The Twelve Bar, Thirteen Bar, Fourteen Bar Blues

Posted on May 26, 2011

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Ask the dictionary about the blues and inevitably you’ll hear about the twelve bars, as if every blues had the same structure, the same length, the same three chords and had the same bad trouble with the same evil woman or man.  There are many blues that begin there, but such a description hides more truth than it shows.

Which is just one more reason not to go learning about the blues from your Shorter Oxford.

What about that twelve bar structure?  That was just a later simplification.  When the blues evolved—on disc at least—from being mostly just a single artist playing his guitar over to a full band shuffling it out, then the earlier, more individualistic, more eccentric approaches to the blues had to give way.  The original blues was never necessarily that simple or easy to define.  For instance, take a listen to Charlie Patton singing Pony Blues.

Patton, known as the Father of the Delta Blues, was a master, of course, a step and a half above most other musicians in any genre, but his 1929 recording of Pony Blues shows what the blues could do when not fenced in by definitions.  There are seven melodic strands.  The first verse is fourteen bars; the second thirteen bars; and the fourth sixteen and a half bars.  And the whole is a remarkable, utterly unduplicable, rhythmic masterpiece.

Or listen to Fred McDowell of Tennessee.  He plays in a Mississippi hill-country style where the guitarist keeps on working on a phrase, thank you, until he is satisfied with it, and nothing but feeling is going to tell him (or her) how many bars there are going to be in a chorus.  “Shake Em On Down” is one of Fred’s signature songs.  Despite the fact that he was from Tennessee, the record labels insisted on tacking a “Mississippi” in front of his name, but to his neighbours Fred McDowell was known as “Shake Em” because of the way he played this song.

Another blues icon who busts out of the 12 bar mold is the Texan Lightnin’ Hopkins.  Hear him on “Jailhouse Blues.”  It’s characteristic Lightnin’ Sam, with lead improvisations that go wherever Sam thinks they have to go at the moment, and then continue for as long as he needs to finish his musical ideas.  He was a notoriously difficult musician to follow.

That’s what it comes down to, you see.  That’s the reason for the twelve bars, the standardization, the cliché.  Even the song out at twelve bars and keep it there, and it’s easier for other musicians to follow.

Easier.  But let’s forget about the idea that the notorious twelve bars means anything more than that.  The blues can’t be divined, defined or confined by a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

Just ask Charlie or Fred or Sam.

Posted in: music