as part of Lomax’s fieldwork into the blues. Upon hearing the recordings, Muddy realised that he had something to his music, and soon moved to Chicago, where basically, the rest is history. There are several themes to be found in Muddy’s music, ranging from the vestiges of the supernatural, wherein a Gypsy woman predicts great things to Muddy’s mother when he was born, to well, his sexual prowess. Mannish Boy is one that captures all of these. With a start that sends chills down your spine, before sinking straight into your bloodstream, the song first appeared in 1955 as a B-side to the single Young Fashioned Ways, though credited under Manish Boy. It was written as an answer to Bo Diddley’s I’m A Man. Though interestingly, Bo Diddley is listed with Muddy as co-composer under their birth names.
Howlin Wolf – Smokestack Lightning
Described as Sam Phillips as the most talented musician to have ever walked through the doors of Sun Records (and this is an illustrious roster that includes Elvis Presley), Howlin’ Wolf (10 June 1910 – 10 January 1976) is a musician who transcends genre when it comes to people who appreciate his talent. I once had a dyed in the wool punk fan respond to a Tweet about him basically frothing that the Wolf was a legend. The Wolf, aka Chester Arthur Burnett was a literal giant. As in he was a smidge off 6 feet 5 inches. Born in Mississippi, he started on guitar, but found it tricky as it was so small in his hands, so he also picked up the harp. His stage presence was apparently like nothing else – he literally hung from the curtains during performances, though toned it down somewhat when his live show was filmed. With Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf had something of a love/hate rivalry – both setting the scene for the Chicago blues. Smokestack Lightning is one of the true classics of the blues. It appeared as a single on Chess in 1956. The Wolf’s long-term guitarist is credited for the distinctive guitar riff, while Howlin’ Wolf can be credited with sending shivers up your spine whenever you hear the song.
John Lee Hooker – Boom Boom
Son House – Death Letter Blues
Eddie ‘Son’ House (21 March 1902 – 19 October 1988) is one
of the originals when it comes to the initial popularity of country blues. Born
in Lyon, Mississippi, this Delta bluesman is also credited with having taught
Robert Johnson, perhaps the most enigmatic blues figure thanks to the legends
and mystery that have grown around him. Though when asked, House described
Johnson as something of a pest! House became a musician at the age of 25 after
some years working as a preacher. His initial records were released during the
Great Depression, so failed to sell well. He seemingly disappeared for decades,
his records eventually becoming something of the ultimate treasure for
enthusiasts by time the blues revival occurred in the mid-20th century.
The search was soon on to find House, who was ‘rediscovered’ in 1964, and he
eventually agreed to relearn his old repertoire. Death Letter Blues became his
signature song, based around his earlier work My Black Mama part 2, which he recorded
in 1930. It’s a chilling song, telling the tale of a man notified of the death
of his lover.