I spent my weekend googling, practicing, and memorizing blues standards. Although I have a repertoire full of jazz and boogie-woogie, I have only a couple genuine blues songs and next week I’m booked playing an entire blues set for hour and a half straight. I’ll be impressed if I keep the crowd entertained that long, considering blues is the same 3 chords played in the same format over and over again.
I began with the basics, Ray Charles, Jimmy Rogers, Ottis Redding, even some Bo Diddley. And soon my fears of monotony were put at ease when I discovered the full spectrum of the blues genre. I even found several new lines to add to my “greatest lyrics ever” list:
“If you don’t think you’ll come home soon, I’m gonna drown in my own tears” -Ray Charles
“You aint nothing but a hound dog, been snoopin round my door. You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feedjya no mo.” –Etta James
“Put you down in a ditch with a great long spade. Wish to God that you hadn't never been made.” –Eddie James House Jr.
These are miserably sad lyrics, but I must admit that I smiled when I heard them. I know the blues are meant to be heart-wrenching, but now I know why so many people love to play and listen to them. The emotion, the freedom of musical improvisation, and the driving rhythm can cause even the most musically illiterate person to stomp their foot, bob their head, smile, or cry.
But I find it even more ironic, that such melancholy lyrics and “tear-in-my beer” melodies make me so happy and eager to learn and play more. I always felt the same way about those old classic country songs, the cheatin’ and leavin’ ones. The real “twangy” ones as my mother would say. I always thought, the sadder the better.
I think the 2 genres are related, 2nd or 3rd cousins I’d say. After all, Ray Charles recorded an entire country album. Willie Nelson recorded several of Ray Charles’ songs. Elvis, who was first a country and Gospel artist, derived his mainstream brand of rock ‘n roll from the early blues hits, “That’s Alright, Mamma” and “You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog.” Bob Wills and the Texas Play Boys recorded, “Kansas City,” a straight up 12-bar blues song. The list goes on.
So the next time I feel a bit “blue,” maybe I’ll put some blues on and sing my heart out. Because for me, one truth will always remain the same when it comes to good song writing. There is just something about a really sad song that makes me so happy.
"Hound Dog" by Etta James