BUILDING THE BLUES
The sound of the blues is unmistakable. A type of early American folk song, the Blues first made its appearance in parts of the rural deep South during the late 1800s and was heavily influenced by the traditions of work songs, field hollers, spirituals, and gospel hymns. A musical response to the experiences of African Americans in the rural South during the time of slavery, blues music recognizes pain, suffering, injustice, or the loss of a loved one.
When discussing the blues, it is important to be familiar with some of the basic elements that make Blues music unique. Like most types of music, blues has a specific musical form with two basic components: a lyric form (or vocal form) and a harmonic form. These components work together to create what we know as blues.
Most blues lyrics follow a certain formula:
Each of the above three sections are four measures/bars each. The resulting total of which is a 12 measure form, hence the term twelve-bar Blues (it is important to note that the terms bar and measure can be used interchangeably).
When talking specifically about the lyrical content, each of the above sections represents a stanza. The first stanza states a problem. The second stanza restates the problem and the third stanza resolves the problem. This is often likened to call and response or conflict and resolution. For example:
Statement: My dog ate my homework and now I gotta stay after school
Restatement: My dog ate my homework and now I gotta stay after school
Resolution: Now he’s the world’s smartest dog, but he treats me like a fool
Note that the last word of the third stanza rhymes with the last word of the first two stanzas.
The lyrics and harmony work together to make blues music unique, but not all blues songs have lyrics. This is one reason why it is important to understand the harmonic form also.
The harmonic form of the blues is based off of three chords and, although there are many variations on this form, we will only be dealing with a basic blues. These three chords are built off of the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees of a major scale. These three chords alone don’t automatically mean that a song is a blues, but the way they are organized which helps us define the harmonic form, giving us a blues.
Much like the lyric form, the harmonic form is organized into three sections of four measures each. As was stated in the previous paragraph, there are three chords in a blues and, as you will see below, each of these chords will begin one of the three sections. The chords are organized as follows (the chart below corresponds with the chart on the accompanying handout):