Apr 11, 2015

Early Blues, Blue Notes, and Blues Scales

Here are a few thoughts regarding blues history and blues usage, that came up in the course of reading several interesting books on early published blues (see this review and this review). I don't claim to be an authority on the subject, beyond the fact that I'm a sax player who has played and listened to a lot of blues over the years.

Blue notes and Blues Changes

Composers of early published blues drew inspiration from folk musicians. In the absence of better documentation, examining these compositions can be one way of trying to understand what early (pre-1910) folk blues and pre-blues might have sounded like.

Early published blues, in turn, influenced the development of popular music in the years that followed, especially jazz and jazz-oriented blues, but published blues influenced subsequent folk blues as well.

In his autobiography Father of the Blues (1941), W. C. Handy describes his creative process in writing "St. Louis Blues" (1914):
[Black Southern folk musicians were] sure to bear down on the third and seventh tones of the scale, slurring between major and minor. Whether in the cotton fields of the Delta or on the levee up St. Louis way, it was always the same. Till then, however, I had never heard this slur used by a more sophisticated Negro, or by any white man. I had tried to convey this effect in Memphis Blues by introducing flat thirds and sevenths (now called "blue notes") into my song, although its prevailing key was the major; and I carried this device into my new melody as well. I also struck upon the idea of using the dominant seventh as the opening chord of the verse. This was a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot.
It appears that Handy may have gotten inspiration not just from folk blues, but in part from Anthony Maggio's earlier published tune, I Got the Blues (1908). Maggio's melody consisted of a repeated riff, clearly meant to mimic the bent third that Maggio had heard from a folk musician. Maggio's b3-3-1 phrase was used by Handy in his "Memphis Blues" (1912), "Jogo Blues" (1913), and "St. Louis Blues" (1914).

Maggio's riff as it was used in "St. Louis Blues" (click to enlarge):

Handy's prior awareness of Maggio's tune is pretty clearly demonstrated in Peter Muir's book, Long Lost Blues. But be that as it may, there are two other noteworthy points in Handy's statement:

1) He describes b3 and b7 as blue notes, but not b5.

2) Handy describes the seventh as being bent, like the third, in folk usage. I don't doubt that, but in early published blues by Handy and others, when the b7 of the key is used in the melody or harmony, it is almost always in the context of setting up a I dominant (V of IV) sound, preparing a IV chord. That goes for the first bar of St. Louis Blues as well - perhaps a "departure," as Handy stated, but still acting as a V of IV, preparing the IV in bar 2.

Use of b7 notes in the context of a V of IV can be found in Sousa marches, arrangements of church hymns, and in popular classical themes - musical settings that were commonly heard in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Musicians like Handy, Maggio, and Artie Matthews (arranger of "Baby Seals Blues," pub. 1912) were relatively well-educated, and probably would have known quite well how a secondary dominant works. Usage of the b7 in that context is not at all unique to blues.

Vic Hobson, in his book Creating Jazz Counterpoint, has pointed out that adding a b7 to a triad was a common practice in barbershop singing - a popular pastime in the African American community in those years.  That may well have been another factor in b7 blues usage. But as far as a unique barbershop influence goes, I’d look more to the b7 that is added to the IV chord in blues, resulting in a b3 of the key (a non-classical usage), or to the use of a #IVdim7 in bar 6 of the progression, a feature that goes back to some of the earliest published blues.

In the first published blues tunes, and in late 1910s/early 1920s recordings, most “blue note” usage seems to occur on the third of the key. In sheet music intended for piano, a bent-note effect could be expressed by a b3 to 3 grace note, or by putting a b3 on the beat, resolving then to the 3 (as in the example above), or by simply sounding a b3 note over a major or dominant chord. Melodic b3 notes can also appear in measures harmonized with a IVdom chord (where the b7 in the chord is the b3 of the key), or in measures harmonized with a V7 (the b3 of the key is a #5 relative to the chord).

In early published songs and early recordings, the third seems to be scooped or bent far more than the seventh, which is relatively stable (still true now, IMO).

The b5 rarely occurs in these early blues. 

The M6 note is also an important part of blues vocabulary, then and now. It wasn’t flagged as a “blue note,” though, because it is a part of our familiar major scale. 

Gunther Schuller, in his book Early Jazz, traces b3 and b7 blue note usage to the b7 note that he states was common to the music of Central/West African societies, with the b3 resulting from singing parallel lines. I don't doubt that African music often used b7 notes, but the prevalence of the b3 and bent third in early blues, and the relatively “classical” usage of the b7 (V of IV context) when it does occur, do not seem to support this explanation.

The nature and degree of African influence on the development of blues styles is an open question. Some blues scholars see extensive African influence, others see relatively little.

Willie Ruff has suggested the possible influence of “lining out” worship singing, introduced in America by English and Scottish settlers perhaps hundreds of years ago, on popular music practices in the South. "Lining out" singing still exists in a few congregations in Scotland (Presbyterian) and in the South (Baptist) - see this very interesting video. Check out the similarities and differences in the melodic embellishments and bent notes used by congregations from Scotland, Kentucky, and Alabama. There's room for some speculation on the influence of this type of singing in the origins of blues and gospel style.

In my non-expert opinion, recordings by male "down home" blues artists in the late 1920s seem to show more use of the b7 as a melodic blue note than we see in early published blues, or in recordings of female blues singers in the early 1920s. This may reflect the rural folk style of earlier, undocumented times (pre-1910). On the other hand, styles can change over time. Jazz recordings of blues tunes seem to show freer use of the b7 as a "blue note" (not just a secondary dominant note) as time goes on, from the 1920s through the 1940s. 

The b5 seems to have been used increasingly beginning around perhaps the early 1930s, and became an integral part of blues/jazz/pop melodic vocabulary (e.g., Ellington's 1931 tune "It Don't Mean a Thing," or Matt Dennis' 1941 "Angel Eyes"). By the 1940s, blue-note b5 licks were a part of the bebop language.

Of course, since musicians have been taught that there is a "blues scale" for perhaps 70 or so years, it is now universally accepted that blues-scale-derived licks are basic blues melodic vocabulary.

Blues scales

As I see it, it's a bit misleading to teach students that playing a “blues scale” is the way to create a good blues solo. Historically, and to this day, much of the blues musical vocabulary does not conform to any sort of “blues scale.” In the early days of jazz and blues, the concept of "blues scales" did not exist. The idea of a “blues scale” seems to have come about in the late 1930s, when academically-inclined musicians looked for some sort of underlying principle that would explain the use of “blue notes” in a major-key musical context.

A number of different “blues scales” have been proposed over the years. The one that most of us have settled on (1 b3 4 b5 5 b7 1) has some utility: We can give it to beginning improvisers, and they will usually sound good immediately, which inspires self-confidence. I do teach this way, but I always follow up by saying that lots of great blues licks don’t use the scale, and that any note could sound good, depending on how it is used.