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“The blues is life itself” – Billy Gibbons
When we think of a Blues song we think songs from BB King or maybe Robert Johnson. Is the Blues about feeling bad or feeling good? Does it have to be “12-Bar” Blues to be authentic? I like the quote from W.C. Handy, “The blues – the sound of a sinner on revival day.” Read More
When we talk about the blues, there are a lot of variations to consider. Various forms, instruments, histories, and players. Songs can be fast, slow, hard-rocking, or steamy. They all strive to evoke a strong reaction from the listener and that is the key to knowing the blues when you hear it.
The Beginning of the Blues
It’s common knowledge that the blues is an American music form that came out of the south and slavery. It has African roots and spread in many directions. It was at home in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta as field hollers to keep up the work pace and evolved from Gospel music, African chants, and work songs.
Deep South Blues
By the earlier 20th century there were many players performing in the south, often alone and accompanying themself with a guitar, including, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson.
Well-known blues pioneers from the 1920s such as Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson usually performed solo with just a guitar. You can see from this list that blues was beginning to appear all across the Deep South. Many of these player worked with each other at times and eventually gained some notoriety. Leadbelly was recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Charley Patton is acknowledged as the first great star of the blues circuit, and Robert Johnson has a mystique that has grown around him that is almost spiritual in nature. Johnson is mentioned in Bob Dylan’s book, Chronicles, as an early influence.
As people moved North to find their fortune places like Memphis and Chicago became music centers. The city not only provided more listeners in a smaller area, it provided electricity.
In the city, players needed more power to be heard by raucous fans, which is often still true today. Electrified guitars and miked harmonicas played through amplifiers turned up loud and distorted created new tones and sounds that moved blues music forward into the twentieth century. These tones influenced young players that went on to create Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and survive today in the music played by modern young players.
Chicago blues could be found at the open-air market on Maxwell Street and the early clubs like Ruby Lee Gatewood’s Tavern, known as “The Gates”. It was promoted by record companies such as OKeh, in 1092, who published a record series called “Original Race Records.” Okeh went on to sign and record many of the famous blues, jazz, and gospel artists of the time, including King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.
As you can see, blues music has a rich history with connections to gospel and jazz. As time went on blues has continued to expand to West Coast blues, Texas blues, Memphis blues, and Kansas City blues. Each location added its own twist to the sound and style. The blues met rock and roll in England and produced British blues which included players like John Mayall, Peter Green, and Eric Clapton.
The Blues Form
While blues players have expanded the sound and geography of the music, there has been a lasting basic form that musicians generally acknowledge called, 12-Bar Blues. This form has a specified number of measures (bars) and a basic chord progression. Measures can be recognized, when written, as the space between the upright bars that separate them.
Quickly, if we recognize the major scale as a series of related notes, named, “do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do” we can also call them by numbers, “I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii, I”, using Roman numerals. We then make chords, which are three or more notes played at the same time, based on the scale.
The 12-bar blues uses the I, IV, and V chord. When writing the chords each chord continues into the next measure until a different chord is written. The order of chords or the progression is as follows:
12-Bar by the Numbers
This shows the “I” chord for 4 measures (bars), the “IV” chord for 2 bars, back to the “I” for 2 bars, the “V” for 2 bars, The “I” then the “V”. The I to the V at the end is sometimes called the “turnaround”.
In the key of E, which has 4 sharps, the major scale chords would be as follows:
E F#m G#m A B C#m D#dim (E)
(I’ll have more information on sharps, flats, and the major scale in another post…)
12-Bar in the Key of E
I will address music theory, reading, and writing related to this, in more detail in another blog or lesson. While this is the basic form it is important to know that there are many variations on this pattern. Variations include the 8-bar, 16-bar, and 24-bar forms but is this music really confined to only these patterns?
12-Bar Blues Lyric Form
This form can be broken into 3 phrases of 4 bars each with a basic lyric/rhyme scheme that has a vocal phrase (Line 1), a repeat of that phrase (Line 1 again), and a new line that rhymes at the end with line 1 and 2. For example:
I’m lonely and walking in the rain
I’m lonely and walking in the rain
Because my love has left me alone, again
It’s All About the Feeling
When I listen to someone singing the blues I’m not listening for the form. I will hear the chords, I will hear the rhythm, I will hear how the recording was produced, arranged, and mastered. I will enjoy the techniques that went into making a good recording.
When I listen to someone singing the blues I am listening for the feeling. The words will make me laugh or make me cry. The singer will wail and I will heartrate will increase. The guitar will start to solo and I will get excited.
The words will feel familiar. I will relate to how bad the writer was feeling and I will rejoice in the freedom of being able to sing about how bad someone feels. The blues may be about a bad time or a good time but hearing it will lift us up.
When I sing the blues I am connecting with my feelings and letting myself share with everyone who is listening. I love the blues because of how it makes me feel. I recognize the blues by how it makes me feel. I hear the blues in various forms of song. The form isn’t what makes me feel; the form is just the vessel that carries the mojo any certain song may have.
Willy Kelly’s, “Drop The Rock”, from Another Day
The Blues Continues to Spread and Grow
While I respect, love, and listen to traditional blues and the original players I am open to the growth of the form into related music, as long as it feels like the blues.
I’m sharing a song of mine, called, “Drop the Rock” which is loosely related to the 12-bar blues form. I could explain the chord form using function harmony analysis to show a similarity if we except brief diversions in the chords. I could explain the rhyme scheme as related or similar with acceptance of diversions in the scheme. (We’re talking Schenkerian analysis here but that is definitely a topic for another writing!)
I Love the Blues…
I love the blues, do you? Do you go to your local brewery when the local blues band is playing? It’s not the only music I listen to but it is at the heart of my life as a musician. I think many styles of music have a bit of blues in them and I love to listen to the old blues musicians.
If the song you’re listening to feels like a blues tune, for today, that’s good enough for me…
So Tell Me…
Are you a fan of the Delta Blues players from the Mississippi such as Son House and Charley Patton?
Do you feel that real Blues music is only what came out of Chicago? Or only from the Delta?
Who’s your favorite player to listen to or your favorite blues singer?
Leave a comment below and let me know what you think…
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I am a musician living on the coast of Maine. I have been playing gigs since the 1970’s and have played extensively throughout the United States and parts of Canada. I have contributed to many other musician’s projects as a multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and producer. I have a Master of Music Education degree and I have taught music at all levels, in private lessons, public schools, and in Maine Colleges.
I am here to here to help you be a better listener, answer your questions about music, and make musical ideas a positive part of your week.
I encourage you to listen and play…