inessential by Brent Simmons

Twelve-bar Blues

Without the twelve-bar blues progression there would have been no rock-n-roll. Without rock — the music of rebellion and of fun — every decade from the 1950s on would have been very different.

On the theory that knowing something about how music works helps your appreciation — after all, musicians themselves understand music, and this enhances and does not dim their love — I figured I’d explain twelve-bar blues to people who don’t know about it.

Three Groups of Four

There are many variations, but the basic progression looks like the below. We’ll use the key of C to illustrate. Each note here represents a chord played for four beats.

C C C C
F F C C
G F C C

Instead of specifying the key, you could use Roman numerals. The root chord — the one matching the key (C in this case) — is I. If you count C-D-E-F, then F is IV. And C-D-E-F-G makes G number V. So you have:

I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I

In the key of E these would be E, A, and B, for example. Same pattern, any key.

Singing

In a very traditional blues, you sing the first line, then repeat it — maybe slightly differently, because the chords are slightly different, and because some variation is good — and then sing a line that rhymes with that first line. Something like this:

I I I I
Oh baby, don’t you want to go

IV IV I I
Oh baby, don’t you want to go

V IV I I
Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago

(This is from “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson.)

But it’s not always that way. Consider the lyrics to “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins:

I
One for the money
I
Two for the show
I
Three to get ready
I
Now go, cat, go — but

IV
don't you
IV
step on my blue suede
I
shoes
I
(no singing)

V
You can do anything, but
V
lay off of my blue suede
I
shoes
I
(no singing)

(Also note that “Blue Suede Shoes” uses V V to start off the third line instead of V IV. There are no rules other than sounding good.)

Electronic Blues with a Backbeat

(I’m simplifying a lot here, obviously, but I think the below is correct as far as it goes.)

The earliest blues was played in the South on acoustic guitars. And then two things happened: the African-American Great Migration, and the invention of the electric guitar. And then you had urban blues — in Chicago, Memphis, and elsewhere.

Rock music started as just another form of the blues. It’s impossible to say where electronic blues turns into rock. But one thing was especially prominent in rock music: the backbeat.

Blues and rock both have four beats to each measure. The accented beat is not the first beat, or first and third — it’s the second and fourth: beat BEAT beat BEAT.

It’s where you clap along. It gives rock music its drive. It moves you to dance — where, for instance, the acoustic version of “Sweet Home Chicago” probably doesn’t.

Another Difference

The early greats of rock in the ’50s were — not surprisingly, given where the music came from — African-Americans: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and plenty more. (Chuck Berry is the singular indispensible rock-n-roller.)

There were white artists too: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bill Haley and His Comets, Buddy Holly (the first nerd rocker), and so on. And this was a pretty big difference from the blues.

Great music should be shared and played by whoever feels it and can do it. Great music can bring people together — and rock music helped bring down segregation. At first, at least.

But what happened next is the tragedy of rock: by the late ’60s, just a little while later, an African-American playing rock was an anomaly. There was Jimi Hendrix — and who else? The list is short.

People other than me have written about this at length. But the upshot was that decisions were made to separate the music racially into Rhythm & Blues (R&B) and rock categories, and rock was largely white. (Yes, this isn’t a complex and nuanced telling of the story — but it’s enough for this blog post.)

Never mind that every white rocker was playing, essentially, a form of the blues. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival — they were all blues bands of a sort.

These Days

You don’t hear twelve-bar blues in rock so much these days. In fact, you may not hear that much rock-n-roll at all, depending on your taste.

But it’s worth knowing something about this music, about how it works and where it came from. And the good it did, and does, and the tragedy. All of it.

We can’t change the past, but we can understand what happened and remember it. And maybe we can notice when we’re about to make similar mistakes, and not make them.