What Makes A Blues Song?
Every Blues song is the same. They all use the blues scale. They all use the same three chords. They all are about the same thing (Sex, love and the lack thereof). They all have a syncopated three-in-one rhythm. So what makes blues songs different?
I recently sat in the truck for six hours next to a guitar player in an oldies/doowop band. We were going to a guitar show in Saratoga, NY. His joy is close harmonies and interesting song phrasing. I made him listen to Steve Guyger in the three hours up and William Clarke on the three hours back. He was in hell (but it was my truck and my gas). It was the same chords, same words, same notes, same rhythm, and the same song for 6 hours. At least that's the way he saw it.
For me, each blues song is an original. I have a friend who has 24 different recordings of Walking Blues. This old song by either Son House or Robert Johnson (same song different authors, probably the song is older than either of them) is a blues staple. I like Butterfield's version best. Of these versions, each qualifies as a different song to me. They are each a singular performance where the performer has added touches to make the songs theirs alone. This is the key to Blues Music: it is virtuoso music. It doesn't matter so much the actual song, but the quality of the performance.
Blues is performance art. Blues recordings only freeze actual performances. The song is not written in musical notation so that it can be repeated; in fact no song is ever repeated. Even Muddy Waters, who insisted on his band learning each song the way it was done on the record, never repeated a song. Each Muddy performance is a gem and is admirable and different from every other Muddy performance - even songs with the same name.
You can buy Little Walter's Juke all tabbed out in a number of books, but if you buy "Little Walter - The Chess Years 1952-1963" and listen to the alternate Juke take, you realize that Walter had no idea what he was going to play before he played. Juke lives in the moment in 1952 and that moment can't be repeated, no matter how much we study the tab.
Blues is very simple. It's based on a 12 bar blues, and even when that's varied to a 1-5-4 or 8 bar blues or a John Lee Hooker style blues boogie, it doesn't wander far. It uses the Blues scale as a basis and even country blues or minor based city Blues keeps to the scale, only changing the emphasis. Every blues song is based on the 3 in 4 shuffle rhythms, but this is sometimes varied with a rock beat (yuk!) or Latin beats or even an occasional waltz.
The simplicity of blues makes it easy to play after a little practice. More important, it makes the blues easy to play in groups. Blues is a back porch, fish fry style of music to be played by and with friends. Blues is the music of a people who can't afford to go to Bruce Springsteen concerts or buy the latest Madonna CD. All you need is three chords and some beer and good friends and you have your own blues concert.
Blues gets its distinctiveness by each individual performer injecting his or her own uniqueness (Borg blues?) into the blues. The virtuoso performance makes the song different. Vary the melody, the chords, the rhythm or the words. The song is a performance with a freedom of expression that you can't get at a Billy Joel Concert where the audience is primarily interested in singing along with the songs they like from the album.
So, what makes each blues song different? The answer is: A different moment in time.