12-Bar Blues Done Wrong?


The U.S. Postal Service is issuing a Johnny Cash commemorative stamp, using a photo from his album released 50 years ago, “Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash”. Cash has a large catalog of memorable music–I’m going to talk about Folsom Prison Blues.

The easily remembered parts of songs we love are the tunes (Amazing Grace), the lyrics (A Boy Named Sue), maybe the “hook” (opening to “Whole Lotta Love”). But there are other choices songwriters make that create a particular feel for a song without anyone necessarily noticing.

In Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash writes a song in a very familiar form, a chord progression that has been used many thousands of times, in everything from Cream’s “Crossroads” to the theme from Batman. The musical form is ’12-Bar Blues’–so called because it uses three different chords in 12 bars of music, then the pattern repeats (see below for details).

And Johnny Cash gets it wrong. Five times in a row.

His blues song does NOT have a 12-bar pattern. It’s 11 bars, for three verses and two guitar soloes. It’s cut short, which makes it off balance. There’s a very natural feel to the 12-bar blues that makes a symmetrical pattern. Musicians even have the part right at the end they call the “turnaround”, bringing the cycle of chords to its natural end, and beginning again.

I’m going to start with the assumption that Johnny Cash is not an idiot. Of course he knows what 12-bar blues is. Folks familiar with the song will notice that I said “three verses”. And there are four verses altogether. Verse – Verse – solo – Verse – solo – Verse. It’s the “wrong” blues of the first five passes, combined with that last verse, that provides the genius here, the structure that is deeply felt but not consciously noticed, until you listen and really pay attention.

That last verse DOES have 12 bars. Five passes through “wrong”, and then one that finally has the symmetrical 12 bars.

Why? I have no idea what was in Cash’s mind, but here’s what’s in the song, and it’s the part that jumps out at me: This song is about a prisoner with a tortured mind, a longing for freedom that is made worse by the train passing by. Each of the ‘wrong’ verses ends with an outright statement of his pain: “…time keeps draggin’ on”, “…hang my head and cry”, “…that’s what tortures me”.

But the fourth verse turns it around. The prisoner imagines a future, better time. And he finishes on hope: “I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.” THAT is the time Cash provides the rounded, proper 12-bar blues–at the time when the lyrics change, demanding a corresponding musical change.

It’s the genius of Cash that he takes the most famous and familiar chord progression ***in the history of music, period***, and finds a way to make that progression sound fresh and satisfying. In order to do that, he has to make a contrast, make us wait for it. The 12-bar blues is really all about feel, about the satisfying resolution of reaching the turnaround and starting the cycle again. But Cash won’t let us feel that in this song, for five full repeats. He twists the ending of the cycle, and defeats our musical expectations over and over. That is a tension that is felt, built from our long memory of a thousand other songs, and over the long span of the entire work.

So that when the resolution finally arrives, sync’ed perfectly with the dawn of faint hope in the lyrics, you feel the rightness of it in your bones.

Holy geez. Three chords, standard song form, simple melody. Cash finds a way to make the most humble of musical materials a uniquely moving musical journey.

I’m glad there is a postage stamp honoring Johnny Cash.

It doesn’t even BEGIN to cover the musical genius on offer here.


Space Oddity – 44th AND 40th Anniversary

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” has shown remarkable staying power: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhSYbRiYwTY.

Originally released in 1969, it charted in the Top 40 *again* in 1973. And most recently, received an ***in-orbit*** performance from a U.S. astronaut, a man actually ‘floating in a tin can!’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaOC9danxNo

The anniversary numbers get spooky, because the music I was looking at here all has to do with IV, the chord built on the fourth step of the scale. David Bowie’s music here really is floating in space, and here’s why.

Bowie starts his song in a way that could be either of two different keys. His verses keep winding up on the IV chord (and iv minor chord), so they never “come home” to the key of the piece. His bridge section “For here…am I sitting…” goes off in one tonal direction away from the home key, and the Interlude immediately following (guitar chords and hand claps) goes off in the completely opposite direction. This piece never settles down into a home key at all, and ends in a completely unrelated key, far from where he started.

Because…Major Tom’s not **coming** home, is he? He’s not in the lyrics, and he’s not in the music. Bowie demonstrates a masterful feel for the IV chord, the ‘subdominant’. Used in the right place, the right way, this chord has a mournful, regretful, looking-back feel. Bowie especially milks that right at “Tell my wife I love her very much”–it’s not an accident that he switches to minor right at that spot.

Bowie’s “Space Oddity” sticks in my mind after all this time because—well, let’s face it, because Bowie is a musical genius, and this piece is packed solid with music magic. BUT, it also works because Bowie knows how chords **feel**, put in a certain place, with the right lyric. In this one, Bowie gets all the orbital mileage he can out of the power of the IV chord.


For those wishing to keep score, here’s how the Music Theory works:

Bowie starts with alternating C major and Em chords, but this could be a I – iii sequence in the key of C major, or it could be a i – VI sequence in the key of e minor. We can’t tell. Then the next line that ends “put your helmet on” goes to a D major chord, which isn’t part of either C major OR e minor. It begins to feel a little more nailed down to C major when he sings “This is Ground Control to major Tom”, but even that goes immediately to what sounds like a secondary dominant (signaling a key change), an E Major chord which, if we were in C, would lead naturally to an A minor chord, which he HAS already used earlier…except that it goes to an F major chord instead. This opens the F major – F min – C Major chord sequence (switching the subdominant from major to minor to heighten the emotion, as mentioned above), and we cycle around sort of in C for this section.

What we’re missing throughout this song, in terms of tonality and nailing down the key, is the cadence V-I, a dominant chord built on the 5th scale step of the key, to a tonic chord, built on the home note of the key. If we’re in C Major, sooner or later we most often get a G Major to C Major chord progression–but this never appears anywhere in the song.

When Major Tom starts floating around, he does so to an F Maj7 chord, an F-A-C triad with an E natural added at the top. This is a softer, jazzier, more indeterminate chord than just a straight triad, with many possible choices for a next chord. “Planet Earth is blue” takes us around the circle of keys towards the flat side, to a B flat, chord, but immediately after that we go to chords from the sharp keys, the opposite direction tonally: A major, C Major, D Major and E Major.

Bowie doesn’t do a pure circle-of-fifths sequence, so I can’t claim this is depicting an actual circular orbit, but it IS in the neighborhood of that kind of chord order. An elliptical orbit, maybe. Lopsided–hey, maybe that’s why Major Tom can’t recover and and get back home: faulty orbit. If only he had done a strict B flat-F Major – C Major – G Major – D Major – A Major – E Major in the proper order, he’d have made re-entry on target. As it is his musical spaceship is flung far out in the direction of the sharp keys and never comes back…

This Is Why You Love It

Okay, probably not – the pieces of music you love the best have some personal connection to you: the time and place you heard it, the something wonderful that happened that day.

But ASIDE from that, this blog is about the things musicians do that put the best music over the top, that grab you by the lapels and says “Listen to this!”, and then take root in your life for good. The pieces that give you chills, even after listening to them a hundred times.

Sometimes it’s the raw sound, the choices of the instruments and how they’re played. Sometimes it’s recording engineering genius, blending sounds in ways you’ve never heard before. Very often, it’s the passion of the singers.

But it’s also many things that the composers and songwriters do that are the nuts and bolts of music: this pitch here, that chord there, skip a beat **exactly** at that point. Anyone who creates music develops a repertory of special musical features that make their music stand out. Everyone can hear these things, feel their impact. That’s *why* they are in the music, period.

But you can also pin some of them down with careful listening. The things written in this blog will chase down those qualities, explain how they work in terms of melodies, chords, keys and scales, rhythms and beats. For those who know or want to know the Music Theory details, I’ll post those too, “below the fold” if you want to keep reading. If you’ve ever been the least bit curious about why a piece of music moves you, what it’s creator was doing and how they made THAT particular musical choice, I’ll do my best to shine a bright light on it.

So this blog is for music creators and music lovers of all types. Hope you like it.