"The Blues are a simple music and I'm a
simple man. But the Blues aren't a science, the Blues can't be broken
down like mathematics. The Blues are a mystery, and mysteries are never
as simple as they look!"
The blues, as heard since about 1920, is a sort of bitter-sweet jazz song or dance-song written in quadruple time, generally moving at slow speed and in more or less flowing style over an unvarying 12-bar bass (see twelve-bar blues). Stanzas are of three lines, each covering 4 bars of music. The 3rd and 7th of the key are often prominent, being played somewhere between the major and minor form of the interval, and are known as blue notes. See also blues scale.
The earlier (almost entirely Black American) history of the blues is traced by oral tradition as far back as the 1860s, the conventional harmonic foundation being largely a European contribution. Legend has it that the music began as a "holler" given by a man at the start of a cotton-picking line and echoed all the way down (see field hollers). Its lyrics are morose and the notes are often slurred, giving a sense of gloom.
Poor whites in the American south developed their own blues in obvious imitation; the zydeco strain had French folk origins. Recent thinking suggests that blues did not contribute to jazz, but were a wholly separate music with a longer history and clearer identity. Bill Broonzy and Mamie Smith were the first blues stars on record, followed by the unrelated, unequalled Bessie Smith, pianist Memphis Slim, guitarists John Lee Hooker and Lightin' Hopkins and the electric combo of Muddy Waters in 1940s Chicago. Later developments for mass consumption include rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
The basic blues pattern is 12 bars long, falling into three four-bar phrases:
(1st phrase: bars 1–4)The last tonic harmony is shown in parentheses because it is often elaborated with a turnaround to articulate the boundary between statements of the pattern.
I – IV – I – I
(2nd phrase: bars 5–8)
IV – IV – I – I
(3rd phrase: bars 9–12)
V – IV – I – (I)
The pattern can also be adapted to fit an eight-bar or sixteen-bar pattern (e.g., King Crimson's "Red").