Contemporary Blues VS. Classic Blues and the Future of Blues



Michael Dyer

© 2011

On June 10, 2010 Jim Fusilli (rock and pop music critic for the Wall Street Journal) wrote an article, titled: "Lamenting The Future Of Blues".  The URL to this article is: 

He wrote about what he experienced when he went to Memphis to attend a Blues Foundation event. There, he heard many forms of classic/traditional blues (Chicago blues, Delta blues, Texas blues) but he complained that he didn't hear any new kind of blues.  He stated:  "Today's blues music isn't only steeped in the past; it's anchored to it.".

He interviewed various blues spokesmen, who stated that blues fans don't want innovation; that blues gets less and less airplay, and that classic blues artists don't interact enough with artists from other music genres.   Fusilli argued that the blues "isn't merely a form.  It's a feeling."  and that "the establishment needs to share the blues with people who have a different idea of what it is".

His article made me wonder about the type of blues song that I compose.  I have produced 2 blues CDs (Blues Souffle and Blues Brulee) but I have worried that classic/traditional blues fans will not consider the songs in these CDs to be blues.   I refer to my type of blues as "soft contemporary blues". 

Here, I'd like to address the issue of contemporary vs. classic blues and how they might differ. In addition, I consider what makes a song (and/or its performance) be considered blues.

The reason this question interests me is that I started out writing folk and folk-rock songs.  Over time, I became tired of the straightforward way in which folk songs are sung and played.  I now find that the bending of notes (that occur while singing blues songs) gives the melody line of a song more variation and, therefore, more interest.

Consider how differently the song "Blowing in the Wind" (written by Bob Dylan around 1963 and made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary) is sung, as compared to "Summertime" (lyrics by Heyward with music by Gershwin circa 1933; Summertime is the most covered song, with over 23,000 different recordings). 

What makes a blues song sound bluesy?  What gives the blues that special sound, I believe, is the use of 3 musical elements:  (1) the use of dominant 7th chords (e.g. for the C major or minor chord, that means playing the note Bb), 2)  the classic blues chord progression, which is:  C F G (or Cm F G), and 3) the use of the blues scale, which in the key of C, is:  C Eb, F, F#, G#, Bb, C.  When this scale is played against the classic blues chord progression of, say, Cm, F, G then a very interesting thing happens:  the Bb note is played against the G major chord.  But if we look at the chord G, the note Bb is the note that turns G from a major chord into a minor chord (G major is G = G B D while G minor is Gm = G Bb D).  Normally, playing the minor 3rd note against the major 3rd note would cause a very jarring, dissonant sound.  However, in the case of the blues, if you play Gm (instead of G) the music loses its bluesy sound.  That is, it is counter-intuitive that the minor 3rd note should be played against the major chord.  Another interesting case that is counter-intuitive is:  normally, if you play the root of a chord (e.g., for the F chord that would be the note F) and also play a note one half-step up (in this case, F#) then it will sound jarring and dissonant.  But when playing the blues, it is common to play F# while playing the F chord.

Why don't these notes sound jarring when played during the blues?  Probably for two reasons:  1) in the F# case, because the note is bent up/down and so is passing through on it's way back to F and so it sounds good and 2) in the Bb case, because that note is also the dominant 7th note for C7 then the listener's mind remembers the C7 chord even while the G major chord is being played against Bb (that minor 3rd note). 

I believe that, to sound bluesy, at some point in a song, the singer must bend these two blues notes and also play dominant 7th chords.   But there is also a song chord progression structure that defines classic blues and that is:   C7, F7, C7, G7, F7, C7, G7 (or with C7 replaced by Cm7).

I believe that this basic progression is what defines classic blues and, personally, I feel it often gets overused, so I try to write blues songs that deviate from this classic progression.

I think that "Summertime" is so loved by listeners because it also deviates from the above progression, by doing the following:  Cm7, F7, Cm7, F7, G7; Cm, F7, Cm7, D#, Cm7, G7, Cm7.  (The deviation is the insertion of D#.) 

Each music style has its favorite chords.  In general, blues and rock go for dominant sevenths while, for example, the breezy sound of soft jazz is due mainly to the use of major-seventh chords (e.g., Cmaj7 also written CM7).  A more jazzy sounding blues (for example, Billie Holiday's jazz/blues song "God Bless The Child") in addition to dominant-7ths, makes use of both major-7ths and diminished chords.

I feel that blues fans should be open to variations/deviations from the classic blues chord progressions.  As long as the song contains those bent, blues notes and some dominant-7th chords, then other chord progressions and melodic lines should be allowed. 

The classic blues genres are:  Delta, Texas and Chicago blues.  The blues of the Mississippi delta traditionally consists of a raw sound -- usually because it is stereotypically sung by an old, blind, hoarse-voiced black man playing a resonator.  (A resonator is a guitar with metal cones added to the front, in order to increase the metallic and buzzing sounds of the steel-stringed guitar.  Well-known resonator brands include: Dobro, National and Regal.) The Delta blues also has a bit of a rag-time/honky-tonk  sound (due to its syncopated picking).  Also, the 'harp' (slang for harmonica) and bottleneck slide guitar are standard in Delta blues.  The Texas blues sound adds sharp-attack on notes via electric guitars while the Chicago blues also adds brass, such as sax and trumpet.

But there are many other variations on the blues, other than the classic forms.  For example, within Swing, Country, and Adult Contemporary music there are blues-oriented songs. 

This brings me to the lyrics.  In general, the lyrics of the blues are about troubles -- troubles in health, finances, love.  Blues songs are also commonly about death (e.g., the song "Honey on My Grave").  So, a song can be considered as blues if it sings about topics common in the blues, even if the music is not following a classic blues chord progression.

As I became more interested in the blues, I decided to take old folk songs of mine and "blues-ify" them.  I altered the chords (adding dominant 7ths) and altered the melodies to included bent notes.  But are the songs on my 2 blues CDs "really" blues?  Let us first examine some of the songs from my first blues CD:  Blues Soufflé:

Track 1:  Monica Harmonica -- This song has extensive 'harp' in it and that helps qualify it as a blues song.  It's lyrics are also about a young woman who is down-and-out and plays the 'harp' in the subway for tips: ("Sought city highs but found subway lows.  Gets by, playin' for, passin' souls").  However, the chord progression is not classic blues and starts:  Em G D9 A.  So it definitely deviates from classic blues.

Tracks 2 and 3:  All-in-Good-Time Blues and Turnin' Me Blue are uncontroversially blues, but they have a much more complex chord structure than traditional blues.  For example, All-in-Good-Time Blues has a key shift (the song goes from being in key of A to the key of B) and key shifts rarely occur in classic blues.

Track 4:  Exhaustion is a slightly jazzy type of blues song and is definitely more complex than classic blues.  It moves from the progression: Dm Bb G Bb C to the progression D# F# and then to: F Am E7, and then to: Am D7, then to: Bb E7, then to: F E7 Am7 E7 before returning to the Dm Bb … progression.

Track 8:  Full-of-It Blues -- The chord progression here deviates from classic blues and is:  D A6 F C G D and then to:  G7 E7.

Track 11:  No-Holds Barred Blues -- Lyrically, this is a classic prison blues song (about a convict who misses the colors that exist outside prison walls).  He sings:  "Ain't got no red wine; ain't got no green grass.  Ain't got not sapphire sun; just an orange jumpsuit outcast.  Know what I got?  The stripe-city blues…"  but the chord progression of A7 to C7 is 3 half-steps up while, in classic blues, the standard progression goes up 5 half-steps.

The one song on this CD that is clearly not blues is the last track:  First-Time Country Song.  But as I said in the jacket notes, I have only written one country song and I wanted to put is somewhere, so I put it at the end of this blues CD.

Let's examine my second blues CD:  Blues Brulee.

Tracks 1, 9 and 11:  Won't Break Me Down, While Waitin' For Nothin' To Happen and Don't Know Where I Am are, lyrically, about standard blues themes (being accused of a crime he didn't commit; being stabbed while in prison, and hiding from the law while feeling homesick).  But even these songs have variations in their chord structure.  For example, Won't Break Me Down has the following progression:  Em Em7 C C7  A A7 B B7 and then goes to:  Am7 D9/4 and then to: F D9 F B7.

Track 6:  Blues Brûlée -- This song sounds like a mixture of the blues with, perhaps, Hawaiian music because each verse ends by being sung with a slide up to one or more falsetto notes.  The chord progression is also complex:  D Bb7 to  G7  Bb7 to F#7 B and then back to D Bb7.  It also has a key shift from D Bb7… up to E C7…

Track 8:  Credit Default Swap Blues -- This song has an old-fashioned, 1920s feel to it, because the chord progression is:  E C Gdim B7 followed by A Am E F#7 and then on to B7 C7 F7 B7.  The song also has a key shift from E… up to F#…  What gives this song its old-fashioned sound is the use of a diminished chord and the transition from A major immediately to A minor.

Track 13:  Atheist's Lament -- This song is probably the least blues sounding of my so-called blues songs.  Starting at B7 the classic blues next chord would be E7.  I was experimenting and decided to go to E7 from Bb7 (instead of from B7).  This is definitely not blues sounding.  However, I use the blues scale and the 'harp' and the lyrics are about a blues topic (i.e. death and the afterlife) and so one could easily argue either way, as to whether this song counts as a blues song or not.  I will leave this decision to the listeners.

In general, I think my two CDs help address the worry posed in Fusilli's article:  "Lamenting the Future of Blues".  There are many other artists who incorporate blues into their songs, but they are not counted as "blues" because they don't follow those few, classic blues chord progressions.  I think that these more experimental blues artists will help keep the blues from becoming ossified.

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