I recently built a pair of playlists that collect essential tracks from the first half-century of the blues. Intro to: Delta Blues covers the genre’s infancy, from its Southern roots in the early 1920s to the Second Great Migration. Intro to: Chicago Blues charts the postwar era, exploring how the blues evolved up north from the late 1940s to 1960s.
In honor of Black History Month, I’ve created this companion piece, selecting seven songs across both playlists that help tell the story of Delta and Chicago blues. Use it to enhance your journey through this culturally rich — and uniquely American — music.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 devastated the American south and displaced more than 700,000 people. Charley Patton chronicles the retreat to higher ground, moving from town to town in this harrowing story-song. “Lord, the whole round country, man, is overflowed / I would go to the hill country, but they got me barred,” he sings, a possible reference to black sharecroppers held in Greenville, Mississippi by their landowners. By the time Patton reaches Blytheville, Arkansas in the song’s second part, the situation has become dire: “High water was rising, our men sinking down / It was fifty men and children come to sink and drown.”
Geeshie Wiley — “Last Kind Words Blues” (1930)
Little is known about Geeshie Wiley other than the six songs she left behind. Of them, “Last Kind Words Blues” — an enigmatic meditation on family and death — is the best-known. In this piece of Southern poetry, a father prepares his last wishes before heading off to fight in World War I. Later, the narrator (Wiley? Her mother?) searches in vain for the man before staring across the Mississippi river. Wiley’s performance is no less haunting than the lyrics themselves. She exudes a deep pain as she sings and plucks a somber country blues pattern. Absolutely spellbinding.
Bukka White — “Parchman Farm Blues” (1940)
The blues is all about sorrow, and few places inspired more of it than the Mississippi State Penitentiary, nicknamed “Parchman Farm.” For much of the 20th century, inmates at the prison performed hard labor under the “trusty” system, whereby designated convicts presided over and administered physical punishment to their fellow men.
Bukka White served two-and-a-half years at Parchman Farm for a shooting. He recorded “Parchman Farm Blues” upon his release in 1940. Noticeably bleaker than his previous work, the song offers a stern warning to potential offenders: “Oh listen you men, I don’t mean no harm / If you want to do good, you better stay off old Parchman Farm / We got to work in the morning, just at dawn of day / Just at the setting of the sun, that’s when the work is done.” White delivers it over a single chord in his guttural (and gut-wrenching) baritone.
Elmore James — “Dust My Broom” (1951)
It happens to be one of my all-time favorite recordings, but Elmore James‘s cover of “Dust My Broom” also marks an unofficial turning point in blues history. With his scorched guitar playing and howling vocals, James redefined a Robert Johnson classic and formalized a passing of the torch from Delta visionaries to a new generation of electric bluesman. Though recorded in Mississippi, the song employs the boogie rhythm and amplified instrumentation favored by James’s Windy City contemporaries. James would eventually join his peers in Chicago and release several more choice cuts, but none surpassed the three minutes of absolute fire he pressed to wax here.
Little Walter — “Juke” (1952)
Think of your favorite blues musician in action. What are they playing? If your answer is “the guitar,” I wouldn’t blame you. But when I think of blues virtuosity, I think of Little Walter, the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica. The first person to run the little harp through an amplifier (years before distortion went mainstream), Walter shattered expectations and brought the instrument into the modern era. Just listen to him wail on “Juke,” one of his signature tunes. Walter’s warbled soloing and sustained, high-pitched screams inspired an entire generation of Chicago greats, including Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield.
Muddy Waters — “Mannish Boy” (1955)
Most people don’t think of “Mannish Boy” as a diss track, but Muddy Waters threw plenty of shade in Bo Diddley‘s direction with his 1955 anthem. Let’s back up: a year earlier, Waters released the swaggering, sexually-charged “Hoochie Coochie Man.” It was a game-changer for Chicago blues and became Waters’s best-selling song. So when Bo Diddley dropped “I’m a Man” the following year, Waters must have been none too pleased. In both sound (that stop-time riff) and lyrical style (boastful, ribald), Diddley had mimicked “Hoochie Coochie Man” to create a number-one hit of his own. A month later, Waters responded with a third soundalike, “Mannish Boy.” Its title and lyrics taunted Diddley for his younger age: “I’m a man / I spell M / A, child / N / That represent man / No B / O, child / Y / That spell mannish boy / I’m a man / I’m a full-grown man.” Sick burn, Muddy.
Willie Dixon — “Spoonful” (1970)
Even if you’ve never heard of Willie Dixon, you’ve definitely heard his music. As a jack-of-all-trades for Chess Records during the 1950s and early 1960s, the Mississippi transplant almost single-handedly wrote the Chicago blues canon. “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You” are all Dixon compositions brought to life by artists like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. This 1970 recording of Dixon performing his song “Spoonful” gives the man himself a voice. Much like Wolf’s famous interpretation, it shuffles along in the shadows.