3 The Blues

Country Blues

Black and white image of two men playing instruments. One is playing a trumpet. The other is playing an acoustic guitar.
Figure 3.1 Bunk Johnson and Leadbelly aka Huddie William Ledbetter.

Country blues originated in rural areas of the United States, particularly the south. Characteristics of the country blues are expressive and personal lyrics, usually with accompaniment on a solo acoustic guitar generally played by the singer themself. This style has a folk-like feel, and during the folk revival of the early 1960s, country blues artists found themselves popular with young listeners.

Artists working in the country blues genre include Big Bill Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt would alternate between gentle spiritual lyrics and raw secular lyrics.

12-Bar Blues Form

A specific formal structure began to appear (in one form or another) in a large portion of blues songs called twelve-bar blues. Inspired by European song forms, it uses repeated and contrasting lines of specific lengths.

The formal structure can be outlined as AAB. The A section refers to the first line of melody (4 measures) as well as the first phrase of words. The second A represents a repeat of the words likely the melody. The B section refers to a contrasting line in the text (often rhyming with the A sections) and a contrasting melody (a response)

Essentially, the form has two lines of text, the first of which is repeated once. It could be written like the example below from “Three O’Clock Blues” by BB King:

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I can’t even close my eyes     A

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I can’t even close my eyes     A

I can’t find my baby, and I can’t be satisfied                                         B

Each bar is organized into four beats, and each section (A or B) consists of four bars. A+A+B therefore equals 12 bars. The complete AAB form is alternately called a chorus, verse, or stanza.

12-Bar Blues Form
Figure 3.2 12-Bar Blues Form.

Left is a graphic representation of 12-bar blues form. It is divided into 3 lines (AAB) with 4 bars each, totaling 12 bars. The slashes represent beats, in this case four beats per bar. The roman numerals represent the different chords used in 12-bar blues (Don’t worry about the roman numerals).




Listening Examples 3.1

Other Characteristics of the Blues

Call and response is a very common feature in twelve-bar blues where the singer is the “caller” singing from beat one of bar one to around beat one of bar 3, and “responds” with an instrumental fill for the remainder of the section. In a group setting, the response may be played by any combination of players/instruments.

Beats are usually subdivided unevenly as long-short-long-short. This creates a relaxed and “swinging” feel that is so characteristic of blues and jazz.

Some blues avoid the 12-bar form and the standard chord progression. Some songs had only one chord played through the entire piece with a blues-style chant. This resembles the African griot song in which chord progressions did not traditionally exist.

Classic Blues and Early Recording

photographic image of Mamie Smith looking away from the camera, draped in a white fabric, wearing big black beads.
Figure 3.3 Mamie Smith.

Classic Blues is characterized by a female singer accompanied by a piano or a jazz band. The resulting music is often a more refined sounding version of the blues, almost “classical” in sound, though the raw lyrics and other characteristics are retained. Classic blues was very popular in the 1920s and was among the earliest blues to be recorded. Because they sang with jazz big bands, these singers developed powerful and gutsy vocal styles that could be heard over large groups. One of the first blues recordings was Mamie Smith’s version of “Crazy Blues” in 1920 which sold an astonishing 75,000 copies in its first month. This revealed a new and untapped consumer market in the music business, African-Americans. By 1930, up to a third of the families in poorest most remote areas of the south owned a Victrola, a record player that didn’t require electricity (Davis, pg. 30).  The success of “Crazy Blues” also led to the development of a distinction in the record industry of recordings artists and black recording artists.  Records by black performers became known as “race records”. By 1927, approximately 500 race records were being released annually. Smith’s innovative success opened the door for a number of black artists such as Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Ma Rainey.

Black and white image of Ma Rainey wearing a headband and white necklace.
Figure 3.4 Ma Rainey.

Ma Rainey (1886–1939) was an early and very influential classic blues singer. Her style included raw, gutsy moans, dramatic pauses, expressive bends, and use of blue notes. She was a performer most of her life, working with minstrel shows as a singer around the turn of the century. Later she became the star attraction in her own traveling minstrel show. Rainey herself told folklorist John Work about her first time hearing the blues in 1902 (1 year before W.C.Handy’s account). Rainey was traveling with a tent show, singing for audiences throughout the south. In Missouri she recalled hearing a girl who was visiting the tent show singing a song about the man who left her; the song was so interesting to Rainey that she learned it from the girl and incorporated it into her own repertoire, calling it “the blues” to those asking what kind of music it was (Work, pg. 32). Rainey was one of the first musicians to record the blues starting in 1923, and although she may have been past her prime as a vocalist, her recordings still stand the test of time.

Black and white image of Bessie Smith in a silky top.
Figure 3.5 Bessie Smith by Carl Van Vechten.

Bessie Smith (pictured above, 1894-1937) was in many ways the protégé of Ma Rainey. Smith toured and performed with Rainey as part of the Moses Stokes Minstrel Show in 1912 (Davis pg. 75) and was influenced by Rainey’s vocal style, especially the bending of blue notes (dissonant or “ugly” notes that resolve to consonant or “pretty” notes) and dramatic expression. When Smith began recording in 1923, she had almost immediate success. Her recording of a cover version of “Down Hearted Blues” (1923) sold more than 750,000 copies in the first 6 months. Smith was open to covering songs by other singers, and often she seemed to bring new life to the cover songs she sang. Her appeal was unlimited; Smith had white fans and was very popular in northern states as well as the south. Her popularity was due to her vocal abilities, refined sound, and crossover into jazz with collaborations between herself and popular jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong.

Delta Blues

Black and white photographic image of Blind Lemon Jefferson wearing glasses, holding a guitar.
Figure 3.6 Blind Lemon Jefferson ca. 1926.

Country Blues from the Mississippi delta (known as “Delta Blues”) was the style that had the most direct influence on the development of the blues and rock and roll, and is likely very closely related to the music W.C. Handy heard at the train station in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Some of the best-known early delta blues musicians are Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Son House. Delta blues differs from other country blues in lyrical content; delta blues were more expressive, personal and raw, a representation of the lives led by the musicians. This pure expression as well as a more pronounced rhythmic vitality helped to gain popularity. Also, new techniques on the guitar and a signature musical form known as “12-Bar Blues” emerged prominently in the Delta blues. These characteristics remain vital musical elements in much of today’s popular music.

While the recordings of delta blues artists almost always feature a solo singer/guitarist this may have been simply an economical choice by the record company (it’s cheaper to pay one musician then two). We have testimony from Son house that he, Charley Patton, and another musician named Willie Brown (immortalized in Robert Johnson’s “Crossroad Blues”) often performed together (Davis pg. 31). Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the earliest of these solo blues stylists to record, and it is likely that he provided a seminal influence on musicians like Robert Johnson.

Characteristics of Delta Blues Guitar

Color image of someone playing an electric slide guitar.
Figure 3.7 Slide guitar.

Melodic Fills – The guitar had long been primarily a chordal instrument in early folk styles. This means that usually the guitar served as accompaniment to singers or other instruments through the playing of chords. Delta blues guitarists began to incorporate melodic fills (single note melody lines) in their playing along with their strumming.

Pentatonic Scale – A common scale used in blues consisting of 5-notes, usually omitting the 2nd and 6th degrees of common 7-note scales. (Don’t worry if you’re not sure what this means!)

String Bending – Guitarists began using the technique of string bending where the guitar strings are physically bent. This adds an expressive sound, creating a more vocal-like texture.

Bottlenecks – Delta blues guitarists would saw off the neck of a glass bottle and use it on the strings of the guitar to slide between notes. The sound created with the slide gives a strong vocal character to the guitar.

Blue Notes – An important part of the characteristic sound of blues, blue notes are notes from outside the standard musical scale. Certain notes within a standard scale are altered to create tension and set up a release from dissonance to consonance. (Again, don’t worry if this is unfamiliar)

In the videos below, I demonstrate the delta blues guitar techniques listed above, with an extra video showing a glass slide (like a bottleneck) as opposed to the steel slide. Go back and listen to Robert Johnson or Charley Patton and see if you can hear these techniques in the original recordings.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is one of the most influential country/delta blues musicians. Died at age 27 and his entire output is only 29 songs.

Not much is known about his life, though in his lyrics he expresses “insatiable desire for wine, women, and song” (Charlton, p. 7). Johnson pursued music with a fervor, leaving home to apprentice with some of the best musicians in the Delta. A brief career led to performances and a handful of recordings that would prove enormously influential on future blues and rock guitarists. The details surrounding his death are highly ambiguous; he apparently died from poisoning by a women or the jealous husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair.

Johnson’s songs followed the AAB form lyrically and used the same chords as the basic 12-bar blues structure. Though it fits the 12 bar structure, Johnson used greater freedom with rhythm. Extra beats were added to bars, extra bars were added to phrases, and sometimes the rhythms he sang were different than his accompaniment; these polyrhythms are common in traditional African music. When listening to “Crossroad Blues” (above in Listening ex. 3.2) notice Johnson’s use of the bottleneck slide from the very first notes of the recording. The use of the slide provides a vocal-esque counter melody to Johnson’s voice. The use of “call and response” is apparent in the recording as well. Notice how each time Johnson finishes singing a line, his guitar (often with the slide) provides a musical response, much like a conversation between his voice and his guitar. Again, due to the extra freedom in rhythm, don’t bother trying to count 12 bars or 4 beats; Johnson is playing with the rhythms and adding/subtracting at will.

Countless blues and rock musicians were influenced by Johnson’s music including: the Rolling Stones, Cream and Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, and many more.


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Popular Music by Todd Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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