Out of the predicaments of the African-American slaves in the Deep South, the blues music was born. It is this humble background and the African roots of the genre’s early artists that helped in shaping the music and its elements. Yes, blues artists may come and go, but the genre’s inherent features shall remain. Let’s look at some of the elements that characterise a blues song.
The lyric structure is perhaps the easiest clue that tells whether a song is a blue or not. A typical blues song contains lines (usually three) of rhyming lyrics, which express strong emotions. The singer will sing and repeat a line. In some cases, the singer may sing the line in a slightly different way the second time for purposes of emphasising an emotion. The third line will often be a reflection or response to the first two lines. This kind of pattern is also known as AAB. A perfect example of blues song lyric structure can be found in the “Hound Dog” song, a 12-bar piece written by Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.
Call and Response
This blues element traces its origin back to cotton and tobacco fields. Slaves in these fields did not sing just for the sake of passing time during their backbreaking work, but also as a way of communication. In their songs, these slaves used a pattern called call-and-response. In this pattern, a song leader makes a line, to which the group responds. For instance, when a leader sings, “I’m going back home,” the group may answer, “I’m following you.” This call-and-response pattern embodies coded messages, which sounded as meaningless melodies to slave masters. The pattern found its way into the blues music, and that’s why we see many blues singers use it today.
For many years, blues songs have been a product of improvisation; many artists have been creating the music spontaneously, without prior planning. Back in the day, African-American slaves gathered in churches, homes, and porches for purposes of jamming. There was nothing like printed music at the time. As such, they would come up with lyrics and tunes on the spot. Improvisation is part of a call-and-response framework. As a matter of fact, a person improvises every time they hold a verbal conversation. This is the same as what happens between a guitarist and a banjo player, or a singer and a harmonica.
It is worth noting that improvisation is not a substitute for music courses, and each of these two is just as important. Remember, blues pioneer artists were unable to read or write lyrics, which made it necessary to learn music without reading and writing.
Like any other genre, blues is centred on chords. Chords are notes that make a certain harmonic sound when played in progression. Chords can either be major or minor, which denote happiness or sadness respectively. The 12-bar blues is the most common chord progression in the blues genre. This progression contains three chords: I, IV, and V. Other blues contain 8 or 16 bars, but they are not as common.