“Cheer up, BB! You'll beat those blues eventually!” Remember that Wendy's commercial, with the late Dave Thomas misguidedly attempting to advise a rather perplexed B.B. King? Well, while that commercial was SUPPOSED to be funny, it exposes one of the most pervasive (and, yes, racist) misunderstandings about America's greatest, yet most under-appreciated cultural product....of, course I mean The Blues. If you follow along with me, I think I can help crack the code. Whether you're an advanced player, or casual listener, if you want to understand a little more about the music that birthed Rock and roll, this understanding is vitally important. So let's start right here as our jumping off place....IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH SADNESS, LOSS, DEPRESSION, OPPRESSION,HARDSHIP, LONELINESS OR ANY OF THAT!!
Jump in the Time Machine with me and I'll explain:
It's a common story for white musicians of my generation to say that, after noticing that their favorite Rock songs were all the blues-based ones, they went back to the sources and found the “originators”. Not content to stop there, and wanting the “Big Picture” about playing and listening to the music I loved, I did what any self-respecting boy with an academic scholarship to a liberal arts college would think logical: I headed to the library. (Don't give up on me yet!)
After reading Paul Oliver's early Blues writings (and talk about a mammoth task for which the author was woefully under-prepared), and puzzling over his description of the “blues scale” complete with cryptic “Blue notes”......BTW, they're still teaching this crap some places, so if that's what you've been taught, you REALLY need to stay with me (don't feel ashamed though, 20 years ago everybody taught this). Anyhow, while puzzling over this, I happened to open Leroi Jones' “Blues People”, which, in its introduction, raises, and then destroys this ridiculous conceit: saying something like “the third is flattened so regularly that it's almost a scalar value....ALMOST a scalar value!!! If we called it a scalar value, then we might derive the ACTUAL BLUES SCALE (what guitarists now call the “minor pentatonic) instead of attempting to force this music into our Euro-centric major scale”. (Non-musicians, stay with me!!)
If we look at our piano keyboard (Eurocentric or not), most of us are aware that to play a C major scale (“doe, a deer, a female deer”), we hit all the white keys in succession (a color coding joke not lost on the African-Americans encountering it). But for C BLUES, we would play these 5 notes: C, Eb, F, G, Bb (some black keys!!....and in fact, if we played only black keys, we could derive a blues scale, but I digress!). Counting up from C, Eb would not, in the white world, be the third step(which “should be” E, one fret higher on guitar), it would be the so-called “minor third”, used to devise “minor chords” , which the Caucasian ear has been programmed (after centuries of somewhat skillful musical communication) to hear as...you guessed it, SAD!! That Bb would also not be in our “happy” major scale, but would be used in our (sad?) minor scale. In other words, what we've really encountered here is a non Euro-centric scale from...somewhere else!! Not sadness, oppression, longing.
Having said all that, there are two other vital considerations. One, if we think about the mysterious way that music pushes our emotional buttons, we MIGHT try to figure out WHY European composers use those “minor” elements to express or induce sadness. The short answer is because it works!! However our brains are wired, that minor third and flatted 7 (step before 8---octave) is an OUTSTANDING was to express/induce those feelings. And am I saying that African-American composers were unaware of that??? Absolutely not!! Of course they (sometimes) wanted to use that power of their traditional scale, ESPECIALLY if some of their audience were pre-wired to “get” that message. Other times, they were just using that scale, or they might mix in major third one time, minor third the next (“confusion of major and minor” is traditionally taught as one of the hallmarks of Blues....keeping in mind that those people taught that ridiculous scale!!)
And Two, would one be drawn to this music as one's main art form if one had no encounters with sadness, loneliness, depression, oppression etc.........well, I doubt it. It's so powerful at expressing pain, and so cathartic at clearing it away, that it would be a natural attraction for the poor, the down-trodden, the far-from-home.....or anyone who's encountered the down side of the human experience....in other words, anyone might respond.
When I realized that Leroi's scale was the scale I was hearing (and playing), and passing tones (with a little racial bias) were the basis for the scale in the other books....I literally fell off my chair in the Providence College library. Don't fall, but I hope this article aids you in understanding the music I love.