“The more that things change, the more they stay the same” is a saying that is ingrained in pretty much everything that happens around us. For example, food, sports, and education all seem to go through transformations over the years, but they all seems to come back to their origins. We’ve pulled back from haute cuisine to embrace simple, slow-cooked comfort foods. All of this biometric athletic training is good and fine, but keeping your eye on the ball really determines whether or not you’ll get a hit, and when it comes to school, readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic still form the foundation of a good education.
Time does, however, change things and that is no more evident than in the world of blues music, that gut-wrenching, simple-chorded granddaddy from which all current rock and pop music is said to come. Musicians are expected to know the basic twelve-bar blues riff, which is the genesis of so many songs. Master this riff, and the basic chord progression of E-A-G-E, and you’re well on your way to blues proficiency. If you have your guitar close by, try the E-A-G-E riff and howl along with Muddy Waters on “Mannish Boy”. Keep playing the same riff and switch over to Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way”. See? The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
Blues music has transformed, though, from the days of Albert Collins, who once said “Simple music is the hardest music to play and blues is simple music”. It has become quicker, more streamlined, more fluid. In his book The New Blues Music, author Richard Ripani found that the beat and syncopation of blues music steadily increased throughout the 1950’s and 60’s and is much faster now than in the past. Ripani’s research makes the point that all popular music today has roots in the blues.
Over time, the blues can be broken down into three basic sub-genres: Early, City, and Classic. Guitarists Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, “Memphis Minnie” Douglas, and Robert Johnson were the forerunners, singing of loneliness and isolation that defined the Mississippi Delta sound.
City, or “Chicago” blues was made famous by such artists as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf, who all added harmonica and saxophone to the mix, while Classic blues artists Ida Cox and Louis Armstrong integrated drums and piano to add more of a “swing” sound, while at the same time keeping the same basic blues riff.
So when you find yourself humming along to your favorite tune, remember where it came from, and as always, the more things change, the more they stay the same.