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Blues Music History Music

Various Artists, Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith (Smithsonian, 1997)

Originally released in 1952 as a six LP set of dubious legality, Smith's multidisc collection remains, without a doubt, the greatest document of America's traditional music. Nothing else even comes close. For an idea of just how deep a heritage country continues to draw on, the Anthology is absolutely essential. The full 84-song collection includes a staggering variety of hillbilly, gospel, Cajun, and blues and showcases classic performers from musicians running full gamut from the lost to the legendary.

Various Artists, The Sun Records Collection (Rhino, 1994)

Few times and places in the history of American popular music could have been as interesting as the heyday of Sam Phillips's seminal record label, Sun. Phillips was a huge fan of African-American music and a prophet of the rock and roll revolution. He played a key role in the early careers of bluesmen B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, and his label introduced the world to Elvis Presley. In the middle of the twentieth century the histories of blues, rock, and country all converged at Sun to produce some hugely influential records, and it's all here.

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 1990)

Robert Johnson only recorded 29 songs and a few alternate takes, and his corpus gets re-packaged and reissued just about every year now. The 1990 version is listed here because it was the first comprehensive package on CD, and it became the biggest surprise success album of 1990. The quality is high and the songs, chilling—essential listening.

Muddy Waters, At Newport (MCA / Chess, 1960)

This was a breakthrough moment in blues history. Muddy brought his Chicago Delta sound full force to a whole new audience at the Newport festival of 1960. Includes great takes on "Got My Mojo Working" and Big Bill Broonzy's "Feel So Good." This was Muddy at the peak of his powers.

Charley Patton, Best of Charlie Patton (Yazoo, 2003)

There are countless Patton compilations out now, but this one includes all of his seminal tracks and is fine beginning to any blues collection. Hear the original "King of the Delta Blues" 80 years later, and be thankful these tunes were captured.

Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues (Allegro, 2001)

This is the place to start with either Bessie Smith in particular or the classic blues in general. There's a brilliant version of "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and enough of the early standards to get a good feel for the strong ties between classic blues and jazz.

Various Artists, Country Negro Jam Sessions (Arhoolie, 1961)

These are the collected home recordings of the musicologist Harry Oster, capturing southwest Louisiana-based blues singers in the 1950s and '60s. Plenty of traditional numbers and a few great cuts performed by Robert Pete Williams, who was serving a murder sentence at Angola State Prison when he was recorded.

Various Artists, Great Tomato Blues Package (Tomato, 1989)

This two disc set seems to be premised on an expansive idea of the blues. The downside is that it can be a little bewildering in its lack of context and juxtaposition of wildly different styles. The upside is that the random approach actually does a fantastic job of conveying what the blues can be—which is not necessarily an easy thing to articulate. From rural folk to Chicago grooves to R&B and jazz blues, the offerings are kaleidoscopic.

Another dual disc set, this one on the opposite end of the spectrum from the slapdash bargain by Tomato. Smithsonian Folkways serves up two discs of well chosen and amply documented blues recorded between about 1940 and 1990 for the archive. The fact that the project originally targeted the folk revival market gives it a bit of a slant in that direction, so there's not much here in the way of the electric blues.

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (Atlantic, 1969)

The zenith of heavy British blues rock, Led Zeppelin concluded the decade of the British Invasion with their jaw-dropping debut. Jimmy Page's guitar work is psychedelic and huge while remaining clearly rooted in the blues. Later rockers who might not be steeped in the traditional blues were still likely to be steeped in Zeppelin, which is strangely similar.

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