What is “the Blues?” You might immediately arrive at a simple definition of a sad song—a song that laments bad luck or lost love.
But the Blues is actually a complex musical genre with a rich tapestry of historic and spiritual significance, and a Blues song (or Blues album, for that matter) is not always sad. Blues is one of the pillars of American music (born from African American culture) and is often referred to as the mother of modern musical genres.
Folk, Rock, Jazz, R&B and even some Country music are among the descendants of the Blues. But, if you want to create your own blues song, how do you do it? How do you go about writing a song—and a great one at that?
Well, that’s exactly what I’m going to help you with today. So, without further ado, let’s do a deep dive into how to write a blues song!
Where did the Blues come from?
The true birthplace of what we now refer to as the Blues is a matter of some debate. But the origins of this genre in the U.S. reach back to the mid 1800’s, mostly in the Southern regions of America, in the crop fields and along the rivers.
Its lineage is a patchwork quilt of melodic fabrics that include African American spirituals, work chants, call and response and even some narrative or story-telling songs. What started in the hot sunny fields of the South began to evolve and morph after emancipation.
With exposure to other musical stylings beyond the Deep South, the Blues migrated out of the Delta and expanded its sound to include melodies of Ragtime, music from minstrel shows and other outside musical influences.
What Makes the Blues, “The Blues?”
Not all sad songs fit within the Blues genre and as stated earlier, not all Blues songs are sad. So, what makes a song a Blues song? Technical recipes for the Blues contain a specific set of ingredients including syncopated rhythms, specific harmonies, repeating chords, dissonance between notes that resolves slowly creating a whine like sound – either vocally or instrumentally, a walking bass line and the use of melisma, which is characterized by singing several notes within one syllable.
You also may have heard the term, 12-bar blues, which is a common structure utilized within the genre, consisting of three groups of four bars each typically following the I, IV and V chords of a musical key signature. It is one of the most recognizable formulas in the Blues genre. Take a listen to musical legends Alberta Hunter and Fats Waller version of W.C. Handy’s Beale Street Blues.
You can hear the 12-bar structure, a walking bass line on the organ, syncopation and a bit of melisma – all in one song. This is certainly not the only structure for the Blues. But it is among the most popular and most recognizable patterns within the Blues style.
How Do You Write A Blues Song?
As with any genre, if you are not already familiar with the language of the Blues, you must immerse yourself in it first and foremost.
Listen, sing along, play along and then listen some more. Listen to many different artists through a span of decades – yes, breathe in the history but also learn what the new contributors have brought to the table. More than anything, the Blues is about real-life events that we can all relate to.
So, a good way to begin is by “making up” lyrics about an everyday occurrence as you are doing that task. “Time to make my coffee, mornin’s about to break; time to drink some wake-up, strong coffee I’m gonna make.”
You’ll forgive the over-simplification of these lines, but the example is still a valid one to illustrate the point about making Blues lyrics relatable. Practice writing these “nonsense” type lines over and over again. This will put your mind into Blues mode.
Rhyme, Rhythm and Tempo
Most popular Blues songs have rhyming lyrics, many repeat the same lyric line at least twice in a row. Rhyming in Blues is both a stylistic pattern and a remnant of the early call-and-response field chants. While you don’t have to adhere to this format, it’s an excellent place to begin. Once your Blues writing becomes more polished and advanced, you can work on lyrics that don’t necessarily rhyme.
As for rhythm, almost all Blues in written in 4/4 time. Just like everything else in songwriting, you are not bound or constricted by this characteristic, but it is what your ears, and everyone else’s are accustomed to hearing. Tempo is altogether a matter of personal choice.
Many Blues songs have a slower tempo that correlates with the sadness, depression and grief expressed in the lyrics. Others have a driving beat that sets your toes tapping almost from the downbeat.
This is a good place to customize your song’s unique signature. Play with the idea of creating a sad song with a little more up-beat tempo or a happier blues song that moves a bit slower.
Or, if you really want to step out there like J.P. Soars, you can do both.
Finding The Feeling
I am going to speak from personal experience. Blues exists in the realm of raw human emotion. While there certainly are exceptions as we’ve mentioned, more often than not, it’s an emotion from the darker side of the human experience.
What happens if you haven’t experienced a certain situation firsthand, or you simply can’t relate. There are a few techniques you can use to get into the right headspace. You can watch movies that center around your topic, divorce, lost loved one, etc.
You can also take mental notes when visiting with friends or loved ones that have lived through some of life’s more challenging aspects. Being a songwriter means being a life-long student of your fellow man. You will eventually learn to listen to every conversation with “songwriter ears”.
Your friends and family will become accustomed to hearing you proclaim, “that would be a great song title” or “that sounds like a line to a song”. Sometimes, finding the feeling is all about knowing where to look.
Examples of Blues Lyrics
Let’s look at the lyrics in Freddie King’s rendition of “You’ve Got to Love Her With A Feeling”,
Now-ow, if you wanna love that woman
A-you love her with a thrill
‘Cause-a if you don’t
A-some other man will
You’ve got to love her with a feeling
You got to love her with a feeling
Love her with a feeling, man
Or don’t you love at all
At first glance, these don’t seem like overly complicated lyrics. But, that’s the thing…the mastery lies in the simplicity. The lyrics are poetic, but to the point and express a real emotion that most of us can relate to. This is the kind of power you want to strive for—maximum impact in a few simple lines.
We can find countless classic examples, but another one that really stands out for me is Leadbelly’s “Good Morning Blues” (written by Count Basie, Eddie Durham, James Rushing).
Well, good morning blues, blues how do you do
Well, good morning blues, blues how do you do
I’m doing all right well, good morning how are you
I couldn’t sleep last night, I was turning from side to side
Oh Lord, I was turning from side to side
I wasn’t sad, I was just dissatisfied
Look at the depth of these lyrics. Here’s an individual that keeps company with the Blues so often, that they address the emotion like an old friend. Then, the singer goes on to explain that he is so dissatisfied with some aspect of his life that he couldn’t sleep. The emotion here is almost palpable.
Try to keep these examples in mind as you write. The idea of “simple yet powerful” is the winning combination for Blues lyrics.
Simplicity In The Blues
Few other genres lend themselves to a single vocalist and a single instrument the way that Blues does.
Certainly, a fuller sound can be achieved with additional instrumentalists. But the pioneers of the genre typically just accompanied themselves on guitar or piano and sung their hearts out for all of us to witness.
This makes Blues a very friendly genre for a songwriter, extremely portable and easy to perform. The melodies are typically not complex, the lyrics rhyme and repeat, the messages are universal and relatable.
All-in-all, Blues is a wonderful genre for songwriters to work within, as a beginner or as a seasoned writer. As a beginner, it’s a perfect classroom to hone your skills and as a veteran writer, it’s an excellent place to perfect new skills and polish the ones you already possess.
Ready To Write
You’ve listened to hours and hours of Blues greats. You have been writing little verses about making coffee, walking the dog, or being stuck in traffic. You have endured a few sad movies, or you’ve spoken do your dear old aunt about what life was like back in the day and you believe you now know how to write a blues song.
Grab your guitar or sit down at your piano and let your creativity flow. Use a recording app on your phone and just go freestyle. At first, keep everything that develops. You never know where you might be able to use a piece of creative flotsam, even in another future composition.
Once you have something that sticks together, apply all you know about polishing your product and then, go sing it for anyone that will listen. Watch your audience reactions and continue to perfect that song until everything fits like well-worn jeans. Once that happens, you’ll have that Blues song that everyone will love.
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