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


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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Vaudeville Blues: The Classic Female Singers

12 Days of Blues-Mas | Episode #8

Written by Phill Brown

ma-rainy-black-bottomWhen we talk about the great grandfolks of the blues, our minds hit on that image: the lonesome guy with a guitar. Those legends of the nineteen-thirties shouted their woes about the lot-of-man down the ages with voices that cross ages and nations. I’ll be the first to admit they’re my link to the blues when I started listening to the 70s rock artists who shamelessly (or gloriously if you prefer) covered their tracks. But these guys were trailing on others’ blazes – the first generation of commercially successful blues artists were women.

African-American singers were a big thing in the clubs of the city and the backwater bars of the deep south long before recorded music was. Female singers would tour the towns with their entourage, including side shows and dance acts as well as singers and their bands.


Mamie Smith and her band

Mamie Smith was a club singer in Harlem for 7 years by the time she cut “Crazy blues” in 1920- a lazy New Orleans-style jazzy lament that paved the way for all the commercial recordings that came after.

Mamie’s restrained club-singing was soon outpaced by artists with a raw sound. The public had a taste for the visceral, and Bessie Smith (no relation as far as I’m aware) provided it. Songs like “T’aint nobody’s business if I do,” “I need a little sugar in my bowl,” “Gin house blues” and “On revival day” are all pretty familiar in the blues and swing dance scenes today (or to anyone familiar with Nina Simone’s catalogue recorded some 30-40 years later). Smith’s recordings are melodic, with her gut-driven vocals retaining a crooning quality and a beat that’s often heavily “pregnant” – the piano left-hand lags way behind the vocals to give a light swing on many tracks. Her songs are well covered by later bands, and have the same sorts of themes as you expect from her male blues counterparts: trouble with the partner, trouble with drink and thoughts of lust or violence.

I have to admit, I find some of this early aesthetic hard work – you have to get ‘your ear in’ on the old recording quality and five songs in a row about domestic violence is about my limit. But you’ll be missing out on some crackers if you don’t put that effort in.

My Butcher Man

My Butcher Man

As with the wider body of blues music in general, the early blues ladies aren’t just about battles with mortality or the bottom of the bottle. I’ve recently been working my way down the recordings of Memphis Minnie, who was no less prolific than Bessie Smith.

Minnie had been performing with banjo, guitar and voice since before she was ten, but didn’t get to record until 1929. Her style is much more “country”, with bouncy little rhythms and an upbeat tone. Her content tends more toward the raunchy – songs like “Dirty Mother for You,” “Hot stuff,” and “Living the best I can” are all sung with a wink and a nod. “My Butcher Man” is definitely about a meat vendor. Even that sounds dodgy.

Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds

Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds

Minnie recorded and gigged around Chicago with the likes of big Bill Broonzy, and her recording history is littered with musical partnerships. If you want a silly, joyous, chatty listen, give “New Orleans Stop Time” a go. Her accessible song style led to songs like “What’s the Matter with the Mill” and “When the Levee Breaks” being covered by Muddy Waters and Led Zeppelin (Zeppelin even gave her their rarest of compliments: acknowledging her in their sleeve notes).


Lil Green

My final woman of the early blues was a touch later, cutting tracks from the mid-1930s as a young club singer – Lil Green.


Lil Green and orchestra

Green also did an act with Bill Broonzy and her songs have the structure and tone of being more of a pop song. I think of her as ‘Billie Holiday-lite”, as there’s some similarity in the voice but without the full get wrench that sets your teeth on edge with Holiday. weedsmokers-dreamGreen’s tracks tend to tread the line between swing and blues, none more so than in the first recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right” since it was re-written from the original Harlem Hamfats song “Weedsmoker’s Dream”. Peggy Lee later claimed that she had Lil Green’s record on constantly in her dressing room, so Benny Goodman decided to do a new arrangement which set its status as a Jazz standard for evermore. But her on-beat catchy tunes are a foot tapper for dance enthusiast and novice alike.


So there you have it, a quick whistle-stop of some of my early faves. There’s far more to them all than I can cover, but I thoroughly recommend you wrap your ears around some of their tracks and have a little shuffle ’round your living room.

12-days-christmas-logoMany thanks to the author Phill Brown

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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


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:


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.


‘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:


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.


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.)


…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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