Hearing the Blues

The only way to understand the blues is to listen. So we asked six insiders to point the way.

What is the blues?

Blues afficianadoes and blues musicians often answer the question in poetic fashion. Bruce Iglauer, the founder and owner of Alligator Records, one of the country's most important independent blues labels, says it's "secular music that speaks of the here and now, not of heaven to come."

"Emotionally, blues is healing music. It was designed to make oppressed people feel better. But the magic of the blues is that it isn't just about African-Americans, but about people everywhere. Its tension-and-release form is designed to wring out the emotions, cleanse the soul, and make the audience feel whole -- like gospel music, but without the religon," Iglauer says. "As we say in Chicago, you listen to the blues to get rid of the blues." And, at an essential level, you need to listen to the blues to really understand the blues. No description, however poetic, can suffice.

So, with that in mind, we asked Iglauer and other blues historians, record industry insiders, musicians, and music journalists for a little guidance -- we asked them for a list of ten (or so) definitive recordings which can provide listeners with a window into the heart of the blues.

All audio samples, provided via Amazon.com, are in Real Audio format. To get the Real Audio player or plugin, click here.

David Hajdu, author of two award-winning books, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn and Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina.

Louis Armstrong -- West End Blues
Sleepy John Estes -- Some Day, Baby (a.k.a., Worried Life Blues)
Mississippi John Hurt -- Candy Man
Blind Lemon Jefferson -- The Black Snake Moan
Robert Johnson -- Crossroads
B.B. King -- Sweet Little Angel
Ma Rainey -- Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Jimmie Rodgers -- TB Blues
Bessie Smith -- St. Louis Blues
Muddy Waters -- Mannish Boy

Bruce Iglauer, founder and owner of Alligator Records.

Tommy Johnson -- Cool Drink Of Water Blues
Skip James -- Devil Got My Woman
Elmore James -- Something Inside Me
Sonny Boy Williamson -- Cross Your Heart
Otis Spann -- The Hard Way
Big Walter Horton -- Trouble In Mind
Albert Collins -- Blue Monday Hangover
Irma Thomas -- It's Raining
Otis Rush -- Three Times A Fool
Magic Sam -- That's Why I'm Crying

Chris Thomas King, innovative Grammy Award-winning blues musician and actor who played the role of blues legend Tommy Johnson in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Chris Thomas King -- 21st Century Blues and Hard Time Killing Floor
Jimi Hendrix -- Red House
Robert Johnson -- Crossroads
Muddy Waters -- Mannish Boy
BB King -- Thrill is Gone
Robert Cray -- Strong Persuader (Right Next Door)
Freddy King -- Hide Away
Johnny Guitar Watson -- Ain't That A Bitch
Billy Holiday -- Strange Fruit

Bob Koester, owner of Delmark records and the Jazz Record Mart.

Bessie Smith -- Long Old Road
Ma Rainey -- See See Rider
Chippie Hill -- Trouble in Mind
Leroy Carr -- How Long Blues
Sleepy John Estes -- Rats in My Kitchen
Walter Davis -- No Place to Go
Roosevelt Sykes -- Dog in a Man
Big Bill Broonzy -- Just a Dream
Jazz Gillum -- Key to the Highway
Sonny Boy Williamson -- Your Funeral and My Trial

Brett Bonner, staff writer, Living Blues Magazine.

Robert Petway -- Catfish Blues
Ted Taylor -- I'm Just A Crumb In Your Bread Box Of Love
Son House -- Death Letter
Otha Turner & The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band -- Granny Does Your Dog Bite
Floyd & Moody Jones with Snooky Pryor -- Stockyard Blues
ZZ Hill -- Shade Tree Mechanic
Johnny Shines -- Glad Rags
Mississippi Fred McDowell -- Write Me a Few Lines
Frankie Lee Sims -- Lucy Mae Blues
Skip James -- Cyprus Grove Blues
Junior Kimbrough -- All Night Long

Honeyboy Edwards, blues musician. (Michael Frank, Edwards' manager, says the 88-year-old musician "does not listen to records, but in his youth he encountered all these musicians, played with them, knew all of them and does some of their songs.")

Big Joe Williams -- various Delmark recordings
Tommy Johnson -- Complete Recorded Works
Tommy McLennan -- 1997 Bluebird Recordings
Robert Petway -- Guitar King
Willie Brown -- Library of Congress Recordings
Howlin' Wolf -- Moanin' in the Moonlight
Sonny Boy Williamson -- Down and Out Blues
Big Walter Horton -- Fine Cuts
Magic Sam -- With a Feeling
Roosevelt Sykes -- Hard Drivin' Blues
Sunnyland Slim -- House Rent Party and Be Careful How You Vote
Robert Nighthawk -- Bricks In My Pillow

All audio samples provided via Amazon.com