12-Bar Blues Done Wrong?

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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.