Our Favorite (Sad and Misanthropic) Blues Albums

Is it surprising that a guy who calls himself a Misanthrope would love the Blues?

There is simply no richer, more meaningful music out there. The Blues not only gave birth to virtually every type of modern music, it gave us the most gifted musicians that ever lived. No genre of music has ever captured the despair and pain of human self-consciousness and it is depressing to think that most people are not even aware of the Blues and its place in the firmament of music history.

Do a Google search of the saddest songs and you will find a laughable plethora of so-called sad songs that exhibit very little actual, first-hand knowledge of the subjects on which the songs are based. Truly pathetic; no, people Nickelback, Mariah Carey, Ashlee Simpson (!) and Celine Dion may very well be “sad” but not in the way you think (and all of these came from lists I saw).

Not so with the Blues. The Blues came from slaves and sharecroppers, and those whose general experience was with a segregated, hateful society that killed, maimed, murdered and jailed people based purely on the color of their skin. And the songs reflect every bit of that pain, humiliation, desolateness and loneliness.

Most bluesmen never made a dent in their pocketbooks. Even the successful ones were robbed and ripped off as badly as modern-day boxers, never seeing a penny in royalties and dying broke. One of the greatest early bluesmen froze to death in Chicago, living homeless despite recording success. Today, most people think emos and teenage angst are true sadness and they can go fornicate themselves with an iron stick, to borrow a phrase from Tom Tucker.

Of course you can find all sorts of blues “lists” if you are interested, and they will contain most of the Blues classics. But what if you are a true Misanthrope and want to hear music that expresses the pain, desolation and rage that humans should have when confronted with the ills and evils of the world?

That’s where we come in.

Here are the saddest and/or most misanthropic Blues albums for your listening “pleasure.” Seriously though, we will guarantee that if you dive into these with an open mind you will be amazed at the richness, depth and emotion that this music gives us and you will feel justly rewarded.

White African-Otis Taylor. This is easily the most depressing, gut-wrenching album ever recorded, and please spare us your nonsensical ravings about any music that makes teenagers and Generation X’ers want to jump off a roof. White African represents nothing less than the most direct, haunting and saddening expression of human misery and we issue a challenge to anyone who wants to disagree to listen to it and then still abide by that disagreement.

Among the topics covered in Otis’ master work are:

-Lynching. Saint Martha’s Blues tells the story of Taylor’s great grandfather who was not only lynched, but had his body torn apart and whose great grandmother was told by the lynchers where to collect his body parts.

-An imagination of what it was like to be Jesus being crucified. (Resurrection Blues)

-The story of a father watching his baby die because of a lack of medicine and money (3 Days and 3 Nights).

-Wrongful execution by death penalty from a first person point of view (My Soul’s in Louisana).

Truly awe-inspiring in every sense of the word, and not in the slightest hyperbolic sense, White African is a harrowing recording, described by one reviewer as if David Lynch had produced John Lee Hooker.

Blues From The Gutter – Champion Jack Dupree. This is one of the sparest, simplest albums from a musical perspective, but thematically heartbreaking. Champion Jack was a piano player extraordinaire, and the album features very simple melodies and music, even for the Blues which generally features relatively simple rhythmic passages.

But the songs tell stories of his battles with alcohol addiction, the evils of gold-digging women and what it is like to be flat broke but having to drink and take drugs no matter what. We also learn about what it is like to have tuberculosis ravaging one’s body. When you are in the mood for some old school blues this is the one album you cannot do without.

Champion Jacks Dupree’s life was tough, even for the early bluesmen, and that is quite a statement. Aside from his addictions to drugs and alcohol, both of his parents were burned by the Klan leaving him an orphan as a one-year-old. When he was 20 watched a fellow bluesman get beat to death by white thugs. He hoboed for a while, and eventually took to boxing; his name “Champion” comes from his status as the Indiana Lightweight Champion in 1939.

To top it all off, he was a cook in World War II and despite being a cook he was taken as a POW and spent two years in a Japanese POW camp.

The Legendary Son House: Father of the Folk Blues. Son house, for my money, is the most important early blues figure, even more so that Robert Johnson, whose legendary story of making a deal with the devil at the Crossroads of two roads in Mississippi has been the subject of movies, music and folklore. Son House, like many (most?) of the early Blues musicians was a hardened criminal that spent a few years in the most notorious prison farm in the South, Parchman Farm.

I recently saw an article on one large website that compiled the saddest songs ever made. It was a joke; the list obviously was not made by anyone with a true knowledge of music history, as Son House’s Death letter is the saddest song ever written.

Death letter tells the story of a man who gets a letter telling him that the girl he loved has been killed and has to make the trek to the funeral. He then has to get used to life alone.

Now this subject is almost cliché, but most times we do not get a real sense of what it is like. We get a sanitized version of mass consumption, devoid of true depth and emotion. But not with Son House. He gives us a truly realistic tale of loss, pain, anguish and loneliness. He plays with an almost frenzied-like passion unrivaled by any other musician that I have ever seen.

Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues – Skip James. There has been no other artist with as singular a style as Skip James. He tuned his guitar to a tuning unlike any other artist, sand in a pronounced falsetto and was rediscovered after 20 years when he made this recording, virtually on his deathbed.

The primary theme of this album stems from his hospitalization near the end of his life. He gives us songs that tell of his pain, misery and destitution in his old age, evincing a fear that all of us have: dying alone, broke and unremembered.

I Am Shelby LynneShelby Lynne. Admittedly I have been a fan of Shelby Lynne’s for a long time, and first found her soulful, husky voice while she was a country singer. But it was clear that was a role for which she was miscast.

Though not a Blues album in terms of the chord progressions, thematically it is most assuredly a Blues record, and one that stems from her years of being screwed at the hands of various factions in the music industry and in life. The album is more misanthropic than anything this side of Taylor’s White African and is not so much sad as vengeful, hateful and disgusted with humanity, putting it squarely within the blog’s favorites.

How unknown was Shelby Lynne? The album garnered a Grammy for Best New Artist, even though she had six albums under her belt and a decade of recording experience.

Shelby was an abused child whose father shot and killed her mother right in front of her eyes before turning the gun on himself. He was a hard-nosed alcoholic who had her thrown in jail at one point in her teenage years. She is quoted as saying “[the] album came from the most vulnerable, desperate place…I think about it every day.” It surely packs a wallop and gets even better with multiple listenings.

There are plenty of others but for the Misanthrope these are the best expositions on life, death, pain, heartache and sadness that music has had to offer. The Blues is typically not described as sad music, but here we have some of the greatest expressions of sadness ever recorded.

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