Blues heresy

Discussion in 'Fred's Barcalounge' started by Rusty Silver, Mar 9, 2019.

  1. Synchro

    Synchro The artist formerly known as: Synchro Staff Member

    Jun 2, 2008
    Admin Post
    Today, our band rehearsed fourteen songs for an upcoming performance at the Pima County Fair (4/27, 10:30 AM, Corner Stage). We are, in no way just a Garage Band doing three chord material and nothing else, but a substantial portion of the songs we played had, at least, an element of Blues. Five of the fourteen songs employed a I to IV, then IV of IV pattern at some point in the song. (IE, G hammered up to C, then that C hammered up to F.) This pattern shows up all over Pop/Rock and R&B. Think of the olde song, Boy From New York City, for an example of that pattern. It’s funny, because I felt like I was repeating the same thing a lot, but that’s appropriate to the songs on the list.

    How much of a problem is that? Are we playing the same handful of songs with only minor variations? In a sense, yes, much of our music is based upon a handful of harmonic patterns, not just the Blues. How many songs have a I, VI, IV, V pattern at some point? How many songs have a bridge with four dominant seventh chords cycling in 4ths? (E7, A7, D7, G7) In the middle third of the 20th Century, this bridge showed up all over the place. A lot of Country music has been created using variations of the I, IV, V changes. Is it a sign of feckless composition to use such a set of chords?

    When I was in my early twenties and a zealot for Jazz, I thought that complex changes were required in order to make great music. I was wrong! Music can be simple, yet satisfying. One of my favorite songs to play is Memphis, the Johnny Rivers arrangement. It has two chords, B7 and E. That’s it, two chords to tell a great story about a man that misses his six year old daughter. That song evokes all sorts of mental images and, IMHO, is as artistically satisfying as a song can be.

    I have a mental image of a man trying to locate a phone number. He’s on the phone, trying to think of anything that will help the Information Operator to locate the phone number. I have a mental image of a note written on the wall, the singer is living with his uncle. I have an image of Marie, who lives high upon a ridge in Memphis, not far from the Mississippi, the singer is desperate to return her phone call. Then there’s the image of Marie waving goodbye and crying. But the singer was pulled apart from her because Marie’s mom “did not agree”, which resulted in a broken home. But the singer misses Marie and all the fun they had. Finally, it all makes sense, Marie is only 6 years old, she’s the singer’s daughter and their home was broken by divorce from Marie’s mother. The mental image of Marie shifts to that of a child, missing her father. It’s a story of a father and daughter that miss one another’s company, after a divorce and the father doesn’t even know how to get in touch with his little girl. It’s a sad story and it conveyed at least eight distinct mental images to me, with a harmonic structure of only two chords. I couldn’t imagine the song, or the effect of the song, as being improved by reharmonizing it to be more complex.

    But the story doesn’t end there. The song can be played with disinterested detachment, or it can be played with exceptional feeling. When I play this song, in a trio setting, I play the V chord (B7) in sort of a Travis pattern. When I play the I chord (E7) in that Boy From New York City pattern, which matches the Honky Tonk pattern at the end of each verse, which is one of the signature licks in the song. The solo is simple, just some second inversion minor triads which express the chords simply, yet tastefully. A twangy guitar lick at the beginning and end and you’ve packaged a pleasing and interesting song with just two chords. It’s far from the hardest song I play, but it’s one of the most artistically satisfying songs I play. I’m proud of that song, every time I play it.

    Blues is another matter. The three chord, 12 bar blues is a departure point. It can be played straight up and simple, or modified in any number of ways. In most 12 bars, I at least visit the VI after the IV resolves back to the I, in the eighth measure. From there, I may cycle back to the I using dominant 7ths, or I might use minor sevenths resolving to dominants. All sorts of chords can be used in the body of a 12 bar blues and the turn arounds can be as simple as staying on the V, a deceptive cadence of the V going to the IV, or much more complex paths back to the root. But the root logic is extremely simple.

    In a sense, all songs suffer from similar limitations. Even complex songs with intricate changes suffer to some degree. Most songs use repeating 8 bar patterns with a different pattern in the third 8 bars. At the end of 32 bars, it starts over again. Miles Davis’ Solar squeezes a lot of chord changes into 12 bars (and it’s not a Blues, IMO), but in the final analysis, it’s repetative. From the standpoint of a musician, blowing a solo over those changes is challenging, but an uninformed listener would pick up on the repetition immediately.

    Without predictable patterns, comprehensible to non-musician listeners, music drifts freely and never comes to any resolution. That is not satisfying average listener. I concluded my analysis of Memphis by talking about “packaging” a pleasing and interesting song. Packaging a song is as important as composing a song. A skilled musician can write a complex song that is satisfying to musicians, but may have a limited public appeal. Meanwhile, the quarterback of the Hawthorne, CA High School football team was packaging simple ditties, employing lyrics from the local Surf culture and selling lots of records that he recorded along with his brothers, cousin and neighbors. Brian Wilson is an amazing composer, but his ability to package a song is what made him a household name.

    My intention isn’t to contradict what you said; your observation has a lot of validity. My point is that music frequently is simple and repetative. It may not be as interesting as Coletrane’s Giant Steps, but simple sells well and, IMO, that’s because simple packages well.
    Alberta_Slim and blueruins like this.
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