March 30, 2009

Why I Love the Blues

Countless people say they love the blues. It’s such an American institution, the same as we love the poetry of Robert Frost and the painting of Norman Rockwell. I wonder though, why many blues artists are not represented extensively on people’s iPods or in their CD collections. If you ask the average listener “who is a great blues artist?” after some hesitation, you will probably get B.B. King and Billie Holiday, even though Billie Holiday rarely sang a true blues song.

I’ve just finished another extensive book about the blues and I have to admit that the stories about early bluesmen — Son House, Charlie Patton, and Robert Johnson — interest me more than their actual recordings, which are a bit too raw and loose for my personal musical taste.

What I do love about the blues is the structure of the 12-bar blues form. It’s the perfect blueprint (pun intended) to play over, to write over, and to use at any tempo. Over the years I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the 12-bar blues, both from a chordal standpoint (the I-IV-V chord structure), and the 3-line verse including two identical lines and a rhyming response. The list is surprisingly extensive. My definition of the blues is probably wider than most, and it came to light for me last week.

I presented a workshop last week at the Common Ground Arts in Education Conference in Albany, New York. The focus of my workshop was using the blues in the classroom as a vehicle for writing poetry, for movement, and for art making. When I made the point that songs as diverse as Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” and James Brown’s “I Feel Good (I Got You)” are based on the 12-bar blues structure, one participant took issue. She said “don’t tell me James Brown was singing the blues.” The point was well taken. James Brown was not singing the blues. But James Brown was singing about how good he felt, over the 12-bar blues structure. He used the structure to write his song. He sang the first sentence twice and answered it with a rhyming sentence, just as Robert Johnson did and just as Muddy Waters did.

The 12-bar blues has also been the basis for such wide-ranging instrumental songs as the theme for the Batman TV show, for innumerable jazz tunes (from the sophisticated Bebop of Charlie Parker, to the killer swing of the Count Basie Orchestra), and to the most recent contribution, the quirky, former Vonage TV commercial, best described as the “Oo-Oo” song. Also I must mention one of the greatest recordings ever, “Green Onions.”

What I love about all this is that the blues form provides a format, an architecture and a structure over which you can do just about anything. If you improvise over the blues there’s no way you’re going to get lost; it inevitably returns to where it started in a short amount of time, allowing you to relax when playing. It’s the perfect vehicle for teaching improvisation. It’s the perfect vehicle for teaching children to write their own blues lyrics. Lastly, it’s the perfect vehicle for writing in any groove you choose.


  1. I like this post, and I think your distinction between blues form and blues style (a la "Don't tell me James Brown was singing the blues") is important. I think your "wider" definition is the better one, at least from an understanding music perspective. It may also be better subjectively. When artists in varying genres draw upon the blues form and apply it in different contexts, they are (at least in part) trying to pull out of their own music the emotion (be it "blue" or otherwise) the form conveys so well.

    Where can we learn more about the book you reference in the second paragraph?

  2. On the further note of blues books, I forgot to mention that I've read the interviews in Elwood's Blues ( and loved the life stories, tall tales, and quirky recollections. While old blues music can be inaccessible because it is so old, discovering backstories (reference intended) in a modern interview context can add substantial meat to the barred bones of Robert Johnson and other early bluesmen and women.

  3. Thanks for your insightful comments in support of my view of the blues/blues form.

    The book mentioned is new, Delta Blues: The Life & Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionalized American Music, by Ted Gioia. After reading the author's detailed descriptions of some of these songs, I feel the author sets the reader up for disappointment. After seeking out the specific recordings he mentioned that he placed so much value on, I find I am much more attracted to swing/shuffle blues than to the solo singer with guitar blues of the 20's and 30's.


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