It used to be that the big question in blues circles was "Who has the right to sing the blues?" Today, a more pertinent question might be "What has the right to be called the blues?"
Go to almost any contemporary blues festival, and you're likely to find all manner of musician on the bill -- jazz pianists, zydeco accordionists, rock guitarists, bluegrass fiddlers, you name it. At the Chesapeake Bay Blues Festival next weekend, audiences will hear everything from Chicago blues stalwarts Otis Rush and Little Milton to modern bluesmen Robert Cray and Shemekia Copeland. Closing out the two-day festival, however, is James Brown, a singer known variously as the "Godfather of Soul" and the "Hardest-Working Man in Show Business" -- but not particularly as a bluesman.
Although Brown has recorded everything from jazz instrumentals to gospel-schooled soul harmony, his greatest legacy is as a founding father of funk, a sound whose relentless, monolithic pulse has been recycled by hundreds of rap artists. He's obviously a major figure in American music, but does he have the right to sing at a blues festival?
Sure he does. As do the jazz, zydeco, rock and bluegrass musicians who turn up at other festivals. Because even though pop fans like to think of the blues as a specific, well-defined genre, in truth it's more of a musical vocabulary -- the most basic vernacular of American music.
Making the blues a tricky concept to grasp is the fact that the term itself can be used in variety of ways. It can describe a type of song, such as "The St. Louis Blues" or "Empty Bed Blues," but it can also describe the style in which a song is played. For instance, when "Try a Little Tenderness" was performed by Frank Sinatra, it sounded like classy Tin Pan Alley pop. But when Otis Redding cut the song, it had the raw ache and emotional immediacy of the blues -- even though Redding was singing the same lyrics and melody as Sinatra.
The difference in Redding's performance was that he bent the melody with what musicians call "blue notes." Blue notes are tricky little devils. Although they can be played on a rigidly chromatic instrument like a piano or organ, they're most convincing when the player can slide between notes, as with the clarinet glissando at the beginning of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," or when Eric Clapton bends his guitar strings in "Layla."
What makes a blue note "blue" is that it blurs the distinctions between major and minor in the music. Because we tend to associate major keys with bright, happy emotions (think of the tune to "Happy Birthday"), and minor keys with sad, mournful emotions (think of Chopin's famous "Funeral March"), moving between the two with a bent "blue" note conveys a sense of emotional flux. That's part of the reason blues performances can feel celebratory even when they're addressing topics like bad luck and loss.
In addition to blue notes, there's also a form known as the 12-bar blues, which is built around a regularly repeating cycle of three chords. (Musicians call it a I-IV-V progression. For those wanting to play along at home, in the key of C that would be one bar of C, one of F, then two of C; followed by two of F, and two more of C; then one bar each of G, F, and C before a final bar of G.)
Many musicians think the form itself defines the blues and will jam away at a 12-bar progression without ever naming an actual song. But that, as Eric Clapton discovered when he and the Yardbirds backed bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson in the mid-'60s, is no way to sing the blues.
"Every 12-bar blues is different," Clapton said in a 1984 interview. "Sonny Boy Williamson would have an intro on certain songs, and if you didn't know that, then he would be disgusted with you. I know this from experience, because he was disgusted with me! When I was with the Yardbirds, I thought a 12-bar blues means it goes duhn-duh-duhn-duh-duhn ... Of course, it isn't that."
What Clapton learned was that the blues wasn't just a vocabulary of blue notes and 12-bar changes. "It's got rules," he said. "It's like Japanese kabuki theater; it's got certain things you do, and other things which you don't do."
But those rules have to do with the way the vocabulary of blue notes and syncopated rhythms were applied to a song, not with whether or not a song uses a specific 12-bar blues construction. In fact, if you go back and listen to guitarist Robert Johnson's legendary recordings from the 1920s -- sides that inspired everyone from Muddy Waters and Elmore James to Clapton and Jimmy Page -- you'll find that very few of his songs fit the 12-bar model most of us associate with the blues.