From blue to new – how the blues invented a century of music, in 20 songs and albums

In Partnership with Netflix 

SONG: Robert Johnson – Crossroad Blues (1937)

What it did: Popularised Johnson’s great creation myth – that his fame was the result of a deal made with the Devil at a rural crossroads.

What came next: Johnson died at 27, cementing his Faustian pact in rock history, crystallising the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is the Devil’s music and founding the so-called ‘27 Club’ of genius musicians lost far, far too young.

SONG: Lead Belly/Nirvana – Where Did You Sleep Last Night (1944/1994)

Lead Belly (Getty)

What it did: Lead Belly’s 1939 recording of this tragic blues song – which he frequently called ‘Black Girl’ – combined two traditional blues songs dating back to the 1870s, showing how blues itself is rooted in folk traditions.

What came next: Kurt Cobain picked the track for Nirvana’s beloved MTV Unplugged set, and their raw performance laid bare the arteries between the blues and subsequent iterations of rock music.

SONG: Elmore James – Dust My Broom (1951)

Elmore James (Getty)

What it did: Originally written by Robert Johnson (see ‘Cross Road Blues’, above) under the name ‘I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom’, Elmore James’s version (credited as Elmo James) added a boogie rhythm and slide guitar – and was a watershed moment in the electrification and amping up of the blues sound.

What came next: Considered the quintessential blues riff, it’s the one that Brian Jones was playing when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards first saw him perform. The Rolling Stones were born in that moment.

ALBUM: Etta James – At Last! (1960)

Etta James (Getty)

What it did: As you’ll see in Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, women were at the centre of the ‘urban blues’ scene that stormed the cities in the 1920s and 30s. They were, however, quickly sidelined. The incomparable Etta James was one of a too-small number of female artists who squeezed past the gatekeepers.

What came next: The album has some pretty high-profile fans: Queen Bey herself recorded a version of the track ‘All I Could Do Was Cry’.

ALBUM: Robert Johnson – King Of The Delta Blues Singers (1961)

What it did: Released on the Columbia label in 1961, this compilation collected tracks little known outside of the American south and southwest, where they were originally released as 78RPM records. In doing so, it brought mass attention to an artist whose blues were painfully real.

What came next: The subsequent emergence of the folk rock scene in New York, combining acoustic guitars with beat poetry, was not coincidental.

SONG: Freddie King – I’m Tore Down (1961)

Freddie King (Getty)

What it did: Though unrelated-by-blood, Freddie King, BB King and Albert King were known as the ‘Three Kings of the Blues Guitar’, amping up their instruments and thus playing louder and harder than the generations before.

What came next: Tracks like ‘I’m Tore Down’ (credited to Freddy King, with a ‘y’) paved the way for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, who would make the guitar into a tool of raw expression.

ALBUM: BB King – Live At The Regal (1965)

BB King (Getty)

What it did: Recorded at Chicago’s Regal Theatre, this live album by another of the blues music’s Three Kings showed the wave of new blues aficionados across the world what it was like to hear an old master at work.

What came next: You can find the record in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in the United States, such is its influence and importance.

ALBUM: Junior Wells – Hoodoo Man Blues (1965)

Junior Wells (right) with Buddy Guy (Getty)

What it did: The move from singles to albums in the 1960s looked set to leave the blues – a genre powered by singles and often best enjoyed live – behind. The solution? Live albums. This one, capturing the smoky, electric atmosphere of a Chicago blues club, is the essential one.

What came next: Blues artists rolled with the idea of putting out longform, conceptual studio  albums, spearheaded by the likes of Santana, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

ALBUM: John Mayall With Eric Clapton – Blues Breakers (1966)

John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton (Getty)

What it did: Took blues standards and coated them in the filth and scuzz of London contemporaries The Kinks, The Who and The Stones. The not-so-secret weapon was virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton.

What came next: White boys in bands, for (possibly too many) decades.

ALBUM: Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign (1967)

Albert King (Getty)

What it did: Its 11 tracks of electric blues were, effectively, a manifesto for blues rock.

What came next: The likes of Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, guitar greats one and all.

SONG: Jimi Hendrix – Hey Joe (1967)

Jimi Hendrix (Getty)

What it did: No one quite knows who wrote this blues standard, about a jilted lover hellbent on revenge, but Jimi’s hard-edged version is the best.

What came next: Jimi Hendrix found huge success, particularly in the UK. The reverence for his virtuoso guitar playing inspired generations of frenetic fretboard fiddlers to attempt the same.

SONG: The Rolling Stones – Love In Vain (1969)

The Rolling Stones in 1969 (Getty)

What it did: They added a slide guitar solo to a Robert Johnson song and released it in their annus horribilis – 1969 saw the death of blues-loving band founder Brian Jones, and the riots and multiple fatalities at their doomed show at California’s Altamont Speedway.

What came next: The Stones continued to explore and exploit their bluesy roots with the double album ‘Exile On Main Street’ (1972), written while exiled in France with the don’t-wanna-pay-my-taxes blues.

SONG: Neil Young – Down By The River (1969)

Neil Young (Getty)

What it did: More blending of the genres, this time by Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young, whose tale of a broken relationship turning to murderous heartbreak was scrappy, raspy and felt. It showed that the blues requires emotion, not virtuosity.

What came next: That scrappiness of playing and rawness of feel was seized on by a generation of grunge artists two decades later, a period which saw Young rechristened ‘The Grungefather’.

SONG: Led Zeppelin – When the Levee Breaks (1971)

Led Zeppelin (Getty)

What it did: The heavy rock group were unfeasibly huge all over the world when they released their untitled fourth album. This closing track – first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 – showed where their roots were buried.

What came next: Led Zep’s work was the foundation of heavy metal, which over the next few decades would become a musical monster in its own right.

ALBUM: Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood (1983)

Stevie Ray Vaughan (Getty)

What it did: Arguably the greatest guitarist of his generation, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s archetypal blues-rock kept the blood pumping through the veins of the blues genre in a decade known for its glossy pop music, dance music and hip hop.

What came next: YouTube videos of four-year-old kids playing Stevie Ray Vaughan solos far better than you ever could dream of.

ALBUM: NWA – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

NWA (Getty)

What it did: You probably wouldn’t have found it in the ‘blues’ section of your local HMV, but rap’s great leap towards hard-edged expression of real life on the streets, typified by NWA’s debut, placed stock in realism and hardship. That’s the blues.

What came next: Hip hop music, born in underground black culture, is the dominant force in mainstream pop culture worldwide.

ALBUM: The White Stripes – White Blood Cells (2001)

The White Stripes (Getty)

What it did: Like the Chicago of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the Great Lakes city of Detroit was another epicentre of urban blues in the 1920s and 30s. Decades later, the city had seen boom and bust – and it was via a scrappy, brash version of the blues that a generation of bands, living like cockroaches in the abandoned ruins of the city, expressed themselves.

What came next: The White Stripes – along with The Strokes, Kings Of Leon et al – ushered in another guitar-y boom era. Jack White continues to pay his dues as a dedicated custodian of the blues.

SONG: Kanye West – All Falls Down (2004)

Kanye West (Getty)

What it did: Kanye’s a master forager of the blues, jazz, gospel and soul. You suspect his forebears would approve of this landmark track about black oppression.

What came next: Kanye’s prodigious sampling, making modern art of original blues, gospel, soul and jazz recordings, connects hip hop to the mains.

SONG: Amy Winehouse – Back To Black (2006)

What it did: Vocalised the emotions of a brilliant but troubled young woman in a song so elegant and catchy it’s already become a modern standard.

What came next: Winehouse shouted about her love of jazz and blues, and made the genres accessible for a new generation, particularly – but not just – a new generation of female artists.

SONG: Gary Clark Jr – This Land (2019)

Gary Clark Jr (Getty)

What it did: The influence of the blues can be seen in most genres of modern music, but there are contemporary artists working in a ‘pure’ form of the genre. Austin’s Gary Clark junior, a blues-rocker, captured the mood of a nation in this protest against Trump-era intolerance.

What came next: Clark won a Grammy for the attendant album. Given how 2020 has panned out, we might expect a boom in blues music in ’21…

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix now