.. the seventh, and sometimes the fifth scale-degrees were lowered a half step, producing a scale resembling the minor scale. (Machlis 578) There are many nuances of melody and rhythm in the blues that are difficult, if not impossible to write in conventional notation. (Salzman 18) But the blue notes are not really minor notes in a major context. In practice they may come almost anywhere.
(Machlis 578) Before the field cry, with its bending of notes, it had not occurred to musicians to explore the area of the blue tonalities on their instruments. (Tanner 38) The early blues singers would sing these bent notes, microtonal shadings, or blue notes, and the early instrumentalists attempted to duplicate them. (Kamien 520) By the mid-twenties, instrumental blues were common, and playing the blues for the instrumentalist could mean extemporizing a melody within a blues chord sequence. Brass, reed, and string instrumentalists, in particular, were able to produce many of the vocal sounds of the blues singers. (Machlis 578-9) Blues lyrics contain some of the most fantastically penetrating autobiographical and revealing statements in the Western musical tradition. For instance, the complexity of ideas implicit in Robert Johnson’s ‘Come In My Kitchen,’ such as a barely concealed desire, loneliness, and tenderness, and much more: You better come in my kitchen, It’s gonna be rainin’ outdoors.
Blues lyrics are often intensely personal, frequently contain sexual references and often deal with the pain of betrayal, desertion, and unrequited love (Kamien 519) or with unhappy situations such as being jobless, hungry, broke, away from home, lonely, or downhearted because of an unfaithful lover. (Tanner 39) The early blues were very irregular rhythmically and usually followed speech patterns, as can be heard in the recordings made in the twenties and thirties by the legendary bluesmen Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Lightnin’ Hopkins among others. (RSR&RE 53) The meter of the blues is usually written in iambic pentameter. The first line is generally repeated and third line is different from the first two. (Tanner 38) The repetition of the first line serves a purpose as it gives the singer some time to come up with a third line.
Often the lyrics of a blues song do not seem to fit the music, but a good blues singer will accent certain syllables and eliminate others so that everything falls nicely into place. (Tanner 38) The structure of blues lyrics usually consists of several three-line verses. The first line is sung and then repeated to roughly the same melodic phrase (perhaps the same phrase played diatonically a perfect fourth away), the third line has a different melodic phrase: I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going to say goodbye. I’m going to leave baby, ain’t going to say goodbye. But I’ll write you and tell you the reason why. (Kamien 519) Most blues researchers claim that the very early blues were patterned after English ballads and often had eight, ten, or sixteen bars. (Tanner 36) The blues now consists of a definite progression of harmonies usually consisting of eight, twelve or sixteen measures, though the twelve bar blues are, by far, the most common. The 12 bar blues harmonic progression (the one-four-five) is most often agreed to be the following: four bars of tonic, two of subdominant, two of tonic, two of dominant, and two of tonic. Or, alternatively, I,I,I,I,IV,IV,I,I,V,V,I,I.
Each roman numeral indicates a chord built on a specific tone in the major scale. Due to the influence of rock and roll, the tenth chord has been changed to IV. This alteration is now considered standard. (Tanner 37) In practice, various intermediate chords, and even some substitute chord patterns, have been used in blues progressions, at least since the nineteen-twenties. (Machlis 578) Some purists feel that any variations or embellishments of the basic blues pattern changes its quality or validity as a blues song.
For instance, if the basic blues chord progression is not used, then the music being played is not the blues. Therefore, these purists maintain that many melodies with the word blues in the title, and which are often spoken of as being the blues, are not the blues because their melodies lack this particular basic blues harmonic construction. (Tanner 37) I believe this viewpoint to be a bit wide of the mark, because it places a greater emphasis on blues harmony than melody. The principal blues melodies are, in fact, holler cadences, set to a steady beat and thus turned into dance music and confined to a three-verse rhymed stanza of twelve to sixteen bars. (Lomax 275) The singer can either repeat the same basic melody for each stanza or improvise a new melody to reflect the changing mood of the lyrics. (Kamien 519) Blues rhythm is also very flexible. Performers often sing around the beat, accenting notes either a little before or behind the beat. (Kamien) Jazz instrumentalists frequently use the chord progression of the twelve-bar blues as a basis for extended improvisations.
The twelve or sixteen bar pattern is repeated while new melodies are improvised over it by the soloists. As with the Baroque bassocontinuo, the repeated chord progression provides a foundation for the free flow of such improvised melodic lines. (Kamien 520) One of the problems regarding defining what the blues are is the variety of authoritative opinions. The blues is neither an era in the chronological development of jazz, nor is it actually a particular style of playing or singing jazz. (Tanner 35) Some maintain (mostly musicologists) that the blues are defined by the use of blue notes (and on this point they also differ – some say that they are simply flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths applied to a major scale [forming a pentatonic scale]; some maintain that they are microtones; and some believe that they are the third, or fifth, or seventh tones sounded simultaneously with the flatted third, or fifth, or seventh tones respectively [minor second intervals]).
Others feel that the song form (twelve bars, one-four-five) is the defining feature of the blues. Some feel that the blues is a way to approach music, a philosophy, in a manner of speaking. And still others hold a much wider sociological view that the blues are an entire musical tradition rooted in the black experience of the post-war South. Whatever one may think of the social implications of the blues, whether expressing the American or black experience in microcosm, it was their strong autobiographical nature, their intense personal passion, chaos and loneliness, executed so vibrantly that it captured the imagination of modern musicians and the general public as well. (Shapiro 13) Kamien, Michael.
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