Early Blues

What do rock n roll, bluegrass, jazz, and R&B have in common?  Aside from using the elements of music, they all have their roots in the blues.  Twentieth century popular music would not exist without the Blues.  So, what is the Blues?  When we say we have the blues we are talking about a feeling, a sad feeling.  Melancholy, sorrowful, miserable....blue.  The blues is a style of music that emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries from African American folk music, work songs and spirituals as well as european harmony.  The inspiration for the music was often rooted in very hard times. The blues, like the music it derived from, was often learned by the oral tradition.  Accompanying instruments often include guitar, banjo, and fiddle.  Many people are unaware that the banjo is derived from African instruments and was first brought to America by enslaved Africans.  If you're interested in learning more about the banjo's African roots I highly recommend the movie "Throw Down Your Heart."  Bela Fleck is a virtuosic American banjo player who takes the instrument back to Africa to try and see how it might fit today.

Call and Response is a common element of work songs and spirituals.  One "caller" sings or plays an idea and then there's a chorus of response.

Wade The Water To My Knees

W.C. Handy is known as the "Father of the blues" because he was one of the first musicians to publish and bring blues music to a wide audience.  He used folk themes in his music.  What other genre of music does this?  One of his most famous pieces was published in 1914 and later performed but countless musicians including Louis Armstrong, St. Louis Blues.  Handy is considered a "pre-war" blues composer.

How is Bessie on St. Louis Blues the same or different as W.C. Handy's orchestra?  The lyrics were written by Louis Armstrong.

Many blues musicians are given nick names.  Blind Lemon Jefferson got his name by his folks though.  He was born Lemon Henry Jefferson.  Wikipedia says he was born blind at birth but he is also wearing glasses in his photograph.  Later Rock N Roll musicians tried to imitate his style.  One of his most popular songs:

See That My Grave Is Kept Clean

This is a funny image that was being passed around for a while, how you can figure out your blues name.  I'm easily amused.  Mine is Fat Gumbo Davis.  You can use yours with your blues lyric composition this week if you like.


Country blues performer, Robert Johnson, included rural and classic elements of blues.  The differences between these styles are described here and where I found the following chart.  Can you hear any of these elements in the following song?

Sweet Home Chicago

Rural Blues spacer Classic Bluesspacer
1. Black Folk society 1. City society
2. Product of an agrarian society and attendant subject material 2. Urban environment
3. South 3. North
4. Usually pure and an extension of folklore and folk song 4. Shows an assimilation of a great many elements of popular music (such as popular theater and/or vaudeville
5. Usually find blues singers in three contexts:

  1. singing for themselves and their immediate friends
  2. blind and/or otherwise disabled blues singers
  3. slightly commercial performers working picnics, dances, etc.
5. Professional blues singers found in nightclubs bars, at social affairs, etc.
6. Usually men 6. Originally mainly women; both men and women
7. In-group directed 7. Audience directed

Ma Rainey, an urban blues singer, is known as the "Mother of the Blues."  However, she was not married to W.C. Handy.  :-)  You can hear her use the AAB form that we are about to talk about.  The first two lines of each figure are the same with a contrasting 3rd line.

Sweet, Rough Man


Melodically, the blues has it's own scale.  Doesn't mean you can't use notes outside of the scale but the scales offers a different flavor than a traditional major or minor scale.

I            flat III        IV       flat V              V              flat VII        I

do            me            fa             Se              sol              te                do

E                G             A             Bb               B                 D               E

A                C             D             Eb               E                 G                A

B                D             E               F                F#              A                B

Harmonically, the blues usually uses 3 chords.  The I, IV, and V(7) chords.  These numbers signify where on the scale the chords are positioned.  The I means the first chord of the scale used.  The IV means the chord that occurs on the 4th tone of the scale.  Likewise the V refers to the chord that occurs on the 5th tone of the scale.  What is are the I, IV, and V chords in E?

E    F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E

1    2      3       4    5    6     7      8/1

12 bar blues refers to a specific way the chords are organized over 12 measures.  The meter is 4/4.  As illustrated below, the chords would be played for each slash.



The 12 bar blues was used in later rock n roll like Elvis does in Hound Dog.

B.B. King and Tracy Chapman use the 12 bar blues in the song Thrill is Gone

Complete the B line of this AAB phrase.  (this cannot be used for your homework)

A)  I came down to _______(place)  with _________ on my (mind, back..etc)

A)  I came down to _______(place)  with _________ on my (mind, back)

B)  ___________________________________ (last word should rhyme with the last word of A section)

Now write a follow-up verse, based on the opening.




Your assignment is to write your own 12 bar blues lyrics.  There's many ways to do this.  I have found some templates online that you can use.  Feel free to change them any way that better fits what you want to say.  Have fun with this.  Write more than one if you like.  Keep the lines separate.  If it says it is line 1 in the template write it on a different line than line 2.

Here are some templates:

Blues template 1       Blues template 2