It’s common knowledge, and fairly obvious to even those who don’t partake, that heavy metal formed out of rock music. It’s equally common knowledge that rock formed out of the blues. Go back to the earliest progenitors of rock n’ roll and their hits were more often than not simply sanitized blues numbers. The fact that the blues is heavy metal’s sonic grandparent is not lost on most fans and musicians of the genre. What is lost at times is what exactly made the blues a direct relative of a genre that spends countless hours exploring the darkest corners of humanity and the human psyche.
I was a History major in college. In my senior year I took a class on imperialism and when it came time to write my thesis I decided to focus on the cultural imperialism of white Europeans and Americans stealing the blues from black, predominantly American, musicians and claiming it as their own. In other words, the birth of rock n’ roll. Rock music was born from the raping of black culture, and while certain artists were quick to acknowledge on their albums who they were covering or borrowing sections of songs from, far too many were not as forthcoming. (Here’s looking at you Led Zeppelin.) Of course the best part about researching and writing this paper was my ability to spend hours listening to as much old blues music as I could get my hands on. My love for the genre grew exponentially from a passing fancy to something much deeper. I am still today touched by the blues in ways that few other genres can reach me.
Every so often I discuss music with people and come to the realization that they have no idea the history behind their favorite bands or genres. I’m not talking about who the engineer was on a record or how many bass players a certain band has had since forming. I’m, of course, talking about a knowledge of the music that laid the foundation for where we are today. This depresses me probably more than it should.
Therefore, what follows below is a quick guide to some of the greatest blues musicians and songs ever recorded. It is by no means a be-all-end-all discussion on the topic. It would be foolish to assume one could take on such an endeavor in a single blog post. Entire books have obviously been written on the subject of the blues. Hell, my thesis wound up being over 40 pages long and was going to be the start of my own book on the subject. (Until an unfortunate hard drive crash ended that dream shortly after the paper was turned in.) But nonetheless this is the perfect intro for someone who is unfamiliar with the blues and a great refresher for those who already are.
One last note, being heavy metal is my ultimate love, and being a ton of the music on this site skews metal, I decided to purposely focus on songs that should appeal to fellow metalheads. Whether it’s the subject matter, the lyrics themselves, or just an overall sinister vibe, many of these also happen to be some of the more nefarious tracks the genre had to offer.
Blind Willie Johnson – Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground (1927)
It was not uncommon for many early blues musicians to also be preachers or street evangelists, and Blind Willie Johnson was one of the most influential of the lot. Much like some of the great art to emerge out of the Renaissance and other periods, the darkest works were often done with religion in mind. Warnings about wayward lifestyles or poor life choices were often sung about with reverence for God, but also with an eye on the devil. Johnson’s gravelly voice and bottleneck slide guitar were hugely influential on so many levels, both within the blues world and without. While this song is predominantly an instrumental, Johnson’s moans and hums mimic the call-and-response style of many gospel numbers of the time, while giving the song an almost ghostly feel. The pain of his Earthly life, and the longing for the rewards of the next are palpable.
Charley Patton – Rattlesnake Blues (1929)
Unlike some genres blues does not generally trace its lineage to one particular artist. While most music historians credit Black Sabbath as being the godfathers of heavy metal, laying a similar claim on one particular blues musician is a little tougher. With that said, Charley Patton is often credited as being the “godfather of the Delta Blues”. He certainly wasn’t the first to play the blues, and wasn’t even the first to record for a label, but his distinct style of play and musical repertoire had a profound influence on the musical lineage that was to follow. This track in particular highlights some of his strengths – his commanding voice, his guitar work, and his ability to write truly catchy material. One listen and it’s hard to argue against Patton’s contributions to the rock, and in turn metal, worlds.
Skip James – Devil Got My Woman (1931)
Anyone who studies the blues will inevitably come across the “rediscovery” period of the early 1960s. This was when mostly white musicians and music historians began to uncover recordings and musicians that had been all but forgotten. This new interest in early blues recordings would be the catalyst for a massive new wave of rock and folk musicians. The two artists who were almost lost to the ages yet saved (and arguably exploited) that kicked off this revival period were Son House (who we’ll get to shortly) and Skip James. James recorded a number of tracks at the height of the Depression in 1931. Despite his obvious talents, any money normally spent on records was nonexistent at this point in American history. James considered his one try at being a professional musician a failure and went to work for his father’s church. But in 1960 his original recordings were uncovered by three blues enthusiasts and within a short period of time James went from obscure footnote to playing major folk festivals and recording several more albums before his death in 1969. This track in particular goes back to that theme mentioned earlier where James sings about the devil as a warning for those not living a pious life, and the influence the devil can have on anyone who allows him to. (Note: This track may also be familiar to anyone who has seen the 2001 film Ghost World.)
Lead Belly – Black Snake Moan (1935)
To say that Huddie Ledbetter, a.k.a. Lead Belly, was one of the most interesting characters in modern music history would be a massive understatement. Imprisoned for murdering one of his own relatives, Lead Belly literally sang his way to a gubernatorial pardon, only to be imprisoned again for stabbing another man during a fight (and then being stabbed in the throat by another prisoner while incarcerated). He was ‘discovered’ while in prison and upon his release started recording for folklorists John and Alan Lomax. Lead Belly would go on to write and record some of the most covered and copied songs in blues history. Oh, and he would wind up in prison at least one more time, headline the burgeoning folk circuit in New York City, become the first American country blues musician to have success in Europe, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contributions and influence. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This track was originally written by another blues legend, Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927. Lead Belly’s version is arguably the best. A lot of what Lead Belly wrote and recorded was political or social in nature giving us an interesting snapshot of his take on U.S. society at that point in time.
Robert Johnson – Me and the Devil Blues/Hellhound On My Trail (1937)
If I was absolutely forced to choose my all-time favorite blues musician I would most likely settle on Robert Johnson. Johnson’s story is often-told and filled with the kind of shadowy details that great legends are born from. It was Johnson that supposedly sold his soul to the devil at the “crossroads” in rural Mississippi. His untimely death at the age of 27 included an episode where Johnson was apparently foaming at the mouth and crawling around on all fours, further adding to his Faustian legend. (It’s now agreed upon by most music historians that Johnson was most likely poisoned after his final performance by a jilted lover or the husband of one.) While it was another blues musician of the time, Tommy Johnson (no relation) who is first credited with telling a story of selling his own soul for musical prowess, that legend has been successfully transferred to Robert Johnson, in part due to his quick proficiency with the guitar and his relative success at a fairly early age, not to mention his ultimate demise. Like all good legends there’s probably some nuggets of truth tucked away in there somewhere. But what can be confirmed is that Robert Johnson had no problem with writing songs that were some of the darkest and most menacing anyone had ever heard at that time. There’s a good reason why Johnson was the first blues musician inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and just as good reason why many metal musicians call him the first true link to the genre.
Bukka White – Fixin To Die Blues (1940)
One of the most underrated of the great Delta blues musicians, Bukka White has been covered by just about every rock and folk act who formed/recorded in the 1960s. Led Zeppelin pretty much stole two of White’s songs and Bob Dylan chose to cover this track on his debut album – an admittedly spirited performance. While the song itself is an upbeat, toe-tapping number, the lyrical content is anything but. Written while White was in prison after he had witnessed the death of a fellow inmate and took to wondering what a last man’s thoughts were before he finally perished. This song was his best guess. While not overtly morbid, the song’s brush with mortality is a stark reminder of life’s fleetingness.
Washboard Sam – She Belongs to the Devil (1941)
The story of Bob Dylan going electric and attempting to drag the folk scene with him is well documented. What’s less documented was the shift from acoustic to electric within the blues world over a decade earlier. As blues musicians started to leave the dance halls of the rural South for the bright lights of cities like Chicago a transformation within the genre was well under way. Country blues musicians were faced with a choice: adapt or be left behind. Washboard Sam was unfortunately one of those left behind but not before he recorded alongside some of the greatest blues musicians of all-time, including Memphis Slim and his half-brother Big Bill Broonzy. Washboard Sam wasn’t just a sideman though as he headlined his own sold out shows and recorded over 150 tracks before quitting music altogether in the late ’50s. This track is another that ties loose morals to the devilish one as Sam bemoans a childhood sweetheart who isn’t so sweet anymore.
Elmore James – Standing at the Crossroads (1954)
Out of all the musicians on this list there might not be any that metalheads should embrace as quickly as Elmore James. If for no other reason than the fact that he was one of the earliest to amplify his sound and he did so with gusto. Elmo (as he was affectionately called) liked it loud, real loud. He was also the “king of the slide guitar” and had a profound influence on an innumerable amount of guitar players, many of whom would lay the foundation for all things heavy to follow. Elmore James was, in turn, heavily influenced by Robert Johnson and this track is a reworking of the Johnson tune “Crossroads”. The track details a poor musician standing at those infamous crossroads bemoaning his life and choices that led him to this point. Could that choice include Johnson’s supposed deal with the devil? It’s more likely the song is about “women troubles” than anything more sinister, but it’s still fun to imagine. “Crossroads” has been covered about eight million times over the years, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better version than Elmo’s.
Muddy Waters – Mannish Boy (1955)
Is there a more famous blues musician in the history of the genre than Muddy Waters? Arguably not. Muddy got his start emulating other great country blues acts before moving from Mississippi to Chicago in the early 1940s. Over the years his band would include a veritable who’s who of Chicago blues – Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, etc. He’d also go on to work with several of the rock musicians he influenced throughout the ’60s and ’70s. He is a legend among mere mortals, and with good reasoning. You could quite literally chose from any of a hundred tracks that Muddy recorded to include here. I purposely chose this one because a) it’s one of his most recognizable numbers, and b) when he wanted to it could be one of his nastiest. Originally recorded all the way back in 1955, the version below comes off Muddy’s 1977 album, Hard Again. Not only is this version heavier than the original, but it shows that Muddy lost nothing in intensity over time. If anything he gained a hardened edge that only years of hard living, hard touring, and the blues could hone.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – I Put A Spell On You (1956)
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins was not your typical blues musician and this was not your typical blues number. Hawkins utilized wild, theatrical performances that included this pseudo-voodoo priest persona. Because of his onstage antics he’s often considered a pioneer of shock rock and everyone from Arthur Brown to Alice Cooper owes Hawkins some sort of debt. “I Put A Spell On You” was easily Hawkins’ most recognizable track and has been covered by artists as varied as Credence Clearwater Revival, Marilyn Manson, and Annie Lennox. The reasons for inclusion here are pretty obvious – the ominous lyrics, the sinister delivery, and Hawkins’ vocal prowess, just to name a few. Oh, and legend has it that this song was meant to be a ballad but Hawkins and his band recorded this version drunk out of their minds. When they woke the next day this is what they found on the tape. If that’s not rock n’ roll I don’t know what is.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Bring Me My Shotgun
Another in a long line of country blues musicians who were rediscovered in the ’60s, Lightnin’ Hopkins had more success early on than many of his contemporaries, yet by the end of the ’50s had been largely forgotten. He was eventually embraced by the Haight Ashbury crowd and would open shows for everyone from Jefferson Airplane to The Grateful Dead to Joan Baez. Hopkins seemed to play every song with a permanent sneer and even his more upbeat numbers had a snarl to them that even other blues musicians couldn’t replicate. This track is a perfect example of that ruthlessness with which he wrote and recorded. Originally written in the late ’40s this song wouldn’t gain true prominence within his catalog until his comeback in the 1960s. (Hence why we are including it here instead of in an earlier chronological spot.) Regardless of time frame, Hopkins remains one of the grittiest blues players ever to pick up a guitar and a huge influence on the rock world at large. (Quick aside, one listen to the lyrics and you’ll agree that this song could never, ever be written today for multiple reasons.)
Willie Dixon -I Ain’t Superstitious (1961)
The consummate sideman and one of the most important songwriters in the history of the genre, it goes without saying that Willie Dixon deserves his own spotlight. Everyone who was anyone in the Chicago blues scene recorded his songs – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Didley etc. To take it even further here’s a list of some folks you might have heard of who recorded Dixon songs for their own albums: Bob Dylan, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Steppenwolf, and The Rolling Stones. Honestly, that’s just the tip of an immense iceberg. Metal fans should instantly recognize this number as well thanks to thrash titans, Megadeth, covering it on one of their best albums. Dixon’s influence on the rock world is eye-opening to say the least, and there’s a good chance that even if you only recognize a handful of blues songs, Dixon probably wrote them.
Howlin’ Wolf – Killing Floor (1964)
If you asked me to pick one song, just one, as the singular greatest blues song of all-time it would be this one. I can’t tell you what it is about “Killing Floor” that slays me every time it comes on, but I can think of no other song that defines the sheer essence of the blues the way this one does. Chester Burnett, a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf is one of the genres most iconic figures. He was an imposing man, both literally and figuratively, and it was said that when the Wolf was on there was no one who could rock the house to the ground and scare the crap out of unsuspecting patrons all at the same time. This track is another one that has been covered a billion times over, yet never once has anyone come close to capturing what the Wolf set loose. A true masterwork of the genre if there ever was one.
Son House – Death Letter (1965)
I mentioned earlier that one of the artists that helped kick off the country blues revival of the 1960s was Son House. Although he did not gain any national recognition early on, he performed and recorded with Charley Patton and both Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters considered him an influence. Yet after a recording session in 1941, House would give up playing music professionally for over twenty years until he was found by a group of record collectors who proceeded to tell him about his music’s rediscovery. House had to relearn his entire repertoire just to play out again but it paid off as he wound up playing some of the biggest folk festivals of the late ’60s. In 1965 he recorded a group of tracks, many of which had been previously unreleased. “Death Letter” perfectly captures a period of the blues that would give birth to the electrified version of the genre and would in turn eventually begat all things rock related.
If you liked what you heard here I would encourage you to dig as further as you are willing to go into the history of the blues. You will not be disappointed. You can also here these and many other artists like them on a new radio show debuting on CygnusRadio.com on February 13 at 7 pm called Wrong Side of the Tracks Radio.