How to Sing the Blues: A Primer

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In the past few weeks I’ve begun teaching a music salon again on Tuesday nights.  Recently I did a session on the guitar, its history and various permutations.   We featured some early blues guitar from the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Elmore James, and Mississippi John Hurt.  Blind Willie Johnson really fit the profile set out by the primer below.  His mother, angered by his childish mischief, poured lye into his face, permanently blinding him.  Johnson in particular was a big influence on later artists such as Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and countless others.  Johnson’s song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was not only covered by Cooder on the great Paris, Texas soundtrack, but also went up into the eternity of outer space on the Voyager Spacecraft’s  time capsule’s gold record.  It is still out there, almost 35 years after its launch, beyond our solar system,  in deep space for our extraterrestrial friends to discover and maybe even enjoy.  Or help figure us earthlings out.  Thanks to the great Alan Lomax and Carl Sagan for putting this song in the gold record which you can see below.

Another of Blind Willie Johnson’s songs was “God Moves on the Water”.  The owners of the Titanic had boasted that even God couldn’t sink the great ocean liner;  when it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sunk in April, 1912,  Johnson wrote this song in response.  It’s an amazing song that became quite famous after he recorded it in 1931; it can be found on his album Praise God I’m Satisfied.

So here is a blues primer.  Written a few years ago by an unknown writer, it really hits the nail on the head.


1. Most Blues tunes begin with: “Woke up this morning…”

2. “I got a good woman” is a bad way to begin the Blues, unless you stick something nasty in the next line like, “I got a good woman, with the meanest face in town.”

3. The Blues is simple. After you get the first line right, repeat it. Then find something that rhymes… sort of: “Got a good woman with the meanest face in town. Yes, I got a good woman with the meanest face in town. Got teeth like Margaret Thatcher, and she weigh 500 pound.”

4. The Blues is not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in aditch – ain’t no way out.

5. Blues cars: Chevys, Fords, Cadillacs and broken-down trucks. Blues don’t travel in Volvos, BMWs, or Sport Utility Vehicles. Most Blues transportation is a Greyhound bus or a southbound train. Jet aircraft and state-sponsored motor pools ain’t even in the running. Walkin’ plays a major part in the blues lifestyle. So does fixin’ to die.

6. Teenagers can’t sing the Blues. They ain’t fixin’ to die yet. Adults sing the Blues. In Blues, “adulthood” means being old enough to get the electric chair if you shoot a man in Memphis.

7. Blues can take place in New York City but not in Hawaii or any place in Canada. Hard times in Minneapolis or Seattle is probably just clinical depression. Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City are still the best places to have the Blues. You cannot have the blues in any place that don’t get rain.

8. A man with male pattern baldness ain’t the blues. A woman with male pattern baldness is. Breaking your leg ’cause you were skiing is not the blues. Breaking your leg ’cause a alligator be chomping on it is.

9. You can’t have no Blues in a office or a shopping mall. The lighting is wrong. Go outside to the parking lot or sit by the dumpster

10. Good places for the Blues:

  • a. highway
  • b. jailhouse
  • c. empty bed
  • d. bottom of a whiskey glass

Bad places for the Blues:

  • a. Nordstrom’s
  • b. gallery openings
  • c. Ivy League institutions
  • d. golf courses

11. No one will believe it’s the Blues if you wear a suit, ‘less you happen to be an old ethnic person, and you slept in it.

12. Do you have the right to sing the Blues? Yes, if:

  • a. you older than dirt
  • b. you blind
  • c. you shot a man in Memphis
  • d. you can’t be satisfied

No, if:

  • a. you have all your teeth
  • b. you were once blind but now can see
  • c. the man in Memphis lived
  • d. you have a 401K or trust fund

13. Blues is not a matter of color. It’s a matter of bad luck. Tiger Woods cannot sing the blues. Sonny Liston could. Ugly white people also got a leg up on the blues.

14. If you ask for water and your darlin’ give you gasoline, it’s the Blues.

Other acceptable Blues beverages are:

  • a. cheap wine
  • b. whiskey or bourbon
  • c. muddy water
  • d. nasty black coffee

The following are NOT Blues beverages:

  • a. Perrier
  • b. Chardonnay
  • c. Snapple
  • d. Slim Fast
  • e. Diet Coke

15. If death occurs in a cheap motel or a shotgun shack, it’s a Blues death. Stabbed in the back by a jealous lover is another Blues way to die. So are the electric chair, substance abuse and dying lonely on a broken-down cot.

You can’t have a Blues death if you die during a tennis match or while getting liposuction.

16. Some Blues names for women:

  • a. Sadie
  • b. Big Mama
  • c. Bessie
  • d. Fat River Dumpling

17. Some Blues names for men:

  • a. Joe
  • b. Willie
  • c. Little Willie
  • d. Big Willie
  • e. Leroy

18. Persons with names like Michelle, Amber, Jennifer, Tiffany, Brooke, Brittany and Heather can’t sing the Blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis.

19. Make your own Blues name Starter Kit:

  • a. name of physical infirmity (Blind, Deaf, Cripple, Lame, etc.)
  • b. first name (see above) plus name of fruit (Lemon, Lime, Kiwi, etc.)
  • c. last name of President (Jefferson, Johnson, Fillmore, etc.)

For example:

Blind Lime Jefferson, Jakeleg Lemon Johnson or Cripple Kiwi Fillmore, etc.

(Well, maybe not “Kiwi.”)

20. Oh, by the way. I don’t care how tragic your life is: if you own a computer, you cannot sing the blues.