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Getting the blues: A guide to those who are interested, but intimidated

For a long time, I got the blues just from trying to "get" the blues. Zydeco? Sounds like a vacuum cleaner brand. In my experience, "shuffle" automatically was followed by "board," and the only Slim I knew was of the "...

For a long time, I got the blues just from trying to "get" the blues.

Zydeco? Sounds like a vacuum cleaner brand. In my experience, "shuffle" automatically was followed by "board," and the only Slim I knew was of the "Fast" or "Shady" variety.

I had the ignoramus blues, if you will.

Though all that's truly needed to enjoy the blues is a beating heart, I thought I'd brush up on the genre's basics before the Fargo Blues Fest starts Friday.

Thanks to several national blues organizations, North Dakota State University music professor Kyle Mack and, of course, "Blues for Dummies (IDG Books, 1998), here's a simple primer on blues history and styles.


This number is dedicated to those who, like me, are cultured but confused.

Not only

for the lonely

The blues ain't always a bummer.

Mack says the music is defined by intense emotion. Although the emotion is often drawn from hard luck stories, blues includes upbeat dance music (you could easily swing dance to Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's "Okie Dokie Stomp") and raucous party tunes (try Stevie Ray Vaughan's "The House Is Rockin'").

Blues' signatures are heartfelt singing, a pronounced rhythm and instrumentation that usually includes guitars, a harmonica and drums.

Technically speaking, blues relies on a 4/4 time signature and a 12-bar format, where the first eight bars express a theme and repeat it, and the last four bars provide a twist or resolution.

Since we can't show you the notes, we can show you how it sometimes works with the lyrics, using an excerpt from Howlin Wolf's "Killing Floor:"


"I shoulda quit you, a long time ago/

I shoulda quit you, babe, a long time ago/

I shoulda quit you, and went off to Mexico."

Blues' birth

Like most noble art, blues results from tragedy.

Mack says it was born in the fields of Southern plantations, derived from African American work songs where men called "hollers" sang a melody and workers sang it back.

When the slaves won freedom, hollers became entities unto themselves. This beginning helps explain the responsorial nature of the 12-bar blues, as well as the blues' vocal emphasis.

As banjo (and later, guitar) was added, the singer would engage in call-and-response with his guitar. If you've ever heard B.B. King, you probably recognize the method of singing a line, then answering it with the guitar.


In the 1940s and'50s, jazz and blues began to meld (forming rhythm and blues). About that time, the blues also gave birth to a new musical form -- rock 'n' roll.

Finding style

Just as no one song will speak to everyone, no one form will speak to everyone, Mack says.

"But blues has withstood the test of time in our culture, influenced every American music genre, and therefore is a more appealing music choice than people realize."

One way to figure out who you'd enjoy hearing at the festival is to figure out what style of blues they play, and decide whether that style fits your musical tastes.

Courtesy of "Dummies," here's a roundup of some of the blues styles you'll encounter this weekend:

- Chicago blues -- Probably the most widely heard blues style, it pumps up raw blues with an amplified sound in a small-combo format. Expect heavy use of harmonica, slide guitar and piano. Genre includes Muddy Waters and Hound Dog Taylor.

To see at the Fargo Blues Festival: Harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite.

- Modern electric blues -- Musicians replicate older styles from the '50s and '60s, plug it in, and mix with rock, soul and funk. Includes Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

To see: Deborah Coleman Band, Indigenous, James Solberg.

- Rhythm & blues/soul blues -- Combines 1940s rhythm-and-blues styles with 1960s Southern soul (ala Otis Redding or James Carr). Expect a big horn section.

Includes Denise LaSalle.

To see: The Groove Hogs, Deb Jenkins Blues Band.

More, more, more

To quote my new best friend Buddy Guy: "Damn right, I've got the blues!"

But now I need more. If you do, too, here's some reliable sources:

- The Blues Foundation at www.blues.org . This group gives out the H.C. Handy Awards, the blues equivalent of the Grammys.

- "Deep Blues" (Viking, 1982) Considered one of the best, most straightforward histories of the blues, this book was penned by former New York Times music critic Robert Palmer.

- For info on regional performers/concerts, try the Minnesota Blues Society at www.mnmojo.com/ and Blues on Stage in Minnesota at www.mnblues.com

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Sarah Henning at (701) 241-5538

If you go

What: Fargo Blues Festival

When: Friday through Aug. 18

Where: Friday's events are at Playmakers Pavilion, Fargo. All other events are at Newman Outdoor Field, Fargo.

Tickets: Early bird sales -- $17 for one day or $25 for two days -- end today. Starting Monday, tickets are $20 one day and $30 two day. Tickets are sold separately for Friday night's concerts. Cost is $7.

For more information, see www.fargobluesfest.com or call (866) 551-5837.

Inside: A complete schedule of Fargo Blues Festival performers, Page C2.

Charlie Musselwhite talks about living the blues, Page C2.

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