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“Attempting to Extract ‘Blues’ Motifs from the Erstwhile Sovereign ‘12-Bar’ System”

I’m sitting here listening to the Blues Brothers 2000 Soundtrack. It’s been a big Blues Traveler kick I’ve been on lately, but really I can’t think of a single “blues” song he does, other than the beastly “Carolina Blues” from Straight on ‘til Morning. And even this song slightly eschews the 12-bar format, taking an extra four bars to make it 16, before rounding off every musical phrase.
My favorite track on Blues Brothers 2000 is “Season of the Witch” performed by one “Dr. John” (and the scene in the movie is pretty cool too).. the song certainly evokes a “blues” feeling when placed in the film. The question is, though, why? It’s actually not only not in a 12-bar format [1] but the notes also do not even follow the blues scale. The chord progression is one of roots rock and roll, although ironically the other example of this I just mentally gathered is Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” which is also not technically a blues song. If “Season of the Witch” qualifies as blues than quintessential grunge epic “Come to Mind” by Mudhoney certainly should, Mudhoney who are two parts nominally removed from the blues by way of the Midwest’s The Stooges.
Actually, they’re very similar songs. Neither one needs for than two chords for its entire harmonic interface, and both have a sort of “Haaaiii-ya!” one-two emphasis pattern (and what this means I’m not exactly sure, but it’s definitely cool).
Be this as it may, it’s not music for interacting within a bustling public. Part of this may be why Lou Reed so adamantly scoffed at the music when discussing the making of The Velvet Underground & Nico: “If anybody played a blues lick they’d be fined” (which of course is arguably what the main riff in “Run Run Run” is). But anyway, blues is a rural music, and so if an irony should be furnished surrounding the basic zeitgeist of “Chicago Blues,” it would be reinforced by the fact that the last time I went and saw some actual “Chicago Blues” (at the north side bar called “Blues,” I think), it just wasn’t all that enjoyable. Jazz is an urban music… blues is of the river delta, swaths of loneliness and divine, deliberate peal. Take Mudhoney’s defining moment “Come to Mind” — the lyrics aren’t even about a physical manifestation, rather dealing with a realm entirely invisible and of the psyche.
If blues is the genre of spiritual mourning for American blacks, jazz is how they lace up their boots and get to functioning within societies. Blues is easier to fuse with rock and roll than jazz is (Zappa arguably being the greatest all time at the latter), and rock and roll is easier to fuse with sex than jazz is, all of which likely explains blues’ superior popularity to jazz. Sure, blues is more likely to carry lyrics than jazz, but authentic blues lyrics, if ably transmitted, are too mournful to appeal to the mainstream, and to radio. Music on the radio doesn’t always represent everyone — it’s more likely to represent the person listener DESIRES to be at the given time.
It’s for this exact reason that it’s so miraculous that the blues have truly been extracted, and spread across the land, even obviously over to Britain. Blues are a medium of joy, evidenced by the fact that the Beatles’ “For You Blue,” though maybe not a “good song,” per se, still evinces that original cacophony of musical ecstasy which must have been voiced by the founding blacks who catalyzed this music. You can hear that founding spiritual beauty in those bars, so that even though it’s a mediocre song it still possesses a representation more than its parts, by way of its 12-bar structure.
So we get back to the question: what makes “Season of the Witch” so darn BLUES, despite its lack of structural or rhythmic ties to this particular genre? And of course, it could be just that it’s so BLACK, while to know what makes this up, you’d have to actually be black, which I’m not, but Dan Aykroyd… is? That’s another matter of discussion in itself.
For proof that the 12-bar system is sovereign, though, we need only look to the effectiveness of the largely inane throwaway jam that is “For You Blue,” whereas for proof that the system is tyrannical, you might have to look a little harder, especially since the swampy swankiness [2] of “Season of the Witch” makes such a tacit case for shouldering up. The extent to which this issue is even valid, also, naturally ties itself up with discussions of race and music — is this music just something that some people, usually black people, innately FEEL, and are so able to deliver by intrinsic moxie? Quite possibly.
One ugly head-pitting problem is Califone, here. Califone literally changed my life. I read Amanda Petrusich’s review of their 2006 indie-released, Brian Deck-produced album Roots & Crowns, was compelled though mentally geared from the writing more toward something approximating Beck’s Odelay, took the album home, got through the pontsy and posey first track and found some of the fertilest Beatles pop songs I’d ever heard. This is the album’s formative trait — it’s ability to forge mid-song climaxes in major keys.
This, and still, I heard the project referred to almost incessantly as “blues.” You’d be hard pressed to find a single song which utilizes a generally thematic blues scale, let alone the 12-bar format… so the only explanation is that the indicator is the overwhelming prevalence of musical statement being made by sparse guitar melodies which do not fall into the category of heavy metal. In other words, it’s mellow guitar music that’s not jazz or classical, so it has to be “blues.”
Pitchfork’s Petrusich implicitly ties Roots & Crowns in with the “Americana” moniker by way of her mention of them in the commendable travelogue It Still Moves, [3] and while I too happen to be a general fan of Americana [4] and think it’s a lot hipper and more contemporarily heart-speaking than many detractors realize, I still think it’s somewhat symptomatic of wrongfully pigeonholing the Chicago quartet — without those melodies and climaxes, they wouldn’t have made Pitchfork’s year-end list, and I wouldn’t be talking about them right now.
Up where I’m from, South Bend, blues is bigger, and they use that term to describe the open jam at this one pub where albeit you hear freakin’ Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” EVERY DAMN TIME. That’d be like if I just sang Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” at karaoke every single night. It’s like yeah, I’m lonely, I wanna take a long last look and exult in my own moral superiority to lawyers, YOU GET THE POINT.
Whatever, one thing’s clear: “Tyrone” is indeed blues, or it’s got a blues “appeal.” [5] The proof’s in the pudding, you see it right there.
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[1] The 12-bar format is basically the original musical pattern for relaying vocal guitar gospels songs sung singly on or near the Mississippi delta — it consists of the utterance of a four-bar line, the repetition of this four-bar line, and then the statement of a new and final four-bar line, to round out the 12 total measure. Cream’s version of “Four until Late,” as probably the original version, is a great example.
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[2] Indeed, the scene in the movie even takes place down in New Orleans or somewhere near, around a bunch of alligators and majestic wildebeests.
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[3] Believe it or not, I discovered It Still Moves by simply applying the word “Califone” to an Amazon search… that’s some index, you’ve got to admit!
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[4] As is certainly proffered by our spicy radio station here in Terre Haute, Indiana, 95.9 “The Duke” — Legends of Country.
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[5] In Alan Goldsher’s aptly titled A Pretty Good Read he describes Modest Mouse as stylistically quirky but having a “pop appeal” — sort of like the paradigmatic music if you will of the underdog who goes on to reach the greatest joy of all, sweet miscellany.

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