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