The Blues 101: An Introduction
Willie Dixon, legendary Blues musician, producer and songwriter proclaimed “The Blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruits.” That’s what makes hearing the Blues for the first time both familiar and novel at the same time. Nearly every form of popular music has grown as a stem from its roots in the melodies, harmonies and rhythms of the Blues. Turn on the radio and chances are the music you’re listening to is resonating with the echoes of Bessie Smith, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson and countless other Blues artists.
Musically speaking, the Blues is a very simple form. Most Blues feature a simple repeated chord progression played over a 12-bar or 16-bar rhythmic structure. The strength and vitality of the Blues lies in its tradition and in the form’s capacity to provide a context for a musician to give voice to personal expression through endless musical and lyrical improvisations. It is this potential for expansive, expressive improvisation which lead to the Blues giving birth to Jazz, R&B, Rock & Roll, Country Western, Heavy Metal, Soul and Pop.
Despite the fact that the Blues is the foundation of so much of modern music, however, the Blues as a genre of music suffers from a severe lack of respect. Many make the unfortunate mistake of thinking, “Three chords, 12 bars: what could be easier?” Rock and Jazz players in particular tend to think they can knock-off some standard Blues riffs and presto! ‘Look, ma! We’re playing the Blues’. The truth is the Blues are easy to play – badly. To my mind, playing the Blues badly just might be the easiest thing in the world precisely because it is such a simple musical form. Its simplicity is deceptive.
Ray Charles said, “It’s not that the Blues are complicated. They’re not; they’re basic. There are hundreds of versions of the same Blues – the same changes, the same patterns – just as there are hundreds of versions of the same spirituals. The music is simple. But the feeling – the low-down gut-bucket feeling – has to be there or it’s all for nothing.” The Blues - good Blues - cannot be played with bored nonchalance or condescension. Quoting Brother Ray again, “The cats in the band could play the Blues. That came first. Show me a guy who can’t play the Blues and I’m through with him before he can get started. If you can’t get nasty and grovel down in the gutter, something’s missing.” As with any Art form, it is passion that drives the Blues and that passion must be personal and intimate.
A well-known adage goes ‘You’ve got to pay your dues to play the Blues’. That is the cardinal rule. It is undisputable. There can be no exceptions. To play the Blues, you must convey, with honesty and conviction, your personal experience of life on this planet. Living a life requires paying a price and those are the dues of the Blues – living a life. Except for the tiniest baby, everybody has a range of life experiences. All of them can be recognized, empathized and sympathized with by others. That’s what the Blues are about: voicing the shared human experience of joy, love, sorry, tragedy, life and death so that each of us knows we are not alone. Rather, we are in this altogether and so should take comfort therein.
A commonly held misconception of the Blues is that the songs are always dismally melancholy. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the Blues arose from the shared experience of African-Americans suffering the hardships of poverty and socio-political repression, the Blues were sung as a musical release at parties and dances. The songs had to be joyous and hopeful to lift the spirits of party-goers and set the dancers dancing. The subject of the song’s lyrics might be petty or profound, raucous or reflective, ribald or tender. Very often, they were all these in a single ‘go’. Blues songs range from expressing soul-sick depression (e.g. Hell-hound on My Trail) to philosophical reflections on the human condition (e.g. Mother Earth) from quiet hope (e.g The Sun’s Gonna Shine) to joyful celebration (e.g Pride & Joy) from macho bravado (e.g. Hootchie-Kootchie Man) to hard-edged comedy (e.g. Give Me Back My Wig).
Lyrics can be biographical, socio-political, philosophical, satirical, spiritual and meta-physical.
Historically, the Blues grew out of the music of West Africa. The songs of the griot (the traditional minstrels) became spirituals and work-songs. In the late 1800s, southern African-Americans combined their music with European-American folk traditions. Most of the Blues recorded in the early 1900s were played on guitars and pianos. New, regional hybrids appeared. In the 1930s and 40s the Blues broadened its diversity, its instrumentation and its appeal. Some musicians continued to adhere to acoustic traditions while others took it to jazzier territory. Most Blues musicians have followed the lead of T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters by playing the Blues on electric instruments.
The main classifications of the many styles of the Blues are Delta Blues, Piedmont Blues, Jump Blues, Chicago Blues and Texas Blues.
The Delta Blues style comes from a region along the banks of the Mississippi River that is romantically referred to as "the land where the blues were born." The Delta Blues form is dominated by fiery slide guitar and passionate vocals, with the deepest of feelings being expressed through the music. Its lyrics are passionate and in the highest flowering of blues songwriting stand as stark poetry. The form continues to the present time with new performers working in the older solo artist traditions and style. It also embraces the now-familiar string-band/small-combo format, precursors of the modern-day blues band.
Piedmont Blues describes the shared styles of musicians from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia as well as others from Florida, West Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware. The Piedmont guitar style is highly syncopated and employs a complex finger-picking method in which a regular bass pattern, played with the thumb, supports a melody on the treble strings. The Piedmont style is an extension of an earlier string-band tradition integrating ragtime, blues and country dance songs.
Jump Blues is an up-tempo, jazz-tinged style of blues that came to prominence in the mid to late 1940s. Jumps Blues usually featured a vocalist in front of a large, horn-driven orchestra or a medium-sized combo with horns. The style is characterized by a driving rhythm, intensely shouted vocals, and honking tenor saxophone solos. The lyrics are almost always celebratory in nature, full of braggadocio and swagger. Jump Blues was the bridge between the older, guitar-based styles and the big band jazz sound of the 1940s.
The "classic Chicago style" was developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s by taking Delta blues, amplifying it and putting the basic string-band and harmonica group into a small-band context of drums, bass and piano and sometimes saxophones. This became the standard blues band lineup. The form is flexible enough to accommodate singers, guitarists, pianists and harmonica players as the featured performer.
Texas Blues is characterized by a more relaxed, swinging feel than other styles of Blues. Its earliest incarnation occurred in the mid-1920s, featuring acoustic guitar-work that was almost an extension of the vocals rather than merely a strict accompaniment to them. The next stage of development in the region's sound came after World War II with a fully electric style that featured jazzy, single-string soloing over a horn section. The style stays current with a legion of regional performers working in small combos.
The Blues have continued to develop in new directions. A brand new generation of young players have re-discovered and re-defined the Blues: Richard Johnson, Sean Costello, Eric Sardinas, the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Jon Spencer and Cold Hearted Bastards to name just a few. Home-grown ‘Blues only’ record labels like Alligator, Fat Possum, Blind Pig and Black & Tan Records, have been established around the world by ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ Blues fanatics carrying on the tradition of promoting the Blues. For the Blues is not just music of North America nor African-Americans, anymore. There are accomplished Blues artists and active Blues societies all over the globe. Blues festivals are held on nearly every continent but Antarctica. The Blues is alive and kickin’ the world over because it is ‘Real’, honest & passionate. Get real, get with it. Taste the sweet fruit of the Blues.
Robert Johnson: the Complete Recordings
‘Chess Blues’ (anything from the Chess Records catalog)
‘Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues – a musical journey’
‘When the Sun Goes Down –the Secret History of Rock & Roll’
Next Month Chef Sings the Blues in a Really Real Way! Until then introduce yourself to DCR, the Singer of the Blues!
The Blues Society on Taiwan
to be continued...
End of Part One