You have all seen it – those coffee mugs with the guitar-playing blues cat. They have been around for years. The cat sings:

“Love to eat them mousies . . . Mousies what I love to eat!
Bite they little heads off, Nibble on they tiny feet.”

With just one alteration, this is a reasonable facsimile of a blues lyric. The first line should be repeated – something that, I assume, the artist left out for reasons of space. The classic twelve-bar blues (chords indicated by Roman numerals) would go something like this:

“Love to eat them mousies . . . Mousies what I love to eat!”
(I chord; first four measures)

“(I say) love to eat them mousies . . . Mousies what I love to eat!”
(IV chord; second four measures)

“Bite they little heads off, Nibble on they tiny feet.”
(V-I chords; last four measures)

This, in essence, is the blues as a musical form: four measures of the tonic chord (I), four measures of the subdominant chord (IV), and then four measures beginning with the dominant chord (V) which then returns to the tonic chord (I), although often through the subdominant chord (V-IV-I). Even this simple blues can have variants but this is the basic structure.

But isn’t the ‘blues’ supposed to be sad, ‘bluesy,’ – even ‘gritty’ and ‘lowdown’? “What is all of this talk about chords and measures?” is what I know some are impatiently asking. Yes, in the beginning the blues is all of these things, and this is certainly the blues as a genre. However, as I will never tire of pointing out, genres have to have structures. These structures help to give shape and form to a piece of music and effect the way we hear it. Ultimately, and this is a point I will develop throughout the article, these forms can develop and be put to different uses.

The early history of the blues is very difficult to trace. From what we can tell it most likely emerges in the late 19th century in the rural south, the product of ex-slaves and their children. This is the music of a simple people telling of their hardships, usually of floods, drought, depressions and lost love. Although there are some extravagant claims that an early blues, “Frankie and Johnny,” was sung during the siege of Vicksburg (1863), most musicologists first document the blues only at the turn of the twentieth century. The first published blues pieces emerge only in 1912.

Here is a good example of a country-style performance of “Frankie and Johnny” by Mississippi John Hurt in 1929.  This is followed by a performance of a more urban-style blues by Bessie Smith, “Poor Man’s Blues,” recorded at about the same time.  Bessie Smith did much to popularize the blues in big cities and among white audiences in the North.

It was precisely this ongoing ‘urbanization’ that changes the feel of the blues. Using its basic twelve-measure form (and chord structure), jazz musicians in the 1930’s create something called “Boogie-Woogie,” which is primarily, but not exclusively, music for piano. It involves a repeated bass ostinato played in the left-hand. This is definitely no longer the slow, sad music of a rural people. This is the faster, driving music of city slickers.   This is “honky-tonk.”  This continues into the 1940’s with big bands that specialize in this form – listen, for example, to Count Basie’s band playing “One O’Clock Jump” – as well as those who didn’t usually play such music. Probably the most popular big band era piece employing the blues, “In the Mood,” is that of the ‘sweet band’ – Glenn Miller’s.

One further development in the use of blues form is exemplified in the Bebop Jazz movement of the late 1940’s – a development of the form into something harmonically richer and more complicated.  Notice that the only things which Charlie Parker’s “Blues for Alice” has in common with the original blues form is that: 1) it consists of twelve measures and 2) has the tonic chord (F) in measure one, the subdominant chord (Bb) in measure five, and the dominant chord (C) gets displaced one measure forward (measure 10).


So, by the time of World War II, and for a few years afterward, the blues are so transformed that they really no longer are “the blues” anymore. We have a true triumph of form over feeling. The traditional “blues” at this time seems to exist only as a curiosity for antiquarian record collectors of the oeuvre of, say, Bessie Smith, or folklorist devotees of the likes of Mississippi John Hurt. I say, “seems,” because the blues really continues to exist in urban areas undergoing a different sort of development. The more ‘intellectual,’ sophisticated type of Jazz that Bebop represented did not appeal to the general public. Though there was a big representation of black musicians in the bebop movement (Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie) – in fact they pioneered this movement – it was other black musicians, of two movements (sometimes very hard to distinguish) that were marketed under the label “Race Music,” that were much more popular among blacks.

Having been transplanted into urban areas decades ago, the simple blues underwent a sort of change different from that of the swing era bands (even the black ones) that was little noticed at the time in wider society.   There was an ‘electronification.’ The electric guitar, invented in the late 1920’s played a very limited role in the music of the big band era. However, after World War II, urban blues musicians such as BB King and Muddy Waters enthusiastically adopted it and integrated it into their soulful rendition of the blues – a blues that was arguably closer in spirit to the original country blues.

The second post-War movement would come to be called “Rhythm and Blues.” This, arguably, grows out of the jump-style music of big bands such as those of Count Basie, but uses a smaller instrumentation – and sometimes electric guitar. However, what these two movements always share in common is a return to the simpler blues form of the pre-bebop (even pre-big band) era. The complicated extended chords with alterations, tritone substitutions, and enriched chord progressions of jazz ‘scholars’ such as Dizzy Gillespie are rejected in favor of the traditional three-chord blues. Even simple triads, long shunned by jazz musicians, make a comeback. At the very least chords rarely exceed the addition of a seventh. The non-black, but ethnic singer, Louis Prima, who began his career as a big band singer is a representative of this movement. Probably many young adults today know his “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” from the Gap commercials of the 1990’s.

These two movements, for a number of years, “quarantined” to black radio stations and race records, finally have an influence on white audiences – first through Bill Haley’s 1955 hit “Rock around the Clock,” and then, in 1956, in the person of Elvis Presley.  Elvis was a combination of a number of things – the country or (as it was often called at the time) ‘hillbilly’ music of white Southerners and the black Rhythm and Blues style. Elvis could also swing (something few rock musicians can do today) and he was definitely in the tradition of the white crooner – at least when he sang ballads. When asked who his favorite singer was, he would inevitably say, “Dean Martin.”

Here he is in “Jailhouse Rock.”  (Where on earth did the casting director find such good dancers who look like convicts?  Most good male dancers are such ‘pretty boys.’)

The final major chapter in the influence of the blues on American popular music seems to be through the British Invasion Bands of the 1960’s.  These British rock groups listened to American Rhythm and Blues records from the 1950’s and then brought this influence back to America in the 1960’s.  Among these groups were the Beatles, initially, however they were much more ambitious and branched out into other things.  “The Animals” is probably a good representative example of a British blues band that specialized in covering American blues songs.  Here is their recording of “Boom Boom” which featured in the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall.”  Just like in the movie, however, the blues today seems to function as a form of nostalgia for Baby Boomers — or to be a very specific niche genre for specialists.  Much of today’s popular music tends to fall under the influence of more recent developments – Rap, Heavy Metal and Techno.