The most common form that the poetic-musical creation called “blues” takes is known as 2 bar blues.” If you start tapping your foot, you’ll start to heat a pattern in the beats, and if you’re an Americano, chances are the pattern will be 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4. That’s a meter known as 4/4 time, and the meter that underlies most blues. What that means that the strongest: beat the accent; comes around every four beats. One sequence of four beats is called a bar. So, in a 12-bar blues, you have a pattern of 12 sets of 1234, and those 12 bars break up like this:






The instrument that accompanies the singer is responsible for keeping that pattern going, for reminding you when the strong beat comes in. Because the poet who is singing is going to take all kinds of liberties with that pattern. For example, this is a verse from “After You, There Won’t Be Nobody Else,” by Homesick James, as he sings it over the 4/4 meter:

After / you / there won’t be no body/ else

1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4

After / you / there won’t be no body/ else

You know I’m/ so tired of / cryin yes, and I’m / sleepin all by my-/self

1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 / 1 2 3 4 /I 2 3 4

The blues poet-singer has the advantage of a rhythm instrument to keep the beat going, to keep the meter steady. The non-musical poet can vary the metric pattern a little bit, once in a while, but the poet’s speaking voice is stuck with keeping the meter all by itself:


I shall not be afraid of death or bane

‘Til Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane.

That’s a pair of lines in which the natural accents of the sentence correspond exactly to the underlying iambic pentameter.


I shall not be afraid of death or bane

‘Til Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane.

The poet’s job is to maintain that sense of a regularly recurring pattern of strong and weak beats, varying it just enough to keep it from becoming tedious, hypnotic, sing-song; boring. The blues poet has his or her instrumental accompaniment to handle that job, and so is freer in choice of words — how many words in a line, how many syllables in a given slot.

But not entirely free. You can only sing so many words over four four-beat bars, and you want the most important words in a line to fall on accented beats. You might have noticed that the first and second lines of the Homesick James blues were pretty much identical. That’s one of the lyrical characteristics of the 12-bar blues form: 2 repeated lines and a third line that, with one degree of exactitude or another, end rhymes with the first two. (“Else” and “self” are typical of the acceptable exactitude; they share a short “e,” followed by an “1,” followed by a sibilant and a fricative — “s” and “f” — which are both “soft” ending sounds.) The main reason that the second line repeats the first in a 12-bar blues is to give the poet a little time to think of what the third line might be going to be, and how to end it with a rhyme.

Because the 12-bar blues is an art form based on improvisation. “When I sit dawn to play the blues,” Big Bill Broonzy said, “I don’t know what I’m going to sing; you don’t know what I’m going to sing; nobody knows.”

Blues, as it was born and grew, was the expression of people who had very little control over the daily, monthly, yearly or overall courses of their lives. Blues were created by black Americans, and nobody knows, now, when the 12-bar blues form came into being, because nobody cared when it was happening except the people who made them. Blues was born among people who were slaves, people whose lives — at least by law, by the power of the pulpit and the papers and the guns — did not belong to them. They belonged to someone else.


Makes it hard to make a rational life plan.

When you find yourself in a situation where your life continues, does not continue, changes, does not change, at the whim of others, you are a kid. When you grow up, and your life is still to be lived under those conditions, you learn to improvise, or you go mad. Because black Americans brought with them in their culture traditions of music and poetry which encouraged improvisation, and brought them to a country which said it loved the individual and which encouraged improvisation in its early centuries, the blues grew here naturally.

“Everybody sings the blues, sometime,” sings Merle Haggard, a white country singer, and his redneck cheering section stomps and hollers in complete agreement. He’s right, of course. Everybody, if it gets to live long enough, every mind, every spirit, gets to see the death of all it loved, enjoyed or lived for. Those are the conditions of life on this planet, as has been observed not infrequently in literature. What the blues say to that is pretty simple: nothing could be worse, except what’s coming next; and isn’t it beautiful to be alive, seeing as you’re damn sure going to be dead?

The poetry of the blues is poetry of those who don’t have time to fool around pretending that life isn’t nasty, brutish and short. Johnny Shines sings, Be careful what you say or the groundhogs be bringing you your mail.

Like any improvised art, blues is about 30% improvised during any given performance, and about 70% made up of stock phrases, sentiments and ideas. In this it resembles Baroque music, English Metaphysical poetry and jazz.

There are blues poets who eschew all of the aids the language offers, all of the support of cultural expectations, and just utter their feelings. John Lee Hooker and Robert Pete Williams are the two I think of. Lightning Hopkins worked both sides of the street.

The blues canon is the first “folk” traditional poetry that has emerged in our modern era of self consciousness. So it’s no longer a folk tradition, unless Marshall Mac Luhan and Big Bill Broonzy were right, and we’re all just folks.


Used by permission of Malcolm Stiles McCollum

McCollum, Malcolm Stiles. “The Blues.” Humanities: The Modern World. Colorado Springs, CO: Pikes Peak State College, 2022. CC BY-NC 4.0 License.


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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