What makes a good blues lyric?

A discussion of the blues for blues lovers and fans.

What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby jellyroll baker » Sun Oct 13, 2002 7:45 am

Instead of discussing specific songs, let's consider what makes one blues lyric better then another. Why is "Sitting here wondering 'Will a matchbox hold my clothes?'" such a good line and why is "You're screaming at a policeman, but they only doing a gig" such a bad line, especially when the second one makes a little more sense. What elements make one line a classic and one and absolute stinker.

I've got some ideas of my own about what makes a good lyric, but I want to hear some of yours first.
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby houndog » Sun Oct 13, 2002 12:05 pm

Near misses, as in "almost loved/could have been" seem to be a good blues theme.

"C'mon in my kitchen is a good example "some joker got lucky and stole her back again".

I also find Poor Bob's "Phonograph Blues " particularly touching...
" What evil have I done, what evil has the poor girl heard".
As if Bob was aware of his wild ways ...but the town gossips amplified it to the bewilderment of a sweet girl...beautiful line encapsulating the dilemmas of young love.

I also find Bob's Classical references to Beatrice very moving.

So for me allusion to other levels of action make for great blues lyrics.

adios,

Lovat.
("Memphis,Tenessee " by the outstanding Chuck Berry is another...gits me every time.)
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby blueswriter » Sun Oct 13, 2002 1:32 pm

[updated:LAST EDITED ON Oct-13-02 AT 09:34 AM (CDT)]Good topic here. As to what makes lyrics special, or some far better than others, there can be a number of issues at work.

I think one is in the perception of the listener and whether or not that person can relate to what's being said. Some friends and I get together frequently for contests where we play to the other's interests and rate the tracks, and two of us generally comment on the lyrics, the structure, and musical content. One never comments on lyrics and says they just aren't of much importance. To me, the meaning of what's behind the lyrics and what's there in support of them, are both key points. Blind Lemon's "Matchbox" lyrics seem to have far more impact when compared to Carl Perkins or any number of others who recorded it, so the sincerity is also very important. Phrasing is another very important point. Elmore James' "Crutch And Cane," for example, will have far more impact on me when compared to the 'Rocking Steamshovels' doing it where the singer is, excuse me for this, "white sounding."

These are just my opinions, which may be worth less than a plugged nickel, but I'd like to see what others think as well.

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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby bosco » Sun Oct 13, 2002 1:57 pm

JRB, I'll have a go at this...

Let me begin by stating that I'm a fan of many music styles, not just blues. To me, the real secret of lyrics is stating something everyone can relate to and create a mental image of. Some examples...

B.B. King; "I gave you seven children, and now you wanna give 'em back!" What a great mental image...who among us has not had relationship woes or been in close proximity to a divorce? That's just life!

Your example; "Screaming at a policeman, but that's just his gig."
What? Can 99% of the world's population relate to or ever imagine themselves doing this? I think not, counselor. The line is overcooked in an attempt at hipness as well. "Gig" is a slang term usally applied to a temporary situation. There are no temporary or occaisional police, it is a full time career and their JOB. Assuming that this line made any sense to anyone to begin with, it loses any shred of credibility it had with this extremely poor word choice.

To recap: If the lyrics allow you to create your own mental image or relate to them in some way, they have served their purpose. If they are just abstract word groupings or obtuse references, they fail.

"Just my opinion...I could be wrong!" Dennis Miller
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby allanlummox » Sun Oct 13, 2002 3:00 pm

[updated:LAST EDITED ON Oct-13-02 AT 11:08 AM (CDT)]Personally, I like writing- in any genre- that implies more than it tells.

I always felt that "Matchbox Blues" had that quality. A great contrast to your "Policeman" line would be this one, from the "Sopranos" TV show theme music:



You woke up this morning
The world turned upside down,
Thing’s ain’t been the same
Since the Blues walked into town.

In which the "Blues" can be read as an oblique reference to Police presence...

A rather cool bit of non-blues but blues influenced songwriting.

A recent discussion of Skip James' "Hard Times Killing Floor" puts me in mind of

"And the people are driftin' from door to door
Can't find no heaven, I don't care where they go

Very simple imagery that implies a whole world of cause and effect, belief, social systems gone awry without even giving the people a face... eerie, evocative stuff...
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby jellyroll baker » Mon Oct 14, 2002 12:21 am

>Personally, I like writing- in any genre- that implies more
>than it tells.

I've got to agree with you there. It seems to me that this is what makes the listener identify with the song. What the song tells relates to the specific situation being sung about, but what it implies relates to whatever is on the listners mind.

As an example, lets consider Robert Johnsons "Walking Blues". You learna little about the situation being sung about (if Robert had such a situation in mind), but the emotions he recalls ("feeling 'round dor my shoes", "been mistreated and I don't mind dying") can relate to anyone who's feeling pretty goddam low.

A non-blues songwriter who's a master at this is Leonard Cohen. He sings about very specific situations with very specific detail, yet he manages to relate this to universal ideas and feelings.

By the way, if you haven't worked it out, in my secret identity I'm a Literature major :).

Anyone agree/disagree with me?
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby ricochet » Mon Oct 14, 2002 1:00 am

Sounds good to me. What makes it good is being emotionally evocative, and general enough to let the listener "read" into it what he/she can relate to personally. Kind of like a musical horoscope, you might say. :)
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby jellyroll baker » Wed Oct 16, 2002 5:04 am

> If they are just abstract word groupings or obtuse references, they fail.

What does this say about Bob Dylan? Can't lyrics have a value purely for their sound as opposed to their meaning? eg. Boodle-am-Shake by Cannons Jug Stompers.

Some lyrics sing about things that most of us can't relate to. Consider the number of blues songs about being part of a persecuted minority. I'll hazard a guess that most people on this board haven't lived through anything that can compare to the daily experience of Jim Crow, yet we can still empathize with the lyrics. Why?
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby houndog » Wed Oct 16, 2002 6:16 am

>> If they are just abstract word groupings or obtuse references, they fail.
>
>What does this say about Bob Dylan? Can't lyrics have a
>value purely for their sound as opposed to their meaning?
>eg. Boodle-am-Shake by Cannons Jug Stompers.
>
>Some lyrics sing about things that most of us can't relate
>to. Consider the number of blues songs about being part of
>a persecuted minority. I'll hazard a guess that most people
>on this board haven't lived through anything that can
>compare to the daily experience of Jim Crow, yet we can
>still empathize with the lyrics. Why? <<<<

In relation to the first part above.... C.Patton was a true "sound above lyrical content".Or perhaps he had no fixed structure to his songs , and this only became apparent when set down on record.

BTW Re.The openening Dylan quote there was a nice (re)quote on radio Scotland yesterday .
"The difference between genius and stupidity.
Bob Dylan and Neil Young play rack harp, sing and play guitar..genius.
But tie a pair of cymbals between their knees.....".

adios,
lovat.
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby hashtaff » Wed Oct 16, 2002 6:29 am

For blues lyrics to hit a nerve, at least for me, they have to conjure up a mental image, a scene, if you like, much like when reading a good book or listening to a radio play. The oposite to watching tv, a film or listening to music pap. You can then identify and sympathise with the characters/scenarios depicted without having to have had similar circumstances. Isn't that why we listen to music and read in the first place, to gain insight and knowlege ouside our normal experience.
Or I could just be wanking.

"Blues don't know where you're going,
they don't care where you been.
Looks like blues done got me again "
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby ricochet » Wed Oct 16, 2002 7:08 pm

Then there's always the "Thank God I ain't as bad off as that poor ___er!" aspect. :)
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby hoodoo hand » Fri Oct 18, 2002 11:51 pm

As I think of my favorite lyrics, they're all about sex!

"She's got those Elgin movements from her head down to her toes..."
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby ricochet » Sat Oct 19, 2002 12:37 am

Yeah, that always works!
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby jellyroll baker » Mon Oct 28, 2002 1:56 am

>As I think of my favorite lyrics, they're all about sex!
>
Where do you think I got my nick from?
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RE: What makes a good blues lyric?

Postby hashtaff » Mon Oct 28, 2002 4:46 am

>>As I think of my favorite lyrics, they're all about sex!
>>
>Where do you think I got my nick from?

'cos you're a wazack?

only joking ;)


"Blues don't know where you're going,
they don't care where you been.
Looks like blues done got me again "
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