The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
Written by John MillerThe Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
I have been thinking about pre-Blues material for a long time (years and years) and figured out a long time ago that I particularly like it. I suppose the question comes up then, what makes a song pre-Blues, as opposed to Blues? I think two chordal/harmonic characteristics most strongly define pre-Blues songs:
* Absence of the "blue" IV chord. Blues have a dominant 7 chord with a flat 7 note relative to the IV chord of the scale. Pre-Blues material has either a straight major triad for the IV chord or a telescoped major 7 chord off of the IV note of the scale.
* Absence of the "blue" I chord. Blues most often have a dominant 7 chord (major triad with a flat 7) off of the I chord of the scale. Pre-Blues material has a straight major triad off of I, or, as with the IV chord, a telescoped major 7 chord.
What separates Blues chordally from the various western musics that preceded it, is that it has dominant 7 chords off of I, IV and V. Neither the major scale nor any of the Greek modes conforms to this chordal configuration. As a result, Blues has both a structure and a sound that does not have commonly known precedents prior to its appearance. Blues is most often described by persons living at the time as having first made an appearance in the first decade of the 20th century. I can remember Sam Chatmon saying that he could recall the first Blues he ever heard, and when it happened (around 1908). What is really interesting is that pre-Blues material, which must have had origins prior to that, was still being recorded by musicians in the 1960s and '70s. What would be examples of Pre-Blues songs recorded either in the first wave of Country Blues recording or in later years?
* Henry Thomas--"Run, Mollie, Run", "Bob McKinney", "Shanty Blues"
* Blind Lemon Jefferson--"Beggin' Back", "Prison Cell Blues"
* Robert Wilkins--"Police Sergeant Blues", "Alabama Blues"
* Sam Collins"--"Lonesome Road Blues", "My Road Is Rough And Rocky"
* Ed Bell--"She's a Fool Gal"
* Jim Jackson--"Old Dog Blue"
* Charley Jordan--"Keep It Clean"
* Bo Carter--"Pussy Cat Blues", "Twist It, Babe"
* Mance Lipscomb--"Willie, Poor Boy", "Sugar Babe"
* Shirley Griffith--"Take Me Back To Mama"
* John Jackson--"Boat's Up The River", "Going Down In Georgia On A Horn"
* John Hurt--"Boys You're Welcome", "Don't Want Me, Baby"
One of the interesting things about Pre-blues material is that as you listen, you encounter hybrid material, or perhaps more correctly, transitional material, that has some Pre-Blues qualities and some Blues qualities. A couple of songs come to mind that would fall into this category:
* Henry Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues"--The lyrics and phrasing adhere to the 12-bar structure of the Blues, but Henry Thomas's melodic vocabulary for the song is strongly pre-Blues, a major pentatonic scale with no flat 7 for either the I or the IV chord.
* Mance Lipscomb's "Sugar Babe"--This song, though having an 8-bar structure, does not conform to any of the commonly encountered 8-bar blues structures, and does not have flat 7 notes in the melody either over the I or the IV chord. However, when Mance solos, he plays flat 7 notes over both the I and IV chords. Conclusion: The song, as sung, has pronounced pre-Blues characteristics. As soloed on, however, "Sugar Babe" would more aptly be termed a Blues.
One of the most interesting things about Pre-Blues material is that it seems to coincide with an historical period in which there was even more than usual cross-over between African-American and white American music. This comes through loud and clear if you listen consecutively to the recordings of Henry Thomas and those of the early Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon.
You may want to seek out some of the Pre-Blues material if you have not been conscious of it before. It is great stuff, quite often with beautiful melodies that don't even require chords to make their impact felt.