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The Blues and the Human Voice
jazz. The term has often wrongly been assumed to denote a branch of the jazz tree alongside Dixieland, swing music, etc. To the general public it has often connoted merely a mood, or a word employed in song lyrics to express that mood.
To musicians, the blues has a more special meaning. Correctly used in the singular (a jazz musician may say "the blues is", rather than "the blues are"), it denotes a particular musical formula on which melodies and improvisations have been based since the earliest days of jazz. Indeed, as has been shown through the example of Frankie and Johnny, it has its roots in antecedents that predate jazz by many decades and are part of American folklore.
The significance of the word "blues" to musicians can be expressed quite easily in technical terms. Paradoxical as it may seem, the blues does not have to sound blue any more than a French window has to be imported from France. Nor does the blues have to be played slowly; it is adaptable to any tempo. To the layman a tune like Limehouse Blues or Jazz Me Blues may seem to justify its title; actually the only relationship here is that the lyrics express an unhappy or blue state of mind. The tunes do not follow the authentic blues pattern.
The blues, in its simplest form, has a distinctive lyrical pattern as well as a traditional musical pattern. Most often it expresses the thought in the first line, which occupies the first four bars of the music, then repeats this line, perhaps with slight variations, for the next four bars, and finally expresses a concluding thought with a different line in the last four bars of the blues* 12-measure chorus. For example:
If you don't b'lieve Tm sinkin\ look what a hole Tm in Say, if you dont b'lieve I'm sinking look what a hole Tm in If you dont b'lieve I love you, look what a fool Tve been.
Many musicians recall hearing these and other blues lyrics sung more than forty years ago. Zutty Singleton, one of the best known drummers from New Orleans, recalls one classic occasion when he heard Ma Rainey, the pioneer blues singer, chanting this particular strain one night in a tent show at Louisiana Avenue and Howard in New Orleans, around 1914. Just as she came