When making a list of the 10 best songs by female blues singers, three criteria need to be applied, and the song should meet at least one:
- Does the song make for good listening?
- Does it have some history attached to it?
- Do the lyrics have a message worth paying attention to?
- "Strange Fruit" The song at the top of the list of best songs by female blues singers meets all of three criteria. "Strange Fruit" came out in the 1930's when lynching was a common occurrence in the South. Black men and boys were the “strange fruit” hanging from the trees. It was controversial at the time and even today puts a lump in the listener's throat.
- "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" Bessie Smith's output over three decades was the original definition of the blues itself – songs expressing the struggles and heartbreaks of life. She sang so many good songs that it's difficult to single one out, but this classic piece has stayed in the blues songbook for more than seven decades.
- "CC Rider" Probably no song on the list has had so many various lyrics put to it than Ma Rainey's "CC Rider." The title of another of her songs, Ma Rainey's "Black Bottom," was appropriated by August Wilson for the title of one of his Broadway plays.
- "Didn't It Rain" The blues came originally from the rhythms of Southern black gospel music. Sometimes, gospel and blues would blend, as in "Didn't It Rain," as performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who grew up singing gospel with her mother but later made a career out of singing the blues.
- "Wang Dang Doodle" Though the earliest blues tunes expressed sorrow, as time passed, the art form moved from the country and into cities like Memphis and New Orleans, where songs often took on energetic and joyful sounds like this entry, "Wang Dang Doodle," sung by Koko Taylor and written by another blues great, Willie Dixon.
- "Hound Dog" A blues hit that is so good it was covered by Elvis Presley. "Hound Dog," originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, became an even bigger hit for the King. It topped the R&B charts for almost two months.
- "Ball and Chain" A few years after "Hound Dog," another of Thornton's songs, "Ball and Chain," would be covered and made a hit by Janis Joplin, earning its place on the list of best female blues songs, too.
- "Proud Mary" This song was a great hit by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It's awarded a place on the list of best female blues songs because it was picked up by Tina Turner. She, with a new arrangement, made the song a hit its second time around.
- "Crazy Blues" Recorded in 1920 by Mamie Smith, you've probably never heard this despite it being a million-selling hit. Smith was the first singer, male or female, to put a blues song on vinyl (actually, shellac).
- "Bumble Bee" Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas) had a big enough success with this, the last song on our list of the best songs by female blues singers, that she was able to move out of Memphis and into Chicago, where she proved her mettle in a guitar contest in which she beat living legends, Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red. One of the first blues singers to play an electric guitar, she fused country and urban blues setting the table for artists like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley.
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