Foundations: An Essay on the Blues

I got a call from a banjo colleague, Bart Gallagher, who asked for some background information on the blues. I thought it would be useful to readers of my site as well as students in my jazz history course to provide a brief summary of this distinctive form which is an integral component of American music.

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Nobody can specifically say where the blues came from, like many other grassroots cultural movements. Certainly, it was first recognized as a form of Afro-American folk song which had some of its earliest development and popularization with blacks in the South deriving from “work songs”.

Work songs were a psychological necessity as a way for enslaved blacks to try to cope with their situation: no control or self-determination, and forced into labor for the benefit of others on whom their survival depended. Whether working individually or in groups, it was undoubtedly useful to use musical rhythmic patterns both as a timing mechanism and to deal with monotonous repetitive actions. While most communication between field slaves was forbidden, plantation owners and bosses could see that production benefitted from the pacing and synchronization which these patterns provided and were more likely to allow them. Once permitted, inventive slaves worked within the limits to creatively develop a communication system. A well-known pattern which developed was the “field holler”, where an initial message or phrase would be called out loud enough for another to hear. That line could be “hollered back” in confirmation, creating a pattern of call-and-response. Upon confirmation of the first message component, another phrase might serve as a follow-up.

While it emerged from humble origins, the harmonic component of the blues arises from a very practical application of music theory. Its fundamental building blocks are the 3 naturally occurring “major” chords which are components of every diatonic major scale in traditional western music. These chords occur on the triads built on the first, fourth and fifth notes in any given scale. This has a practical application on both a tuned keyboard and string instruments.

On a keyboard, playing the white keys will give a complete diatonic scale. The next step is building three-note harmonic chord structures, leaving a gap of one white key between each of the three struck keys. If these chords are played sequentially up the keyboard, the player will find that the chord rooted on “C” is identified by the ear as the “root” or standard key of the scale, sounding as a reference point of ultimate resolution. It is also notably a “major” chord, sounding complete and with a “positive” feel. A similar “major – positive” feel will be felt on chords which are respectively 4 and 5 steps up from the root chord. In the key of “C major”, these chords are “F major” and “G major”. If we substitute a Roman numeral system to represent them, the chords will be labeled “I” (one), “IV” (four) and “V” (five). It’s noteworthy that the “I” chord appears in the major scale harmony based on its “IV” and “V” pitches in every diatonic major scale.

A similar phenomenon is quickly noticeable on strings. In the simplest form, a guitar or other string instrument is tuned so that its open strings sound to a major chord. Using a piece of metal pipe or smooth bar, the player may slide the moving piece toward the bridge while remaining parallel to the nut at the top of the neck. On an instrument with frets or fret markings, the sound of all strings will again reach a “major” sound at the 5th fret (equivalent to a keyboard “IV”) and the 7th fret (equivalent to a keyboard “V”). So for all those old blues guitarists down south, some even with homemade instruments, the accessibility of these three key chords was self-evident even without formal lessons or “correct” tunings.

When intermingled, these two elegantly simple and adaptable components of form and harmony create the familiar structure of the basic blues which has been heard by the general public dating back to the early 1900’s. Lyrically & melodically, a first line is stated in the first 4 bars, next repeated or developed, and finally followed by a “tag” or “punch” line in the final 4 bars completing the idea associated with the stanza. Harmonically, it’s commonly supported by a now-classic “12 bar” pattern of chord harmonization.

[ In this example, each chord numeral represents 1 bar (or 4 beats) of that harmony. ]

I – I – I – I     //     IV – IV – I – I     //     V – V – I – I

In the most simple of variations, a IV chord substitutes for I in the second bar.

This pattern has been used for countless traditional guitar blues and popular tunes. Well known historic examples of the harmonic pattern include the “A” and “C” sections of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, “Frankie & Johnny”, “Diddy Wa Diddy”, “In The Mood”, “Caledonia”, “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Rock Around The Clock”, “Johnny B. Goode”, “Barbara Ann”, “Tutti Frutti”, “Shake, Rattle & Roll”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Mustang Sally” and “Pride & Joy”. A treasure trove of folk music has been built on the blues form because of its simplicity and appropriateness for a wide variety of creative uses and story-telling entertainment.

Over years, many complex mutations developed including extended or reduced numbers of bars, substituted or extended chord harmonies, altered modalities (major-minor) or blues incorporated into larger musical forms. Duke Ellington, in particular, utilized and explored the possibilities of blues as a unique African-American contribution to the art of music composition and expression.

Melodically, a “blues feel” is associated with the emphasized use of certain notes – the 6th, flatted 3rd, and flatted 7th notes of the scale being used,often with a “bending” feel as applied by guitarists.

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