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Ch. 03: What are the Blues?


To understand what the blues are, one needs to look at the lyrics, the instruments, the melody and harmony and the structure called “the twelve bar blues.”

The blues lyrics are dark, often dismal reflections that center on pain or loss. Typically, blues lyrics are about three subjects: lost or unrequited love, personal loss (job, money, etc.) or physical pain. Even a cursory look at typical blues song titles shows this to be true: “Moanin’ For My Baby”, “New Prison Blues”, “Bad Luck Blues” and “Blues in the Dark” reflect these subjects.

Also important to the current of blues literature were the songs in the 1920s and ‘30s which either openly or with the use of double meanings, celebrated the body and human sexuality. True to the title of “devil’s music”, these songs rarely were encumbered by such things as religious morals and acceptable standards.

Classic blues songs like Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied” or “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, Lizzie Miles’ “You Gotta Come and See Mama Ev’ry Night” and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Rock Me Mama” were some of the hundreds of risqué songs which were typical of the standard offerings in black juke joints throughout the south in the 1930s.

In addition to the uniqueness of the lyrics (most of which would never have been sung in “proper” situations), was the uniqueness of the instrumentation. In the beginning, it was simply voice. Like the workers in the field, it was first a singer’s lament unaccompanied by any instrument. By the early 1910s many singers of the blues were also accompanying themselves on the guitar, which was both inexpensive and portable. The guitar was the perfect accompaniment to the moans and wails of the blues singer. Although the guitar was more European in nature than the banjo, which appears to have strong ties to the African continent, the guitar produced both a richer and louder sound than the banjo.

The style of guitar playing developed by the early bluesmen was also unique from Western music. A typical guitar neck is separated by 21 frets into separate sections. Guitar players in the typical Euro-tradition would play with a sense of accuracy, jumping from one chord or played note to another by simply stopping the string vibrations at frets to create different pitches.

Blues guitarists learned to play in a tradition that stemmed back to the tradition of African stringed instruments which were without frets or accurate note separations. In keeping with their tradition, notes tended to tune and retune as the strings were bent sideways on a melody. When a knife or piece of metal or the neck of a beer bottle were slide along the neck, the melody had the feel of gliding from one note or chord to another, rather than “jumping” in the typical fashion. This pitch elasticity was an important part of the fusion of music and emotion for the blues performer. In fact, it is in the bent notes and sliding chords that the inner burdens find their most accurate musical externalization. They are to instrumental music what the moan, cry and wail is to vocal music: the hounds of heartache finally released from the prison within.

The third sound typical of the early bluesmen was even more portable and inexpensive: the harmonica. Known by most as a “blues harp”, the harmonica player provided an instrumental counterpoint to the vocal line. Between lines of text, a singer may play a few licks on the blues harp to add a musical exclamation point. Alternatively, the singer may take a break from a blues verse completely, letting the harp do the singing instead.

Early bluesmen most often played guitar and sang; a few sang and played harp; even fewer sang, played guitar and played the harp fitted in a brace around their neck. This tradition of voice, guitar and harmonica carried over into some of the folk music of the ‘30s and ‘40s and even into the mid-1960s, when Bob Dylan, demi-god of folk music and prophet of rock ‘n roll played guitar and harmonica to accompany his singing (perhaps that last word should be in quotation marks?).

As the blues moved out of the rural delta region, additional instruments were added to the mix. The “classic” blues of W.C. Handy and Bessie Smith incorporated piano, trumpet, trombone, drums and occasionally strings to create a blues/jazz/pop mix. Though the sound of Handy’s blues was an important stepping stone which opened doors for jazz in cosmopolitan America, it was far from authentic blues.

Freddy King, 1975

Closer to the acoustic sound of the delta blues was the power urban sound of Chicago or Memphis blues. The invention of the amplified electric guitar gave a new, louder surge to the guitar sound. Singers and harp players also used microphones to balance the electric guitar. To fill out the mix, drums, bass guitar and brass (trumpet or trombone) and saxophone were added. The result was a high energy, driving power style of the blues. It was to delta blues what big band jazz was to New Orleans jazz: an intimate sound clothed in rhythm and volume.

Like jazz, the blues could conceivably be played with a flute, tuba and kazoo, but its most authentic sound is heard with a combination of these key instruments: voice, guitar (acoustic or electric), harmonica, keyboard (piano or electronic organ) and added brass/sax instruments.

It is not just the choice of instruments that makes the sound unique, but how the blues player/singer treats a melody and the choice of chords.



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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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