In some forms of music, human emotion can be the central element - and when it is, great art is sometimes the result.
1, 4, 5, 12: If you’re a musician or a fan of a particular style of music, those numbers will mean a lot to you. Together they sketch out the form of one of the most enduring and deeply rooted genres of American music, the blues.
1, 4, and 5 signify the chord structure of a blues song. That is, if the song is in the key of C for instance, there’d be a few measures of a C chord, then it will shift to F chord (the fourth note up when you start on C), then back to C for a bit, then a G chord (the fifth note up), then an F, then back to a C to wrap up the phrase and get ready to start again. The “12” means that this progression plays out over the course of every 12 measures or bar lines, so songs in this form are called “12 bar blues.”
The blues developed from songs sung by slaves and their descendants throughout the south, particularly in the region south of Memphis called the Mississippi Delta. In the twentieth century, migration carried the blues north to Chicago.
In the past few weeks I’ve been listening to the Blues more attentively than I ever have before, spending time with great musicians like Muddy Waters, Furry Lewis, and Robert Johnson.
Muddy Waters (whose real name was McKinley Morganfield) was born in 1913 near Clarksdale, Mississippi. When he was 30 he moved to Chicago, and is regarded as the father of the Chicago blues sound. Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Mississippi in the 1890s and moved to Memphis at the age of 7. A year later he was playing on street corners. He spent his life there working as a street sweeper even as he was recording his music. The legendary Robert Johnson was born in 1911 in, again, Mississippi.
The long list of American blues greats is supplemented by British musicians who in the 1960s heard them and were transfixed. While guitarist Eric Clapton is probably the most famous individual artist who’s made the blues the cornerstone of his work, few bands identify themselves more with traditional American blues than do the Rolling Stones, who, when they formed in 1962, took their name from a Muddy Waters song.
Part of the marvel of the blues is that while you can’t really say the form isn’t restrictive, musicians have long made countless variations on it. But with such a musical formula fixed in place, and with lyrics the point of which you can often see coming a mile away, how do the blues win over so many people? The answer to that is its powerful emotional content. Sorrow, frustration, loss, and resignation are the feelings the blues convey, feelings that are immediately identifiable and universal.
Its ability to speak across generations is evidence of the evergreen vitality of the blues and this is what makes it art. Indeed this is what makes it among the most powerful expressions of art that we have.