The Blues is like an onion, donkey…

The allure of the Blues puzzled me since the first time I heard Muddy Waters‘ “Hoochie Coochie Man“, as a young man. I could not understand the words (I didn’t know what a Hoochie Coochie was, let alone a black cat bone!),  I didn’t get the off timed rhythm, the repetitive bass line or the squealing from the guitar. But for some reason this one moment influenced my taste in music, forever.

Since then, I have been trying to unlock some of the secrets that made this very simple, repetitive format of music, so influential on me and millions of others.

Very soon after, I decided to learn to play the guitar, all I wanted to do was play the blues.

In fact, all I did do was play the blues!

The first chords I learned were E7, A7 and B7. I totally bypassed the usual steps of guitar learning, and jumped into the blues with both feet. I was totally immersed in the Blues… All the music I listened to was Blues, all the songs I learned were Blues, I was researching all the old Bluesmen back to W.C.Handy. My CD collection consisted of Muddy Waters, BB King, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. All my friends thought I was crazy listening to this old music at such a young age, but I could not help it.

I am getting off the point a little, but I just wanted to highlight  the impact the blues had on me as a young man. To get back to topic, the mystery of the Blues was, I believe, what got me into it in the first place.

Some people, when they listen to the blues, feel sad, or down. I could not understand that at all!  It did the exact opposite to me, when I listened to it. The lyrics may be talking about, the singers wife leaving them, or their dog dying, but the music still made me happy. This was the contradiction which I just could not fathom for ages. After a while, of analysing and researching, the penny dropped. The song lyrics of a Blues song are very straight forward, but the magic of the blues is in the layers.

On the surface, the song seems to be a sad song about the singer being mistreated or their woman is taking all their money. But in reality, the singer is usually conveying a secret message to his listeners in such a way that his boss or manager can’t understand. This tradition of the blues started when black musicians felt that  they were getting taken for a ride by the owner of a club, but did not yet have the right to stand up for themselves because of the colour of their skin.

You can find these things all over the internet, translations and hidden meanings of old blues lyrics.

Then you have the next layer, the bass line.  The bass line of the Blues is usually a distinctive triplet rhythm which I always feel, invokes an image of the stereotypical boxcar train as it goes over a crossing. The driving bass and drums play a major part in the essence of a blues song, more than in any other genre of music.

In the old days of the single guitar Blues masters, the bass lines were played on the E and A strings, at the same time as the melody and rhythm was being played on the higher strings. When you consider that these players were essentially playing three different instrument parts and singing on top of that, even if you don’t like their music, you have to take your hat off to them for their technique.

The Lead Guitar in the Blues, is arguably the most expressive form of lead instrument, when it is in the hands of a true master. The flexibility of the format, and the improvised nature of the blues provides a perfect platform for self-expression. From a guitarists point of view, possibilities are endless. Over a simple Blues progression using 7th chords, you can potentially pick notes from the major scale, the minor scale, major and minor pentatonic scale, and use them all to try to phrase what you are trying to say.

But, the best thing about the listening to the Blues , for me, is that you can hear all the individual musicians as they play their parts. If you listen to a four or five piece band (like the Muddy Waters Band), you can almost feel them playing off against each other. The relationships between them become evident, you can listen to ten different recordings of the same people and each one will be different. Each of the musicians can have bad days, or if you are real lucky, they can all be on fire!

Also, when you listen to old recordings, you can hear the imperfections.  The “Bum Notes”, the ambient noise from a sub standard recording setup, rhythm changes done both by accident and on purpose. All these things add to the experience, not the other way.

If you have the pleasure of seeing a bona fide Blues band live, at the top of their game, the result is staggering. The energy and emotion that comes out from a small band with a simple three chord progression, that everybody has heard a million times, is unforgettable.

If you forget everything else in this article, try to remember that, even though the song may be a sad, slow blues, the feelings of the Bluesman on the stage are the feelings that come through to you, the listener. When a great Blues singer wants you to feel sad, he can plumb the depths of your soul, but usually, the love and joy that comes from playing something that you truly enjoy comes through, instead.

These layers of the Blues, can reveal many different secrets about what is trying to be conveyed. Much like a passage in a book, can have many different messages for those that can read between the lines.

Although I missed the golden age of the Blues, I realise that I am blessed to grow up in an age when information is at your fingertips. I may not have had the opportunity to love the music that I do, had it not for the resources at my disposal.

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Blues is the Roots……(continued)

By cflitney

Modern Blues has it’s roots in the tribal songs of the west coast of Africa among others. These  work songs were used to keep good morale during the work day and the rhythmic bass lines and rhythms from the traditions of the villages would keep them to a steady pace.

When the music landed on the shores of the United States, it slowly evolved into two distinct styles, Gospel and Blues .

One side was the good, clean ,god fearing, hard working face of the coin. The other was the late night drinking, dirty dancing, secretive face of the coin.  The first celebrating the lord and giving prayer. The latter, bitching and moaning about your boss working you too hard or you wife not paying you enough attention.

The funny thing is that these two very contrasting styles, were mostly played by the same people. Musicians in the black community in the south at the time were few and far between, so lots of blues musicians used to play whatever would pay the bills. We should also remember that way back to the origin of the Blues, the most influential blues-men of the time had been preachers or very religious.

The interesting thing about this evolution of the music is that it changed to suit the climate that it arrived in. It took influences from whoever it came into contact with. The blues has adapted to whichever place it landed. But it has always remained the music of the people. It still serves essentially the same purpose as it did in West Africa, to celebrate life and bring to light the troubles of the day, but most importantly to bring people together to have a good time.

The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits…

I knew that I loved Jazz and Blues when I realised that all the TV shows I loved when I looked back on my childhood had been Jazzy or Bluesy. Sesame Street for example…..Who knew that was a Jazz Blues structure? But the more that I looked at it, the more I found that ALL the cartoons from my childhood, favourite TV shows, favourite Movies and favourite records were either jazz, blues or based upon the standard forms but made more child friendly.

I don’t know if I developed a taste for Jazz through my favourite shows or that I got attracted to shows that had these great theme tunes that I loved.

I grew up in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, and as you may or may not know, us Brits cottoned on to the Blues pretty late. But,  thanks to young white bands like the Rolling Stones brought them to a new audience on the other side of the Atlantic. Young British people from all over were hooked on the classic Blues guys that had not been popular in the states for a fair few years. Muddy Waters himself commented on his british performances during the 1970s, “I play in places now don’t have no black faces in there but our black faces.”.We didn’t have the roots or the history of the Blues running through our veins in the same way as the US had at the time. But we embraced it as if it were our own.

It was literally all over the place…..Our rock was modified from the old school blues structures. Kids shows coupled psychadelic imagery with blues based Rock or Jazz. Anything that came from New York seemed to have a Jazz theme.

Looking back on my youth I was astounded at how we embraced this type of music so whole heartedly. Even today in the centre of London, England, you will be able to find more legitimate Blues and Jazz bands every night of the week than in most cities in the world.

As I mentioned, it is quite interesting to me that I seemed to be attracted to Jazz and Blues from  an early age. To this day, it has remained the basis of all my favourite music. Be it Blues, Jazz, Soul, Motown, Reggae or Rock…..

“The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits” – Willie Dixon

To be continued…..