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.