The History of the Blues in 50 Riffs: From Blind Lemon Jefferson (1928) to Joe Bonamassa (2009)

If you’ve ever had any doubt, for some rea­son or oth­er, that rock and roll descend­ed direct­ly from the blues, the video above, a his­to­ry of the blues in 50 riffs, should con­vince you. And while you might think a blues his­to­ry that ends in rock n roll would start with Robert John­son, this gui­tarist reach­es back to the coun­try blues of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” from 1928 then moves through leg­en­dar­i­ly tune­ful play­ers like Skip James and Rev­erend Gary Davis before we get to the infa­mous Mr. John­son.

Big Bill Broonzy is, as he should be, rep­re­sent­ed. Oth­er coun­try blues greats like soft-spo­ken farmer Mis­sis­sip­pi John Hurt and hard­ened felon Lead Bel­ly, “King of the 12 String Gui­tar,” are not. Say what you will about that. The record­ings these artists made with Okeh Records and Alan Lomax, despite their com­mer­cial fail­ure in the 30s, mid­wifed the blues revival of the fifties and six­ties. Hear Lead Bel­ly’s ver­sion of folk bal­lad “Gal­lows Pole” above, a song Led Zep­pelin made famous. Lead Belly’s acoustic blues inspired every­one from John Foger­ty to Skif­fle King Lon­nie Done­gan, Pete Seeger to Jim­my Page, as did the root­sy coun­try blues of Light­nin’ Hop­kins, who is includ­ed in the 50 riffs. As are John Lee Hook­er, Mud­dy Waters, Howl­in’ Wolf, and BB King’s elec­tric styles—all of them picked up by blues rock revival­ists, includ­ing, of course, Jimi Hen­drix.

Hendrix’s “Red House” riff makes the cut here, as we move slow­ly into rock and roll. But before we get to Hen­drix, we must first check in with two oth­er Kings, Fred­die and Albert—especially Albert. Hen­drix “was star struck,” says Rolling Stone, “when his hero [Albert King] opened for him at the Fill­more in 1967.” For his part, King said, “I taught [Hen­drix] a les­son about the blues. I could have eas­i­ly played his songs, but he couldn’t play mine.” See King play “Born Under a Bad Sign” in 1981, above, and hear why Hen­drix wor­shipped him.

Mis­sis­sip­pi blues moved to Mem­phis, Chica­go, New York and to Texas, where by the 70s and 80s, ZZ Top and Ste­vie Ray Vaugh­an added their own south­west road­house swag­ger. (No John­ny Win­ter, alas.) Many peo­ple will be pleased to see Irish rock­er Rory Gal­lagher in the mix, and amused that The Blues Broth­ers get a men­tion. Many more usu­al sus­pects appear, and a few unusu­al picks. I’m very glad to hear a brief R.L. Burn­side riff. The White Stripes, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Joe Bona­mas­sa round things out into the 2010’s. Every­one will miss their favorite blues play­er. (As usu­al, the pow­er­house gospel blues gui­tarist Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe gets over­looked.) I would love to see includ­ed in any his­to­ry of blues such obscure but bril­liant gui­tarists as Evan Johns (above), whose rock­a­bil­ly blues gui­tar freak­outs sound like noth­ing else. Or John Dee Hole­man, below, whose effort­less, under­stat­ed rhythm play­ing goes unmatched in my book.

Like so many of the blues­men who came before them, these gen­tle­men seem to rep­re­sent a dying breed. And yet the blues lives on and evolves in artists like Gary Clark Jr., The Black Keys, and Alaba­ma Shakes. And of course there’s the prodi­gy Bona­mas­sa, whom you absolute­ly have to see below at age 12, jam­ming with exper­i­men­tal coun­try speed demon Dan­ny Gatton’s band (he gets going around 1:05).

If you’re miss­ing your favorites, give them a shout out below. Who do you think has to be includ­ed in any his­to­ry of the blues—told in riffs or otherwise—and why?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Thrill is Gone: See B.B. King Play in Two Elec­tric Live Per­for­mances

R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Coun­try Fea­tures 114 Illus­tra­tions of the Artist’s Favorite Musi­cians

Watch Rock Pio­neer Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe Wow Audi­ences With Her Gospel Gui­tar

Zep­pelin Took My Blues Away: An Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Zeppelin’s “Copy­right Indis­cre­tions”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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