Blues originated in the churches, fields and in the shacks where African-Americans resided, that the foundation of modern pop music was built upon. Gospel, Country and Blues music, played by sharecroppers and freed slaves, told stories of sorrows and pains, as well as salvation. By the 1950s, a few white Americans discovered this music and added some modern touches to it. Hence, Rock n’ roll. A decade later, the British adopted the blues and rock n’ roll to create their own brand of music. That being said, many of these musicians paid tribute and respect to their mentors by covering their songs. Here is a look at the best blues song covers by white musicians.
1. Crossroad by Cream (1966) – No other blues musician has had more of an influence on music than Robert Johnson. In his short career which featured less than 30 songs recorded, Johnson’s guitar playing, songwriting and voice touched people miles away from Mississippi. One of those people happened to be a 21-year-old Eric Clapton, who by 1966, was already nicknamed “God” in Britain for his abilities on the guitar. Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce formed Cream in 1966, because they felt they were the “cream” of British music. In their two years together, the group recorded many blues standards, such as “Spoonful,” “Sitting on Top of the World” and “I’m So Glad.” But it was their version of “Crossroads” that became one of their most well-known songs. Bruce and Baker’s training in jazz, and Clapton’s in BB and Freddie King style blues guitar playing took the song to an electric audience, as their improvisational soloing left fans wanting more.
2. Statesboro Blues by The Allman Brothers Band (1971) – Though their song is similar to Taj Mahal’s 1968 version, the Allmans had a long history in blues music. The band had covered songs by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon on their first two albums. With their third album, the group finally broke through commercially and established themselves as the founding fathers of “southern rock.” The album, like their shows at the time, opened with “Statesboro Blues.” Duane Allman’s shrieking slide guitar playing, combined with the vocals of brother, Gregg, remains a staple of the genre. Ranked 9th All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine of “100 Greatest Guitar Songs in History,” the song and the band’s place in history is set.
3. Ball and Chain by Big Brother and the Holding Company (1968) – The songs of Big Mama Thorton were present at the start of early Rock N ‘Roll music. Her 1952 song, “Hound Dog” was covered later in the decade by Elvis Presley and became one of his first hit singles. However, it was her hit song, “Ball and Chain,” which wasn’t released upon its initial recording, that we have to look at. Her hit single, which was featured at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967, introduced the world to the voice of Janis Joplin. Joplin, a fan of blues and Thorton, had left her home of Texas to join the San Francisco group, Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. The next year at Monterrey, Joplin’s rendition of the song wowed the audience who couldn’t believe such a voice could be heard from her. Following the concert, Joplin became a superstar and counterculture icon for the 1960s “hippie” movement.
4. Death Letter Blues by The White Stripes (2000) – If Robert Johnson was the Christ figure in music, seeing as he allegedly sold his soul to the devil, then Son House would be Abraham. He was the bridge between Charley Patton and Robert Johnson in the delta blues. Though he originally recorded his version of “Death Letter Blues” around the 1930s, it was not released as a single until 1965, when the folk revival music of the late 1950s and early 1960s bought a new popularity to black bluesmen like House, Lightnin’ Hopkins and many others. Three decades later, at the turn of the 21st century, Jack and Meg White, rooted in the music of the blues, recorded their own version of House’s song for their second album. Similar to Cream’s “Crossroads,” Jack White replaced the acoustic blues played by the originator with an electrified version. Unlike Clapton however, White kept in the slide from the original and created a heavy, garage rock version of the blues standard.
5. Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Nirvana (1994) – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is a classic folk song, passed down by oral tradition many years before Lead Belly’s version. The song’s origins have been lost to time. However, when Lead Belly recorded his version of the classic song in the 1940s, it became the most recognizable version of the song. That is until 50 years later, when Kurt Cobain and Nirvana performed for “MTV Unplugged” in November of 1993. The song’s haunting and dark content, coupled with Cobain’s voice, crippled with depression, drug abuse and self-destruction. Less than five months later, Cobain would be dead from a self-inflicted gunshot.
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