Blues music originated in the American South as early as the 1860s. The genre came together through the African American slave experience. Blues music is the product of slave spirituals and field hollers. The style created future styles of American popular music. Jazz, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock & Roll all owe to American blues.
What Is Blues Music?
Blues music formed because of the hardships facing enslaved African Americans. The lyrics speak to these hardships. The sadness associated with the pain and suffering at the time is how the blues earned its name. The music follows the 12-bar blues scale.
Blues music is a part of both American history and its culture. The genre of music is so popular that it created the Mississippi blues Trail to its honor on December 11, 2006. The markers commemorate the careers of legendary blues musicians B.B. King, Charley Patton, Bo Diddley, and the Dockery Plantation. The Mississippi Blues Trail consists of over 200 markers that celebrate moments in the history of blues music.
Based on Suffering
Blues music is defined by its rhythmic scale and repeating lyrics. But without sadness, there can be no blues to sing. A famous artist who successfully conveyed the painful blues experience is the father of the blues, Son House. His song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” is still meaningful. Bob Dylan even covered the song on his self-titled debut album.
Of the many sad blues songs, one of the most well-known is “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson. “Hell-Hound On My Trail” is written by the king of the blues Robert Johnson who lived one of the most tragic lives in American music. Possibly the saddest blues song ever recorded is “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday.
Characteristics of Blues Music
Blues music includes specific characteristics. Melody focuses on the first, fourth and fifth chords. Blues requires rhythm as well. Traditional blues music has a single rhythmic line repeated four times.
Another element of blues music is the sound of the music itself. All songs of this genre include a guitar, and other instruments included in many blues songs are a harmonica or piano. This musical style is known as the blues note. Unique to this style and jazz music, the blues note plays at a slightly different pitch for dramatic purposes. Robert Johnson uses the blues note in many of his famous songs.
Songs in 12/8 Time
Most blues songs use the 12 beats per measure formula. This formula is 12/8 times. In 12/8 time, the eighth note gets one beat. B.B. King recorded both “Shame, Shame, Shame” and “Sweet Little Angel” in 12/8 time. The Jimi Hendrix song “Red House” uses this beat formula.
Writing a Blues Melody
The first part of writing a blues song is constructing the melody. Blues songs work with four beats in a bar, and these bars occur in three phases. The three phases of four bars each are called 12-Bar Blues. This structure builds the foundation for a blues melody.
The scale of blues music is a feeling of discomfort or sadness for the listener. The 3, 5 and 7 scales are flat. The 12-Bars blues form creates from this simple structure.
12 Bar Blues Songs
Musician form is the general formula of the structure of a song. The 12-Bar blues form constructs a chord progression taking place over 12 measures called bars. This format utilizes the I, IV, and V chords of a key. These chords are known as the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords.
The bars break into three groups of four chords. The first chord, known as the tonic, is four measures long. The second chord, called the subdominant, follows for two bars then the tonic returns for two bars.
The final measures include the third chord for one measure, called the dominant. The subdominant chord follows for one measure. The tonic concludes with the final two measures. The 12-Bars blues form is written out as AAAA-BBAA-CBAA.
Blues Lyrics Structure
After the music is the lyrics. The lyrics for blues songs follow the call-and-response structure. Call-and-response is in two phases. The first phrase initiates the story. The second phrase is the response. The response is lyrical or musical and depends on the composer.
An example of musical call-and-response happens when the performer sings one line and immediately follows it with a quick harmonica break. A famous song using the call-and-response structure is “Mannish Boy” by Buddy Waters. The Jimi Hendrix song “Red House” is another example of call-and-response.
Three-Line Verse Structure
A simple verse structure has three lines. The first line explains the problem of the song. The second line repeats the first. The third line is the conclusion or the consequence. Robert Johnson uses the three-line verse structure in his famous song “Crossroad Blues.”
Famous Blues Songs Lyrics
If you want to listen to some famous examples of great blues lyrics, you should look no further than the aforementioned “Crossroad Blues.” Robert Johnson’s lyrics are haunting and unforgettable. Another song to sample is “The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King. These two songs are perfect examples of blues songs with some of the most enduring lyrics of all time.
Classic Blues Songs
“Matchbox Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson
“Boom Boom” by John Lee Hooker
“Me and the Devil Blues” by Robert Johnson
“Hound Dog” by Big Momma Thornton
“Dust My Broom” by Elmore James
15 Words That Rhyme With Blues
Blues songs follow a simple structure. The melody is in the 12-Bars blues form that uses three measures and four chords. The blues song lyrics follow a three-line verse structure and utilize the call-and-answer format.
This format brings the soul and sadness of blues music to life. Many musicians sing the blues. Following this structure pays tribute to their struggles and accomplishments.