The Blues

The first thing to understand about the blues is that it is as much how as what you play or sing. The second thing is that the blues will be here long after we all are gone. It is one of the most venerable forms of music that we have, There have literally been thousands of blues that have been written and recorded, and many more that have simply been played. When musicians get together, especially if they have not performed together, on of the first things they will do is play a blues.


No one really knows where the blues came from. There are some that say it was from the work song, some from the field holler, some from the ring shout. It is in general agreement that the blues as such, did not come from Africa but was developed in this country. It began as a purely unaccompanied vocal solo. Early accompaniments were played primarily on a banjo or guitar and were very primitive. (A good example is Robert Johnson.) As the blues developed a standard pattern of lyrics and a basic chord progression began to take shape.


The most standard form of the blues is 12 measures long. There are 8 bar blues and 16 bar blues but most are 12 bars long. Each chorus (one complete playing) is divided into 3 phrases of four bars each. The most basic blues uses only 3 different chords that provide the basis for endless variations over which soloists play melodies. The lyrics of the blues also follow a standard practice. The first two lines are the same and the third is different. One theory on the evolution of the lyrics is that during the repeat ot the first line, the singer could be making up the third line. This is also connected to the call and response that we talked about earlier. It should be pointed out here that many, many blues lyrics had a double meaning that, more often than not, had sometning to do with sex.. Because the lyrics rarely took up the entire four measures, an instrumentalist usually completed the phrase. This instrumnental completion is called a fill.

In the blues we see one of the greatest manifestations of African musical practices or characteristics. This is vocal tone and includes the bending of notes so prevalent in African music. It is the bending of notes that gives the blues its flavor. It is like playing or singing in the cracks of the notes on a piano keyboard. Remember our diatonic scale that Western music uses all the time? Well in order to simulate blues tonalities within this scale we have to alter several of the notes. These are called the "blue notes". Books have been written on the origin, deliniation, use, etc. of these notes but for us it is enough to know that the" blue notes" in a diatonic scale are made by lowering/flatting the 3rd, 5th and 7th degree of that scale In the case of the C scale it would be E-flat, G-flat, and B-flat. These are "approximations" of the "blues" tonality but the only way to approach it given the scale we have to work with. The blues is a major style of music today and has been incorporated into many other styles including rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

There are two basic blues styles that we will examine: country blues and city blues. There are many other names for blues styles but a basic understanding of these two will provide a solid foundation for further investigation.


Accompaniment: Very sparse, usually a guitar.

Lyrics: Usually dealt with the hardships of life.

Vocal Style: Expressive but very undeveloped

Rhythm: Very free, no set patterns.

Location: Work camps, rural areas.

Singers: Usually men.

It is easy to see how all the musical characteristics fit the other social and cultural aspects of the music. The same holds frue for the Urban blues.


Accompaniment: Piano or instruments.

Lyrics: More sophisticated, problems of the heart, love, etc.

Vocal Style: More refined.

Rhythm: 12 bar structure, more comntrolled.

Location: Vaudeville, concert/club settings.

Singers: Usually women:

Please remember that we are speaking in generalities for the most part and you can find examples of the exact opposite if you look long enough. This fact applies to any style of music that you want to name. There are many, many fine blues singers, both past and present but I might suggest Robert Johnson for Country Blues and Bessie Smith for City Blues. Enjoy!!!