Here is a collection of our favorite blues songs:
"How Blue Can You Get", BB King
"Boogie Chillin," John Lee Hooker
"Where You Been," T Model Ford
"I feel Like Going Home," Muddy Waters
"Smokestack Lightning," Howlin' Wolf
"Down the Dirt Road Blues," Charley Patton
"Grinnin in Your Face," Son House
"Cross Road Blues." Robert Johnson
"I Hate to See the Sun Go Down," Memphis Minnie
"Going Down the River," Mississippi Fred McDowell
"Judge Boushay Blues," Furry Lewis
"Police Dog Blues," Blind Blake
"Done Got Old," Junior Kimbrough
"Mojo Hand," Lightnin Hopkins
It is a Monday night, and I am with blues legend T-Model Ford in his den off Seventh Street in Greenville, Mississippi. I am sitting on his droopy sofa, beside his rackety air conditioner, tapping my foot as I listen to the 90-year-old’s singing, guttural and warbly. This is one of those pinch-me moments. Between tunes, the singer, born James Carter Ford in 1920 (“thereabouts,” he says), spits out stories that evoke a Muddy Waters Mississippi: He remembers his Choctaw grandmother and her “platter of hair;” a two-year bit on a chain gang; decades driving log trucks; gigs with B.B. King and Buddy Guy; and the sycamore limb that cracked down on his leg (and keeps him seated throughout the impromptu jam).
Ask anyone half-familiar with slide guitars and Son House, and they’ll swear the blues is the South’s great gift to the music universe. The seed of jazz, inspiration for The Beatles. And this mysterious, deceptively simple, endlessly inspiring music came from The Delta in the early 1930s—no one knows exactly how, from whom, or when.
But sadly the blues are passing away. Just a week before I visit Greenville, another legend, Mississippi Slim, died of a heart attack. T-Model is among a dwindling few real-deal Delta musicians left, folk who didn’t study sheet music, didn’t do downloads, didn’t make bank. “When I was young I heard Howlin’ Wolf on the radio,” he says. “So I first started playing and those songs just came in my head and I sung ’em out.”
When I ask T-Model a few questions—what the songs mean, why the genre is special, how one learns—his old eyes look off and he just says, “You got to get down to Louisian’ and get you a mojo hand.” God’s truth. And it isn’t until later I realize those words are not his: They are Lightnin’ Hopkins’s, and they are song lyrics.