Drinking, Fighting, and Fucking: Lessons in the Real Folk Blues

It’s no secret that I’m a huge blues fan. An argument could be made that the blues, as a genre, is at the core of all modern Western popular music, from jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and country, right up to dubstep and digital hardcore. But that’s not why I love it. There are so many things about it that appeal to me it’s hard to know where to start. It’s a music that has remained vital, emotionally and spiritually, for more than a century, maintaining both a strong connection to its roots and originating forms, and at the same time embracing new styles and techniques. Charlie Patton, who died in 1934 somewhere in his forties (nobody knows for sure how old he was), could rise from the dead and would be able to hear catl or The Black Keys and not only understand their music, but recognize it as his own.

The prevailing stereotype, which derives largely from ’60s revivalist fans, is that it is a music of hardship and despair, sounding all too often like a cheap knockoff of Muddy Waters’ spectacular “Mannish Boy” (a song full of raw sexual energy and the irony of a grown man gently mocking the näiveté of his younger, more cocksure self, and an answer song to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” itself written in response to Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”). These stereotypes certainly ring true in particular corners of the blues world, but only if one listens uncritically.

The blues is also a music of spiritual revelation, of race and class struggles, of love and sex and a whisky-throated howl from the back of a juke-joint on a hot Saturday night. It is also a music of honesty and reflection. Rock ‘n’ roll, the most famous of the blues’ bastard-children (and really, originally just a name made up to trick white people into buying R&B records), is about ego. Rock ‘n’ roll cries out, look how great I am, and says I love you because you are beautiful, because you’re perfect, and sometimes, I can’t believe you would hurt me. The blues won’t tell you these lies. The blues understands atonement. For every blues song saying you’ve done me wrong, there is one that says I know that I’ve done wrong. It asks for forgiveness, knowing it doesn’t deserve any. The blues says you aren’t that pretty, but neither am I; you can be spiteful and I can be cruel, but I love you anyway, and I’m asking you to love me too. The blues knows you aren’t perfect, and it doesn’t give a shit, as long as you tell the truth, even when it’s hard. Maybe especially when it’s hard. The blues is honest, and it’s raw.

If you know the blues mostly from artists like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, then I’m about to blow your mind. They are great performers, well-liked and respected for good reason. But they are slick and polished in a way that I think doesn’t reflect the core of the genre, or the power it can really have. Last year a friend of mine asked me to put together a small sampler of blues songs, to give her a sense of the genre. I wound up making a five-disc, one hundred song collection, mostly of country blues (but also some proto-blues, blues-punk, and even rock ‘n’ roll), that I think is a good introduction to what the blues can really be. That shows its raw side, its love of strong drink and causing trouble and licking sweat from its partner’s neck. I called it Drinking, Fighting, and Fucking: Lessons in the Real Folk Blues. I can’t distribute it here, because that would be illegal, but I’m going to give you the playlist, so you can assemble it yourself.

This is important music, and I hope you’ll seek it out.

Disc One

  1. Rosie – C.B. And Axe Gang
  2. Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues – Skip James
  3. Ain’t Gonna Study War No More – Lead Belly
  4. Evil Blues – Mance Lipscomb
  5. Down The Dirt Road Blues – Charlie Patton
  6. Dry Land Blues – Furry Lewis & Frank Stokes
  7. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues – Robert Johnson
  8. Shake ‘Em On Down – Bukka White
  9. Three Women Blues – Blind Willie McTell
  10. Catfish Blues – Jack Owens & Bud Spires
  11. I Got Mine – Furry Lewis & Frank Stokes
  12. The Panama Limited – Bukka White
  13. When I Lay My Burden Down – Mississippi Fred McDowell
  14. C & A Blues – Big Bill Broonzy
  15. It Hurts Me Too – Tampa Red
  16. Drop Down Mama – Sleepy John Estes
  17. I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man – Robert Johnson
  18. When Can I Change My Clothes? – Bukka White
  19. Motherless Children – Felix Dukes, Mississippi Fred McDowell
  20. Furry’s Blues – Furry Lewis & Frank Stokes
  21. Cross Cut Saw Blues – Tony Hollins
  22. Working Man Blues – Sleepy John Estes
  23. You Can’t Get Stuff No More – Blind Willie McTell
  24. I Am In The Heavenly Way – Bukka White
  25. Me And The Devil Blues – Robert Johson
  26. Midnight Special – Lead Belly

Disc Two

  1. Jesus on the Mainline – Jame Shorty, Viola James & church congregation
  2. Baby, Please Don’t Go – Mississippi Fred McDowell
  3. A to Z Blues – Blind Willie McTell
  4. The Atlanta Special – Bukka White
  5. Sweet Blood Call – Louisiana Red
  6. Suffer – Jimmy McCracklin
  7. Catfish Blues – R.L. Burnside
  8. I Love You (Solo) – Asie Payton
  9. Motherless Children Have A Hard Time – Blind Willie McTell
  10. Goin’ Down to the River – Mississippi Fred McDowell, Fanny Davis & Miles Pratcher
  11. Down in the Alley – Big Bill Broonzy
  12. Sissy Man – Josh White (As Pinewood Tom)
  13. Shake ‘Em On Down – Mississippi Fred McDowell
  14. Boogie Chillen – John Lee Hooker
  15. Hoochie Coochie Man – Muddy Waters
  16. Mama Talk To Your Daughter – J.B. Lenoir
  17. Messin’ With the Kid – Earl Hooker & Junior Wells
  18. Big Boss Man – Jimmy Reed
  19. Killing Floor – Howlin’ Wolf
  20. Dust My Broom – Elmore James
  21. Bring It To Jerome – Bo Diddley
  22. Prison Bars All Around Me – Earl Hooker & Junior Wells
  23. Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters

Disc Three

  1. Nobody’s Fault But Mine – Mance Lipscomb
  2. Black Mattie – Robert Belfour
  3. Standing in My Doorway Crying – Jessie Mae Hemphill
  4. Peaches – R.L. Burnside
  5. It Must Have Been the Devil – Jack Owens and Bud Spires
  6. You Got to Move – Mississippi Fred McDowell
  7. Please Tell Me You Love Me – Asie Payton
  8. If You Like Fat Women – CeDell Davis
  9. You Better Run – Junior Kimbrough & The Soul Blues Boys
  10. I Found Out – Nathaniel Mayer
  11. Jumper Hangin’ on the Line – R.L. Burnside
  12. She Asked Me So I Told Her – T-Model Ford
  13. Done Got Old – Heartless Bastards
  14. Teardrop – Magic Slim
  15. I Got My Eyes On You – Robert Belfour
  16. Have Mercy on Me – The Black Keys
  17. Burning Hell – Canned Heat & John Lee Hooker

Disc Four

  1. Back to the Bridge – Asie Payton
  2. Keep Your Hands Off Her – Junior Kimbrough
  3. Bad Luck City – R.L. Burnside
  4. When The Lights Go Out – The Black Keys
  5. Breaking My Heart – Robert Belfour
  6. Feel Good Babe – Frank Frost
  7. Pucker Up Buttercup – Paul Jones
  8. Sail On – T-Model Ford
  9. Boogie Chillen No. 2 – Canned Heat & John Lee Hooker
  10. Modern Times – The Black Keys
  11. Ride Like Hell – Big Sugar
  12. Grind It Down – catl
  13. Chicken Dog – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
  14. Devil is on His Way – Joe Buck Yourself
  15. The Criminal Inside Me – R.L. Burnside
  16. Workin’ Man’s Soul – catl

Disc Five

  1. Travelling Riverside Blues – Led Zeppelin
  2. Memo From Turner – The Rolling Stones
  3. Shake It Baby – John Lee Hooker
  4. Boom Boom – The Animals
  5. Groundhog Day – Big Sugar
  6. Ole Man Trouble – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
  7. Happy Wanderer – Chad Parks and The Near Death Experience
  8. I Got Mine – The Black Keys
  9. Skull Ring – Big Sugar
  10. The Girl I Love She Got Long Black Wavy Hair – Led Zeppelin
  11. Oh Death – catl
  12. Blues X Man – The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion
  13. Over the Hill – R.L. Burnside
  14. Norene – Robert Belfour
  15. Why Don’t You Give It To Me – Nathaniel Mayer
  16. Empty Head – Big Sugar
  17. My Mind Is Ramblin’ – The Black Keys
  18. Hard Time Killing Floor Blues – Chris Thomas King

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

2 Comments

  1. woaaah, just found this. Lurking a bit on your blog because I like your writing generally, but this is a goldmine! I love the blues but am by no means knowledgeable about the different types and/or the history beyond what I would consider common knowledge. I look forward to exploring your list. (And, now that you’re stuck in WR, make sure you get to the free blues fest in August. It’s pretty great and there’s usually something for everyone — my guess is the smaller the stage the better for you. Check out The Boathouse workshop stage)

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