1. Good Morning Blues
Performed by Jimmy Rushing.


2. Hellhound on my Trail
Performed by Robert Johnson.


3. See See Rider
Performed by Wilbur De Paris.


4. See See Rider
Performed by Ma Rainey (1925).
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey was a broadly popular and influential blues singer who worked the minstrel show and dance hall circuit for ten years before her first recordings in 1923. Her phrasing and timbre helped invent what came to be known as the "classic blues." In this version of "See See Rider" (elsewhere called "C. C. Rider" or "Easy Rider"), the story in the lyrics—of a cheating traveling man whom Ma threatens to kill before she skips the city—is intensified by Louis Armstrong's sympathetic trumpet. Still, the mournfulness and violence of the fragmented narrative are complicated—and nearly contradicted—by the slow-grind dance tempo of the music, which seems to say, "Well, hold me close anyhow, baby—even if your clothes don't fit right, I'm gonna rock and roll you to the music all night long." Ma Rainey is important to Gayl Jones's novel Corregidora and to August Wilson's play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.


5. Backwater Blues
Performed by Bessie Smith (1927).
Commemorating the devastating southern storm of 1927, "Backwater Blues," recorded that year, is one of many blues songs in which a natural disaster provides a metaphor for the homelessness, no-exit meaninglessness, and arbitrary violence of life as perceived by much blues music. Here again, without sentimentality or false consolation the music squarely faces the hardness and tragedy of human existence. Here, too, what mitigates the bleak situation is the music itself: at least Smith's mighty voice has survived to tell the tale, and to tell it in rhymes that dance. This transcendent song evinces why her music is so often cited in the work of James Baldwin, Sherley Anne Williams, and August Wilson, among others.


6. Down-Hearted Blues
Performed by Bessie Smith.


7. Prove It on Me Blues
Performed by Ma Rainey.


8. Trouble in Mind
Performed by Nina Simone (1960).


9. How Long Blues
Performed by Joe Turner.


10. Rock Me Baby
Performed by Lightnin'Hopkins.
In this traditional twelve-bar blues, Texas blues singer/guitarist Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins invites his lover to the joys of a "rocking" sexual union in a post–World War II scene of unexpected arrivals and hasty departures. The singer also addresses his listeners ("we gotta get down here, children") as if at a juke joint, where a song like this would inspire close dancing along with a spirit of intimate flirtation and general good times. (See Zora Neale Hurston's writing on the unique potency of southern juke-house culture.)


11. Yellow Dog Blues
Performed by Louis Armstrong and His All Stars.


12. St. Louis Blues
Performed by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.


13. Beale Street Blues
Performed by Mamie Webster.
This 1917 song by W. C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," celebrates a street in the French Quarter of New Orleans where reminiscences of bawdy revelry stir the singer's dream of partying there as long as the law allows—but since "Beale Street's done gone dry" (that is, alcohol has been outlawed), it just might be better to escape onto or even into the Mississippi River. The charged line "If Beale Street could talk" was adopted by James Baldwin as the title of his 1974 novel.


14. The Hesitating Blues
Performed by James Reese Europe's 369th U.S. Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band.


15. Goin' to Chicago Blues
Performed by Jimmy Rushing.


16. Fine and Mellow
Performed by Billie Holiday.


17. Hoochie Coochie (Man)
Performed by Muddy Waters.


18. Sunnyland
Performed by Elmore James (1961).
Elmore James was a Mississippi guitarist and singer strongly influenced by the legendary Robert Johnson (whose "Hellhound on My Trail" is reprinted in the text). Though he was an itinerant juke-house player, James is nonetheless associated not only with Mississippi but also with Chicago, where he and his recordings were extremely popular. Indeed, his shouting slide guitar, his use of horns and boogie-woogie piano, and his screaming falsetto voice all help define the Chicago sound of the blues. "Sunnyland" is a train-whistle guitar song to be read along with Albert Murray's novel Train Whistle Guitar.


19. My Handy Man
Performed by Alberta Hunter.
In saucy dialogue with the horns and the rhythm section, blues diva Alberta Hunter details the domestic skills of her good man, making even the most mundane of his household duties sizzle with sexual innuendo. The sheer extravagance of the lyrics' bawdy metaphors lends humor and momentum to the show tune by Andy Razaf, the black song writer who cowrote "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue."