This list will introduce you to some of the best old blues songs of all time.
From tales of love woes to songs about the civil rights movement, the blues songs featured in this article will leave you with a new appreciation of the genre.
Some of the tracks included have roots as far back as the 1600s, and some are still being covered by artists performing today, such as Eric Clapton and The White Stripes.
Here are some classic blues songs that are guaranteed to move your soul.
29. Five Long Years – Eddie Boyd
Written in 1952 by pianist Eddie Boyd, ‘Five Long Years’ has retained its universal appeal as a blues standard. Boyd’s song expresses how despite working hard and waiting for five years, the woman he loves is not interested and kicks him out.
He later claims that his next woman will have to have two jobs to bring home some “dough” as he has now learnt his lesson.
Although considered a classic and a joy to listen to musically, the lyrics offer much to be desired and are much of their time. You will certainly appreciate the music, but contemporary audiences may not be too impressed with the sentiment of the lyrics.
28. Baby Please Don’t Go – Big Joe Williams
Covered by multiple blues icons such as Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ is a simple song that sees Big Joe Williams pleading with his lover. The track became one of the most popular blues songs of all time and was famed for using a nine-string guitar accompanied by a one-string fiddle.
‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ is now considered being described as “one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history.” The track had an immense influence on rock and roll with bands such as Aerosmith and AC/DC having a crack at it.
27. Cross Road Blues – Robert Johnson
This track teases the idea of the singer selling his soul. Hidden under the pretence of trying to hitch a ride, the song has become part of the Robert Johnson mythology where he supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents.
Featuring intense slide guitar sounds, ‘Cross Road Blues’ fuels the mysteries that surround the blues and has been covered multiple times, notably by Eric Clapton with Cream. A legendary old blues song.
26. House of the Rising Sun – Odetta
‘House of the Rising Sun’ tells the tale of a life going astray in New Orleans, with the song concluding on an urge to protect your children from the same fate. The tragedy comes from the inevitability. Knowing you shouldn’t do something, but also knowing that you will.
Although most will be familiar with the Animal’s version of the track, blues singer Odetta created a deeply emotional rendition of the track. Its slower pace paired with Odetta’s wailing voice gives the story a much more sinister overtone.
There is some speculation about how far back the track goes with some suggesting it has a similarity to the 16th-century ballad “The Unfortunate Rake,” though there is no solid connection.
25. Boogie Chillen’ – John Lee Hooker
In John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen’,’ the only sounds you can hear are his guitar, his voice, and stomping feet. Hooker is the only musician to play on the track, contributing to the blues singer’s minimalist aesthetic.
‘Boogie Chillen’’ has become a delta blues (one of the earliest known styles of blues) classic and has become a firm favourite amongst other bluesmen. It has even crossed genres with rock legends Led Zeppelin including it in a 1969 medley.
24. Me And The Devil Blues – Robert Johnson
‘Me And The Devil Blues’ is another addition to the mythology surrounding Robert Johnson. In this track, Johnson tells a fable about Satan calling in a debt by turning up at his door and telling him “it’s time to go.”
The bluesman died in mysterious circumstances soon after the record was made, further adding to his legacy. ‘Me And The Devil Blues’ became an iconic work for other musicians being covered by artists such as Eric Clapton and the Peter Green Splinter Group.
23. Born Under a Bad Sign – Albert King
The phrase ‘born under a bad sign’ comes from astrology. If you’re ‘born under a bad sign,’ it means that the stars are aligned against you from birth. The phrase was popularised by King’s song of the same name and is the blues singer’s most notable track.
Albert King, also known as “The Velvet Bulldozer,” had a distinctive approach to rock and the blues and is thought to have influenced Jimi Hendrix’s career as the rock legend covered the classic blues song.
22. Call It Stormy Monday – T-Bone Walker
T-Bone Walker’s ‘Call It Stormy Monday’ has been covered by hundreds of artists, and for good reason. This old blues song helped popularise the electric guitar and even inspired B.B. King to take up the instrument.
Although the track title focuses on Monday, Walker expresses the week-long torment he endures while he waits for the girl he loves to return – “They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday’s just as bad.”
21. Get Back – Big Bill Broonzy
Big Bill Broonzy was one of the most important pre-World War II blues singers. Not only did he record a huge discography, but Broonzy also spoke of civil rights and inspired multiple younger artists such as Muddy Waters.
‘Get Back’ is one of the bluesman’s protest songs and addresses the experiences of war vets and the treatment they received based on their skin colour. This track encapsulates what it meant to be a black man of this era and how disgustingly people were treated.
20. The Sky Is Crying – Elmore James
‘The Sky Is Crying’ is one of Elmore James’ most durable compositions, becoming a chart success. It has been covered by several artists over the years.
The simple lyrics of the track express how the heavens have opened and it’s raining, inferring the sunshine has ended and taken all the happiness with it. The sunshine and rain symbolise the love and love lost for James, saying that now the sky is crying, “my baby don’t love me no more.”
19. Death Don’t Have No Mercy – Rev. Gary Davis
Introduced with a pensive guitar riff, Rev. Gary Davis discusses death claiming no matter who you are, where you are, how happy or sad you are, death may and will come and he won’t “give you time to get ready.”
In 1972, David performed one last rendition of the blues song before his death. Despite his weakened state after suffering a heart attack, the singer summoned all his energy for his last intense, poignant performance.
18. Hell Hound On My Trail – Robert Johnson
With a popular cover by Fleetwood Mac under its belt, ‘Hell Hound On My Trail’ is the definition of an authentic blues song. Johnson wails as though he has been possessed, adding to the strange aura the song captures.
In the song, Johnson states he’s “sprinkled hot foot powder” around himself and others, a bit of hoodoo folk magic believed to drive unwanted people away. The bluesman fabricates an easy atmosphere in ‘Hell Hound,’ implying that wherever he goes, the hound will know.
17. I’m Tore Down – Freddy King
Despite the upbeat nature of the track, ‘I’m Tore Down’ tells the story of a love Freddy King feels is unreciprocated. He is totally under his lover’s spell and will do whatever she asks, whenever she asks. The song was a Top five US hit and highlights King’s vocal ability and guitar expression.
Eric Clapton recorded a cover of the blues track for his 1994 blues tribute album From The Cradle which he has performed live several times throughout his career.
16. Spoonful – Howlin’ Wolf
Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’ delivers a spiteful sound, a unique quality in blues music. While many blues tracks bring a woeful delivery, Wolf’s hostile vocals make the track feel vengeful and sinister. The lyrics in ‘Spoonful’ imply man’s fierce quest to satisfy their hunger for all things pleasurable from love to drugs.
Written by Willie Dixon and recorded in 1960, the track has had a profound impact on blues and later in rock thanks to its distinctive sound. Rock-blues band Cream famously performed a 16-minute version of the song in 1968.
15. Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground – Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie Johnson lost his sight after his mother threw lye in his face when he was seven years old. Despite the challenging upbringing he endured, Johnson believed he was destined to preach the gospel blues.
‘Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground’ is a sorrowful instrumental written and performed solely by Johnson. Although there are no lyrics, I urge you to listen to the singer’s humming while pondering the song’s title. It will fabricate a story in your mind without the need for any influence from the musician.
14. I Got The Blues – the Rolling Stones
‘I Got The Blues’ is not one of the Rolling Stones’ most famous songs but if you’re a fan of the group and the blues, I highly recommend giving it a go.
Mick Jagger wrote the song after his breakup with Marianne Faithfull, expressing his pain while wishing his former lover well. This Stones track features an array of instruments including a saxophone, trumpet, and organ, backed by a horn arrangement.
13. I Can’t Quit You Baby – Otis Rush
Another blues track written by Willie Dixon, ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ tells the tale of a turbulent, adulterous relationship set against a dragging twelve-bar blues. Dixon’s lyrics express the need to get away from the woman he loves, conflicting with the struggle to do so.
The track was Otis Rush’s debut single released through Cobra Records and soon became a blues standard. Led Zeppelin produced a rearrangement of the track, keeping many of Rush’s solo licks. I recommend giving both versions a listen.
12. Stone Crazy – Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy’s ‘Stone Crazy’ shows off the bluesman’s vocal finesse. Each line of this classic old blues song is delivered with passion and anguish.
Guy’s ability to howl the words is a theme he carries on through his other works. After each sun line, ‘Stone Crazy’ is followed by a wailing guitar, a call-and-response technique used in many classic blues tracks.
11. Smokestack Lightning – Howlin’ Wolf
‘Smokestack Lightning’ was inspired by watching trains at night. Howlin’ Wolf said he and his friends would watch the “sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.”
Described as a “hypnotic one-chord drone piece,” ‘Smokestack Lightning’ shows how blues and poetry are closer relations than you may think. Wolf takes the image of the trains following in and out of town and transforms it into a work of art, courtesy of the singer’s gravelly voice.
Blues mega-fan Eric Clapton, with the Yardbirds, performed a notable version of the track – a recording that Wolf himself praised.
10. It Hurts Me Too – Elmore James
‘It Hurts Me Too’ has become a blues standard over the years and is now one of the most covered blues songs of all time. Although first recorded by Tampa Red and many others following, Elmore James’ version is the one that is most familiar amongst casual blues fans.
‘It Hurts Me Too’ is one of the most heartfelt blues ballads, borrowing elements from earlier blues songs. The track spent eight weeks on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles Chart and appeared on the Billboard Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles Chart. Every version that has succeeded in James’ version has captured an element of his recording within their own.
9. Dimples – John Lee Hooker
Coming in at just over two minutes, John Lee Hooker’s ‘Dimples’ is a prime example of blues minimalism. Throughout the track, Hooker repeats the same lines and phrases, emphasising his candour in everything he says. He discusses the way she walks, the way she “switches,” and, of course, her dimples.
‘Dimples’ is one of John Lee Hooker’s most covered songs, notably revised by Lobos and Van Morrison, though neither can quite match the original’s truthfulness and enchanting rhythm.
8. Have You Ever Loved a Woman – Freddie King
‘Have You Ever Loved a Woman’ is a classic blues song recorded by Freddy King, and written by Billy Myles, in 1960. This blues track features the classic 12-bar blues with the instrumentation being dragged sleepily through the melody. King performs a guitar solo in the centre of the song, accompanied by a piano, bass, and drums.
The simple track tells the tale of a man who finds himself desperately in love with his best friend’s wife. King concludes on the line “But there’s something deep inside a-you Won’t let you wreck yo best friend’s home.” Despite his yearning, he would not do anything to jeopardise his friends’ marriage.
7. The Sky is Crying – Stevie Ray Vaughn
‘The Sky is Crying’ was originally written and performed by Elmore James in 1959. It was later recorded in 1969 by Albert King however, the most moving performance – in my opinion – is Stevie Ray Vaughn’s rendition. Vaughn played the track regularly as a tribute to King.
The simple lyrics of ‘The Sky is Crying’ tells the story of a man who has recently lost his lover. His devastation manifests itself as a downpour causing the sky to cry, tears rolling down the street and “down my nose.”
6. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
‘Strange Fruit’ was originally a poem written in protest of lynching. Writer Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish teacher, wrote the song in response to the injustices he witnessed. The term ‘Strange Fruit’ comes from an image Meeropol saw of two black men hanging from a tree after being lynched in 1930.
The iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday’s melancholy voice brought deep emotion to the poem and the song was released in 1939. Many have attributed the song to kick start the civil rights movement.
Although Holiday’s original is the most haunting, I also recommend listening to Nina Simone’s 1965 cover. Powerful stuff.
5. Trouble In Mind – Bertha Hill
The most well-known verse in ‘Trouble In Mind’ expresses an idea of hope, that no matter how bad things may seem right now, “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”
Hidden behind this popular section of the song is a much darker premise. Writer Richard M. Jones makes a suggestion of suicide claiming “I’m gonna lay my head on the lonesome railroad line.”
It is thought that ‘Trouble In Mind’ originates from as early as the 1800s, with two spiritual songs of similar names published in song books from in 1887 and 1900 respectively. Throughout its years of existence, the song has gone through multiple rewrites and is popular most amongst female blues singers.
4. Death Letter Blues – Son House
‘Death Letter Blues’ is considered by many to be delta bluesman Son House’s magnum opus. The tale of the track, as indicated by the title, is not a merry one. A man learns about the death of the woman he loves through a letter. Upon viewing her body and attending the funeral, he falls into a depression.
‘Death Letter Blues’ has been covered and recorded by several artists such as Grateful Dead and The White Stripes, keeping this melancholy ballad relevant still today.
3. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out – Bessie Smith
‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ conveys the idea that when your fortune has run dry, does anyone want to know you anymore? Those who you may have considered to have a vital role in your life may simply disappear when you can no longer be useful to them. =
The feeling of falling on hard times is something that most, if not all, of us have experienced, or will experience, at some point in our lives. This familiar notion is what carries this song effortlessly through contemporary audiences, still being performed by new and experienced artists alike. No wonder Bessie Smith was dubbed the “Empress of the Blues.”
2. I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James
Etta James’ heartfelt performance of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ has enraptured listeners since its recording in 1967 with artists from all across the genre spectrum covering it – Paul Weller, Beyoncé, and Rod Stewart to name just three.
The song gives a voice to the feeling of fresh heartbreak. James has just spotted her partner looking a little bit too cosy with someone else. Before anything has been officially confirmed, the singer has assumed foul play and claims she would rather lose her sight than lose her man. No man is worth that!
1. The Thrill Is Gone – BB King
‘The Thrill Is Gone’ was not originally by BB King. The blues standard was written by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell in 1951 and saw some success. However, it wasn’t until King came along that the track would become one of the most recognised blues songs of all time.
The track is about moving on from an old love that has gone awry. Although simple in its message, ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ delivers a power punch of blues goodness that only King himself can do justice.
You may think that BB King lived and breathed this song as naturally as air but it actually took several recordings before they found a sweet spot. It was the final addition of strings that tied this classic old blues song together.
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