Why do we call it ‘The Blues’?

Guest post by Laura KoAn

“Blues tells a story. Every line of blues has a meaning.”

 John Lee Hooker

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Where do we begin in plumbing the depths of the blues?

— With the first recording by an African American singer in 1890s? *

— With the first publications of blues sheet music in 1912? **

— With the chroniclers reporting about the appearance of blues music in Southern Texas and Deep South at the dawn of the 20th century? ***

— Among the plantations and cotton fields of the antebellum South?

— On the slave ships?

— Or in the musical tradition of mother Africa?

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Early Piedmont Blues | Blind Blake

Guest post by Stefano Ronchi

cordiallyyoursOne man and his guitar

Arthur “Blind” Blake, born in Jacksonville in 1896, is known as one of the best artists in Piedmont blues history, if not the greatest.

Also known as the man with the ‘piano-sounding guitar’ Blake is also regarded as the unrivalled master of ragtime blues finger picking guitar.

His complex and intricate finger picking style has influenced countless others.

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Blues & Jazz | an Evolution in Structure

12 Days of Blues-Mas | Episode #7

Written by Zach Goldie


Nightlife on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans in Louisiana in the United States of AmericaIn the beginning, there was…well…lots of things…

I won’t pretend I can summarize the origins of jazz. But, I’ll take the liberty of saying it was born in New Orleans, resulting from a mash-up of influences. Or as a great trumpeter said:

“New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born.” — Wynton Marsalis

With its proximity to the Mississippi Delta, it’s no surprise that blues became a big element in the development of jazz. As well as borrowing the harmonies typical of blues, the 12-bar structure became a frequent feature in jazz repertoires.

As one of my favourite examples, take a listen to Louis Armstrong with his Hot 5s and 7s:

Recorded in 1925 (with a great bit of banjo), the 12-bar form is clearly present. By using brass instruments and that New Orleans style of call and response*, it is already very much jazz, but the blues influence is strongly heard

*side note: the New Orleans style call and response differs from the Delta blues style.

“Like old men in a barbershop, with one guy telling the main story and the others overlaying reactions or commentary as he comes to the end of each sentence.” – Aurora Nealand

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Getting into the swing of it

Slowly the trends shifted to swing as big bands grew in popularity. Compared to New Orleans, they were highly orchestrated with harmonically complex horn sections.

count-basie-albumsCount Basie has to be my favourite from this era, possibly because he had the strongest connection with blues. He always bought a bluesy element into his sound, partly by featuring vocalists such as Billie Holiday and Jimmie Rushing as well as playing many 12-bars.

To create this new sound, composers such as Basie were playing with the basic song structures to add the opportunity for new harmonies and ideas. You can hear Basie’s take on the 12-bar broken down here. The added chords create more gradual transitions between the focal points (C7, F7, G7), letting soloists play longer runs.

To listen to this put into practice, have a listen to Count Basie’s Rockin the Blues, recorded in 1940:

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Delving deeper into the music

In the 40s, jazz musicians were looking for new ground to explore. A return to small band formats was occurring, partly due to wartime economics, and a new sound was needed to distance themselves from the tired old renditions.

parker-and-groupOne prominent musician who led the way was Charlie Parker aka ‘Bird’. As a teenager, he was obsessed with Lester Young (Basie’s sax player) due to his way of playing relaxed solos that seemed to flow through the tune.

As an obsessive musician who practised up to 15hrs a day, he came to be known for his blazingly fast solos and new harmonic ideas. They became a vital part of bebop, a new style of jazz. Regarded as a musician’s music, it was intended for listening audiences, not for dancing.

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‘There’s no boundary line to art’

‘l’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it … I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.’ – Charlie Parker

Of course, the 12-bar blues wasn’t neglected in these advancements. It became another popular progression that was modified with extra chords by bebop players.

Bird’s blues progression is explained here. The chords barely stayed in one place; instead taking a whole three bars to transition between the focal points (Fmaj7, Bb7, C7).

Try listening to Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice (1951) and see if you can hear these changes:

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A Retreat back to simplicity

Not every bebop musician was happy with this ever increasing complexity. Towards the end of the 1950s Miles Davis – a prominent trumpeter and bandleader – felt it was becoming inaccessible as a genre.

tracy-approved-imageTo fight against the complexity, Davis stripped his music back down. In his new direction, he focused on more loosely defined songs that were no longer crammed with chords.

“I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.” – Miles Davis

For this album, he brought in pianist Bill Evans. As a classically trained pianist who favoured composers like Debussy with his floating harmonies, he was the final ingredient for Kind of Blue to be recorded. It went on to become one of the best-selling and most highly regarded jazz albums of all time.

In this short album, our favourite 12-bar blues structure was used for two tunes. The more blues-y Freddie Freeloader and my favourite tune All Blues can be heard to follow our favourite chord progression

So sit back and have a listen to All Blues (1959):

Notice how the players now take their time exploring their ideas, letting each note hold its own with far more use of space. How the calm rhythm section keep the tune gently driving forwards. Or how you might say it’s…kind of blues-y.

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A ridiculous final metaphor

satchmo-pub-crawlImagine Louis Armstrong was organizing a pub crawl. Most people were generally happy spending time in each pub (read: chord) chugging down pints.

Then Basie came along saying ‘y’know, the walk between pubs is always fun, let’s put some more focus on that’. (Read: chord substitutions and ii-V-I transitions.)

Charlie Parker liked this idea and wanted to take it further, where the pub crawls were mostly an excuse to explore new scenic routes between trying new beers. (Read: extended transitions, only stopping briefly on each main chord.)

Eventually, Miles Davis popped up saying ‘guys, most people actually love beer, so how about we shift our focus back to the pubs but spend time slowly enjoying unusual craft beers instead of chugging back pints of bitter’ (Read: spacious improvisations over just a few chords.)

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…and then…?

Of course, jazz didn’t just finish. It’s still going, and it’s still evolving with various amounts of blues-yness.

I hope my post has given you a helpful look into its relationship with blues, and I’ll see you all on a dance floor soon.


12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Zach Goldie

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Blues heroes | Lightnin’ Hopkins

Guest post by Ross Woods

I met Ross Woods for the first time in 2013 when I went along to DJ at Blue Mondays in Bristol. Ross was a regular DJ on the team and someone who had been deep into blues music for a very long time. 

Pretty soon I was part of the Blue Mondays group on Facebook, and noticed that Ross shared every one of his playlists as a note inside of the group. I hold him in high regard for having consistently good taste in blues; he’s introduced me to lots of excellent music over the last few years.

The last time I went to Bristol (for the Bristol Blues Exchange in July) I could only stay for one night but was lucky to be hosted by Ross and his wife Dee.  It turned out that we both had time for an extended breakfast (with lots of coffee) and we had a lot of fun talking about how we select songs when we’re DJing (Ross watches for visual cues from the dancers while I use mainly instinct and harmonic mixing, just in case you are interested).

Ross also showed me his amazing vinyl collection and one record in particular. This was the starting point for the story you’re just about to read.


LightninFinding ‘the’ Album

I must have been about 19, in probably my second year of university when I bought my first blues album. I’d decided I was interested in blues music, but didn’t really know anything about what I liked, or even what was out there. I went into the university bookshop, up to the record store on the mezzanine floor, and went diving around in the Blues section. This was in the days when vinyl was the only format.

I’ve no idea why I chose Lightnin’ Hopkins – Volume II; maybe it was the enthusiastic tone of the liner notes. Anyway, they had headphones so you could try out records without disturbing the peace. They put on the record for me, and within about 10 seconds I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for. I still love the opening few bars of that track, ‘Last night‘, with those gloriously relaxed guitar fills.

The Album

A special feature of the album is the superior rhythm section of Earl Palmer and Jimmy Bond, who follow him wherever he goes – in the middle of ‘That’s My Story‘ Hopkins announces:

“I got so much good stuff behind me today, that I don’t hardly know how to shake myself!”

As a bonus, jazz trombonist John “Streamline” Ewing turns up on a few of the tracks too – on ‘Dillon’s Store‘ (my favourite track) he is brilliant in a duet with Lightnin on slide guitar.

One of the funniest (or perhaps saddest) things about this album is that the photo on the album is not of him (it’s T-Bone Walker, another Texas bluesman).

Exactly the same music was released on another album as Fugitive Blues.

Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Music

My impression of his music is that it’s just so cool and yet intense at the same time. I especially love the slow songs with those huge bent notes and long pauses. His vocals sound relaxed to me because he doesn’t sing right on the beat, and stretches words out.

If you listen obsessively, he’s all over the place when it comes to song structure – while his basic pattern is 12-bar blues, he throws in extra bars and plays melody lines that just ignore the bar structure altogether; whatever sounds good to him.

When he plays solo his timing can be pretty loose at times, which is great for dancing, because you get great rewards for listening! It’s great to dance to what the musician actually plays, rather than relying on an internal metronome that we set up at the start of the song.

His guitar playing is a great combination of heart-rending emotion and virtuoso technique. Here’s a great example where he’s playing ‘Lightnin’s Blues‘. Listen carefully to hear little flashes of his dark humour in the lyrics.

Of course it’s not all slow and melancholy, here he is, all upbeat and optimistic that he’s going to make money betting on a horse in ‘Goin’ to Dallas’.

About the man

The music of Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins spans a huge swathe of 20th century blues. He learned to play blues while he was growing up in Texas. He first met the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson age 8 and learned from him directly, supporting him at church events once he could play well enough.

After a trip to Houston county penitentiary, Lightnin’ lost the blues for a while until re-connecting with his cousin ‘Texas’ Alexander. Playing with him at weekends he was spotted by a talent scout for Aladdin records. Thus began his career in earnest.

Hopkins recorded a staggering number of songs in the 40s and 50s, estimated at somewhere between 800 and 1000. Even when he became well-known he rarely strayed outside of Texas; preferring to play his local clubs in Houston instead of going out on the road to play the juke-joint circuit like many of his fellow blues men and women.

By the late 1950s the strength of his recorded material had achieved him a strong national following. Riding the crest of the blues wave, he toured to play for white audiences during the “re-discovery” of blues as American folk-music in the 60s.

He continued to record at least one album a year until 1969. He died of cancer in 1982.

Hopkins was a great entertainer and storyteller, and was known for his humorous introductions to songs. One of my favourites is the story of Mr Charlie. Be sure to listen right to the end!

If you want to read more about him, take a look at the beautiful heartfelt writing and first-hand accounts in these DVD liner notes.


Thank you so much Ross!

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Lightnin Hopkins and his unique style of blues. If you get to hear Ross DJ at some point, listen out for his music. I play him sometimes too. And when you dance to live musicians, you’ll be hearing some Hopkins covers, that’s for sure.