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An Introduction to Texas Blues in 12 Tracks
And a cautionary tale about my first visit to Austin—so you won't make the same mistake I did
I now call Austin home, but not long ago I knew very little about the city—although my first visit here taught me a useful lesson about Texans.
That happened back in 2008, when my publisher sent me to Austin to promote my new book Delta Blues at the Texas Book Festival. That work focused on the great Mississippi blues tradition, which allowed me to devote entire chapters to Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House, among other cherished artists.
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I loved writing that book—the whole process of grappling with the early Delta tradition changed my outlook on music. Not long before, I had been a jazz purist, maybe even a a jazz snob. You know the kind. For a long stretch in my early life I rarely listened to any music outside of jazz. But the cumulative impact of writing three books in a row on more traditional idioms—Work Songs (2006), Healing Songs (2006), and Delta Blues (2008)—permanently altered how I viewed music and its role as a change agent in human life.
The blues book was the final step in my personal transformation. And I was tremendously excited to go on the road, and share my conversion story with others.
That day in Austin, I was part of a line-up of people talking about music, and after I finished my comments from the podium—filled with the typical wide-eyed enthusiasm I bring to discussing my favorite musical artists—the next speaker stepped up to the microphone. He began talking in grandiloquent phrases, almost like a preacher, and I was dumbfounded by the subject of his talk.
He proceeded to attack the Mississippi blues, and scornfully point out to me (and the rest of the audience) the superiority of the Texas tradition in every regard. I still don’t know whether this was the talk he had prepared for the event, or if he was merely improvising in response to my expressed affection for the Delta blues tradition. But no one could doubt his ardor or willingness to go to battle over his favorite blues artists.
I hadn’t even mentioned Texas in my talk. No one had told me there was a competition between Mississippi blues and Texas blues. I now wondered whether this event had been scheduled as some kind of debate, and I looked at the program—but all it said was “panel of music writers.” Yet here I was, watching in dismay as the fervent man at the podium mocked and countered my earlier remarks. He was even sneering in my direction to emphasize his superior point of view. I could feel the eyes of the rest of audience scrutinizing me.
Who is this Yankee interloper? How dare he come to Austin, Texas and praise musicians from Mississippi!
That was the day I learned an important fact:
Texans are proud people.
But, in all fairness, this kind of civic pride and optimism can be endearing—at least in moderate doses; and it is most of the time, even if it wasn’t that day at the Texas Book Festival. And Texans have good reason to take pride in their music traditions, especially their rich blues heritage. I’ve never written about it at any length, but a few years later I was invited to give another talk in Texas about the blues, and by then I had learned my lesson. That next time I focused entirely on Texas blues musicians.
But that’s an elite group—whether you go back to the 1920s and revisit the hit recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, or fast forward to the 1970s and enjoy the high-octane work of Stevie Ray Vaughan, or even just go out to the clubs nowadays and savor the artistry of Gary Clark Jr.
For the record, I have never claimed that the blues originated in Mississippi—although I have been attacked on a number of occasions, including that sad day in Austin, from critics who try to link that opinion to me. In fact, my considered judgment is that it’s impossible to say where the blues began. But I can assert, with confidence, that this style of music flourished with particular intensity in Mississippi and Texas, even though I admire other blues traditions (Piedmont, New Orleans, etc.). Most of my favorite blues tracks come from those two states.
For newcomers to Texas blues, I want to share 12 tracks that capture the range and depth of the tradition.
Needless to say, this is hardly a complete survey. I have no objections to lengthy playlists—I’ve constructed more than a few in my time. But there’s a genuine need for easier entry points into traditional styles. So my goal here is to give you a digestible introduction to Texas blues in about one hour. That’s a whirlwind tour— and I’m sure my Austin assailant from 2008 would scorn such cursory treatment—but you can easily take the next steps on your own.
Blind Lemon Jefferson: Match Box Blues
Some old Texans want to talk your ear off about LBJ—but I’m the kind that focuses more on BLJ. And though I could tell you about earlier Texas blues singers than Blind Lemon Jefferson, there are none quite so famous or well documented. His recordings, which sold well in their day, are your best introduction to the old Texas blues sound, with his keening vocals and lyrics that cover everything from love and sex—those two timeless topics of the genre—to a litany of critters long familiar to cowboys and ranchers, including snakes, rabbits, cows, horses and mules. He was a true street singer, who often collected payment in a tin cup or hat placed on the sidewalk. Perhaps he would have modernized or updated his sound if he hadn’t died so young—at age 36 in 1929—but somehow I can’t imagine his blues style getting any better or stronger.
Blind Willie Johnson: “Dark Was the Night— Cold Was the Ground”
I adore this musician—one of my favorite all-time blues artists. Yet some people will tell you he didn’t really play the blues. And it’s true, Blind Willie Johnson only sang about religious subjects. But the sound of the blues, and especially the haunting bent notes of his voice and slide guitar, permeate every track he recorded. I learned from Samuel Charters that when the first generation of blues record collectors got together for their New York meetings, they usually closed the gatherings by playing this powerful track. It was also one of the songs sent into outer space by NASA on the famous golden disc that would introduce extraterrestrials to human music.
Mance Lipscomb: “Motherless Children”
I can hardly imagine the excitement of my friend Mack McCormick in 1960 when he first encountered Mance Lipscomb—previously unknown to music fans, but soon to be a recording star of the blues revival. Lipscomb, born in 1895, was a throwback to an earlier tradition of Texas songsters, performers who could play blues, folks songs, old traditional ballads, dance numbers, and even Tin Pan Alley hits—usually traveling from town to town, and earning their living from whatever opportunities chance threw in their way. Lipscomb was thus a blues singer, and much more, but his music is a useful reminder of how vernacular song styles mixed and mingled even in the early decades of the 20th century.
Lead Belly: “The Midnight Special”
Lead Belly was born in Louisiana, but his family moved to Texas when he was just five. His rise to fame came via folk song collectors John and Alan Lomax, who first heard him while making field recordings for the Library of Congress at Angola State Prison. After his release in 1934, Lead Belly became a surprise success on the New York music scene and got a record contract with RCA. Although he was a great blues performer, Lead Belly was equally at home singing folk songs and other tunes that lingered at the fringes of commercial music—his best-known work “Goodnight, Irene” is actually a love song in waltz meter. “The Midnight Special,” featured here, became a crossover hit for later musicians, including Johnny Rivers and the rock band Creedence Clearwater.
Lightnin’ Hopkins: “Mojo Hand”
Lightnin’ Hopkins had a chance at crossover fame in the late 1940s, when he recorded for the Aladdin label in Los Angeles. But his career in SoCal stalled out, and he returned to his native Texas, where he gained a following among African-American music fans in the Houston area. But the 1960s blues revival turned him into a genuine star, and soon Hopkins was playing at Carnegie Hall alongside Joan Baez. He was a riveting presence on stage—in fact I enjoy hearing him talk, with that slow Texas drawl, almost as much as I love hearing him play. By any measure, he is one of the most distinctive stylists in the genre’s history, proving that even the most familiar blues chords and licks could still serve as a platform for deeply personal musical statements in the second half of the 20th century.
T-Bone Walker: “Stormy Monday Blues”
A decade before the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, T-Bone Walker was already demonstrating the expressive power of the electric guitar—and if he had a dime for every time a later musician stole one of his licks, the T-Bone Estate would be sitting on a mountain of moolah. He influenced everyone from Chuck Berry to B.B. King. I suspect that he would be better known today if his music didn’t straddle so many genres—some thought he was too jazzy for the blue world, or too bluesy for the rock world. But however you define his work, Walker was one of the key influencers in the history of his instrument.
Freddie King: “I’d Rather Be Blind”
Freddie may be the least well-known of the three Kings of the Blues—trailing behind B.B. and Albert in name recognition. But I would hate to be the person who tried to take away his crown on the bandstand. He was as soulful a singer as you will ever hear on a blues record, and his electric guitar work cuts to the quick. The track featured here showcases his standout performance with rock pianist Leon Russell on a song that genuinely deserved to be a crossover hit.
Albert Collins: “Iceman”
Albert Collins, born in Leona, Texas in 1932, got his first introduction to the guitar from cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins. His professional career was slow in starting, and Collins worked for 12 years as a truck driver. But he caught the attention of music fans on the Houston scene, including members of the band Canned Heat—who helped him get an agent and record contract. Soon he was playing in rock clubs, and alongside pop stars, but he rarely enjoyed big paydays. As late as 1971 he was still taking on construction jobs to supplement his income–and in an ironic twist, did work on a remodeling project for Neil Diamond. But blues insiders recognize him as one of the finest electric guitarists and singers of his generation.
Johnny Winter: “Mean Town Blues” (Live at Woodstock)
I note that several musicians on this list lived in Beaumont, Texas—a city that even today only has 100,000 residents. Among the most famous are the Winter brothers, Edgar and Johnny. Both were impressive blues players, but Johnny Winter had the deepest roots, maintaining a firm allegiance to electric blues over the course of a half century, and even producing three Grammy-winning albums for Muddy Waters. Few musicians did more than Winter to bring blues to the forefront of the rock music world.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Texas Flood”
I still marvel over the fact that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s debut album Texas Flood, recorded with no overdubs in just two days, became a huge hit in 1983—eventually going double platinum. The blues revival was long over by that time, and popular music tastes had shifted to punk, disco, rap, and New Wave. How in the world did an unknown Texas blues guitarist rise to superstardom in such an inhospitable environment? The answer is pretty simple: Stevie Ray grabbed people’s attention through the sheer power, drive, and charisma of his performances. And then just a few years later he was gone, killed in a helicopter crash at age 35. They still mourn his death and celebrate his artistry in Texas, and I wonder whether another like him will ever achieve comparable renown.
Janis Joplin: “Black Mountain Blues”
You’re surprised to see Janis Joplin on this list? Rock fans often forget her Texas origins, but this star of the Haight-Ashbury scene grew up in Port Arthur, and later moved to Austin, where she lived until 1963. She spent some time in San Francisco, where she recorded a number of blues standards, before returning to Texas in 1965. Here she made more recordings before going back to San Francisco shortly before her rise to fame. Any doubts about her blues lineage should be dismissed by listening to the raw power of her vocals here, which make clear how much she learned from Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Lead Belly, among others.
Gary Clark Jr.: “Bright Lights”
If you’re looking for the king of Texas blues today, look no more. Gary Clark Jr. is a genuine master of the idiom. I sometimes fear that he will leave blues behind for more commercial sounds and styles. But when he plays in an traditional groove, he is as good as it gets—making the old styles sound new and as intense as any contemporary genre.