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What is traditional blues?

AndyB

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383
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Durham, NC, USA
I have been studying this topic recently and I have really had a revelation and a change of opinion. First, what is "traditional blues?" Is it based on when a blues song was written or recorded? Or is it based on what the public and blues fans remember and appreciate today? Or is it based on what modern blues musicians still perform today? Maybe there has to be a "tradition" for blues to be traditional instead of simply being historical. I'm not certain there is a clear answer. I was also interested in seeing where "traditional blues" overlapped with the saxophone tradition, of course.

I have found that blues songs began to be published and recorded in the late 1910s and early 1920s on piano, saxophone and guitar fairly contemporaneously. So, are all those "traditional blues" based on when they were recorded or which of them are still remembered?

In order to get any grasp on this and avoid inserting my personal bias I surveyed numerous internet sites listing the greatest blues songs of all times, the best old blues, the most frequent blues jam song lists, etc. and then restricted that list to only blues songs written before 1950. I was actually shocked at how short that list was.

I immediately recognize a large portion of this list as songs that English kids took a liking to in post WWII Britain. So many English rock bands recorded their own versions of many of these traditional blues songs. Perhaps the so-called British Invasion of the 1960s led to them also being remembered in the USA. Some are dated as 1930 or 1940 because that artist was known to have performed those songs at that time but they were not published or recorded at that time.

I may take a survey of the 1950s next, but this first cut of pre-1950 was eye-opening. A lot of songs just missed the 1950 cut-off. I was surprised not to see some artists like Ma Rainy in any of these best of lists.
Year​
Song​
Artist​
1914​
Memphis Blues​
W.C. Handy​
1920​
Crazy Blues​
Mamie Smith​
1923​
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out​
Bessie Smith​
1926​
Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie​
Pine Top Smith​
1927​
Matchbox Blues​
Blind Lemon Jefferson​
1927​
Black Snake Moan​
Blind Lemon Jefferson​
1928​
How Long Blues​
Leroy Carr​
1928​
Payday​
Mississippi John Hurt​
1929​
Statesboro Blues​
Blind Willie McTell​
1929​
Pony Blues​
Charlie Patton​
1929​
High water everywhere​
Charlie Patton​
1930​
Sittin on top of the world​
Mississippi Sheiks​
1931​
Pearline​
Son House​
1933​
Gimme a Pigfoot​
Bessie Smith​
1935​
Baby Please Don’t Go​
Big Joe Williams​
1936​
Crossroad Blues​
Robert Johnson​
1936​
Sweet Home Chicago​
Robert Johnson​
1936​
The Sky is Crying​
Robert Johnson​
1936​
Hellhound on my Trail​
Robert Johnson​
1936​
Dust my Broom​
Robert Johnson​
1936​
Kindhearted Woman Blues​
Robert Johnson​
1937​
Parchman Farm Blues​
Bukka White​
1937​
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl​
Sonny Boy Williamson I​
1940​
Crawlin King Snake​
John Lee Hooker​
1940​
You Gotta Move​
Mississippi Fred McDowell​
1941​
Catfish Blues​
Robert Petway​
1947​
Stormy Monday Blues​
T-Bone Walker​
1948​
Boogie Chilen​
John Lee Hooker​
 

Dr G

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Northern California
Funny that you list these - in just the last week, Sir Paul McCartney was commenting about how the Rolling Stones were just a blues cover band. I recognize some of these tunes as covers played by other bands including Grateful Dead, Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Doors, and John Mayall.

"Traditional" has a whole 'nother connotation when you consider the early times of jazz in N'awlins (in the same time span).
 

mizmar

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One might like to read something like "Africa and the Blues" by Gerhard Kubik to see how complicated that question is.

 

AndyB

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Durham, NC, USA
One might like to read something like "Africa and the Blues" by Gerhard Kubik to see how complicated that question is.
I don't have the paper, but I read a musicologist research paper from the 1880s that tracks the blues scale to western Africa. But apparently, the major pentatonic is fairly universal world-wide and even seen with Neandertal bone flutes.
 

mizmar

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Trondheim, Norway
I don't have the paper, but I read a musicologist research paper from the 1880s that tracks the blues scale to western Africa. But apparently, the major pentatonic is fairly universal world-wide and even seen with Neandertal bone flutes.
Kubik is much more fine grained than that. Looking at a range of traditions both across Africa and in various places through the southern states etc.
There really is no end of "oh, these tones sound like those tones, that must be it" on the internet. The reality seems so much more complicated... And long before s selection read made by the commercial interests of the nascent recording and broadcasting concerns...
... Seems to me.

IMHO the fascinating things are the rhythms, and the vague 3rds and such.
 

turf3

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Earth
I think the term "traditional blues" is far too general to have any real meaning. To really specify what you mean, you need more specific terminology. For example, Robert Johnson's work is an example of "Delta Blues" (acoustic guitar and singing, flexible song forms); John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker would be called "Chicago Blues" (electric guitar, rhythm section concepts closely allied to big band swing of the time); Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith would be considered "Female Blues Shouters" I think; and so on. Furthermore, there are forms of the blues that predate the recordings you list, and yet were still being performed well into the recording era. Some of Lead Belly's stuff comes to mind.

Keep in mind that when WC Handy wrote "Memphis Blues", using all western harmony and intended to be played on the piano and/or other western instruments, there were - at the exact same time - people singing "field hollers" and also doing songs with essentially no harmony whatsoever, with all kinds of pitch schemes that don't correspond to western major/minor, or even fall within our tempered tuning systems. So date is not really a real good indicator except in the most general way. In 1914 there was one heck of a gap between an illiterate field hand in Mississippi, and WC Handy or James Reese Europe with their conservatory training picking up elements of the rural blues to use in their essentially western compositions.
 
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turf3

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I don't have the paper, but I read a musicologist research paper from the 1880s that tracks the blues scale to western Africa. But apparently, the major pentatonic is fairly universal world-wide and even seen with Neandertal bone flutes.
Well, in the older forms of the blues, those notes that we play now as flat thirds and flat sevenths, are actually in between notes. So while those old singers may well have been using a pentatonic scale, it wasn't a major pentatonic. A blue third or seventh is NOT a flat third or seventh.
 

mizmar

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Well, in the older forms of the blues, those notes that we play now as flat thirds and flat sevenths, are actually in between notes.
As they still are in some non western traditions.
 

AndyB

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Durham, NC, USA
Well, in the older forms of the blues, those notes that we play now as flat thirds and flat sevenths, are actually in between notes. So while those old singers may well have been using a pentatonic scale, it wasn't a major pentatonic. A blue third or seventh is NOT a flat third or seventh.
The Arabic scale has 18 notes in the octave instead of 12. I don't know about 18th century Africa though. I'm reading Mizmar's book link. Maybe it will tell.
 

AndyB

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Durham, NC, USA
I think the term "traditional blues" is far too general to have any real meaning. To really specify what you mean, you need more specific terminology. For example, Robert Johnson's work is an example of "Delta Blues" (acoustic guitar and singing, flexible song forms); John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker would be called "Chicago Blues" (electric guitar, rhythm section concepts closely allied to big band swing of the time); Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith would be considered "Female Blues Shouters" I think; and so on. Furthermore, there are forms of the blues that predate the recordings you list, and yet were still being performed well into the recording era. Some of Lead Belly's stuff comes to mind.

Keep in mind that when WC Handy wrote "Memphis Blues", using all western harmony and intended to be played on the piano and/or other western instruments, there were - at the exact same time - people singing "field hollers" and also doing songs with essentially no harmony whatsoever, with all kinds of pitch schemes that don't correspond to western major/minor, or even fall within our tempered tuning systems. So date is not really a real good indicator except in the most general way. In 1914 there was one heck of a gap between an illiterate field hand in Mississippi, and WC Handy or James Reese Europe with their conservatory training picking up elements of the rural blues to use in their essentially western compositions.
I agree with what you are saying. But is Orange-glazed Christmas Goose a traditional Christmas dish if nobody cooks it any more? That's the problem with the word "traditional" that now bothers me.

If Muddy Waters played a blues in northern Mississippi on acoustic guitar and then went to Chicago and played the same song on electric guitar, would you call that a completely different style of blues? He actually did.
 

turf3

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I agree with what you are saying. So is Orange-glazed Christmas Goose a traditional Christmas dish if nobody cooks it any more? That's the problem with the word "traditional" that now bothers me.

If Muddy Waters played a blues in northern Mississippi on acoustic guitar and then went to Chicago and plays the same song on electric guitar, would you call that a completely different style of blues?
I'd say that his style of playing evolved over the years, in response to a variety of different things. I would say that Muddy Waters played in a different style in 1980 than he did in 1930. Wouldn't you?
 

jbtsax

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What I recognize as "traditional" 12 bar blues are tunes where the first 4 bars in the tonic contain the "statement" then the second 4 bars starting on the subdominant repeat that statement. The third 4 bars have a "turnaround" at the end and contain a response to the "statement" in the first two sections. This is reminiscent of the field "work songs" that were based upon "call and response".

Some lyrics of well know blues songs in this form:

They call it stormy Monday But Tuesday's just as bad
They call it stormy Monday But Tuesday's just as bad
Lord, and Wednesday's worse And Thursday's all so bad

I'm gonna lay my head out on some lonesome railroad track
I say, I'm gonna lay my head, mama, ah out on some railroad track
Well when that train come along, I'm gonna snatch it right back
 

Tenor Viol

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It doesn't matter what the genre is, the historicity and origins of any genre are difficult to determine or define.

There are various reasons for this, but a simple one is at the time of <insert your musical genre under discussion> is developing / evolving, no one was sat there writing a concurrent history and documenting it. It's only later, possibly many decades later, that people start to think about it and discuss it. If you're lucky some of the authors were part of it. However, memories are often faulty, details get lost or mixed up, and crucially the person writing the history might not be representative (a big problem with the history of older music).
 

AndyB

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I'd say that his style of playing evolved over the years, in response to a variety of different things. I would say that Muddy Waters played in a different style in 1980 than he did in 1930. Wouldn't you?
Actually, no. It all sounds like Muddy's style to me just like Willie Dixon sounded like Willie Dixon and Howlin Wolf sounded like Howlin Wolf. Muddy's last recording sounds just as pure as his older ones to me. The instrumentation did change. More piano and acoustic guitar earlier and more electric guitar and blues harp later - but it all has the same vibe to me. T-bone Walker introduced more advanced harmony while he as in Chicago, but that's his style and not so much Chicago's style. Maybe you and I are listening for different things.
 

jbtsax

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Could you help me understand? What 12-bar blues would not follow that pattern?
There are countless variations of blues changes besides the simple basic ones. There are others on this forum better qualified to provide more detailed information.
 

Dr G

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If Muddy Waters played a blues in northern Mississippi on acoustic guitar and then went to Chicago and played the same song on electric guitar, would you call that a completely different style of blues? He actually did.

If Eric Clapton played “Layla” on an acoustic guitar (he actually did), is it still rock?
 

AndyB

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There are countless variations of blues changes besides the simple basic ones. There are others on this forum better qualified to provide more detailed information.
I guess I am not following because I see even the bebop blues as just a stepwise elaboration of the chord changes over that same pattern.

TONIC - TONIC
SUBDOMINANT - TONIC
DOMINANT - TONIC

Its the same general structure whether its 3 chords or 16. For example, the lyrics follow the same poetic pattern regardless of the number of chords.
 

Colin the Bear

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Clapton Unplugged is one of my favourite albums.

Hippy Hippy shakes, is a 12 bar format where waking up in the morning isn't mentioned or repeated. Is rock and roll modern blues?
 

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