Bob Brozman on the Blues

May 1, 2009

“I’ve turned out to be kind of a guitar anthropologist exploring the frontiers of colonialism, because that’s where all the interesting music happens. European guitars arrive in standard tuning and often without instruction, so all over the world—from Mississippi to Hawaii to Papua New Guinea to Africa and everywhere in between—open tunings are spontaneously developed by native people who encounter this bizarre diatonic instrument and try to adapt it to play modal music. The 12-bar blues, with the three chords as we know them today, did not develop overnight. It took literally a generation for black guitarists in Mississippi to figure that out. African musicians came from a modal culture, not a diatonic one. So the earliest blues, like Charley Patton’s “When Your Way Gets Dark” and stuff like that, are one-chord blues. You can feel the 12-bar structure, and you can actually take the melodies he sings and put the three chords of the blues under them, but in fact, it’s just one chord and it’s modal. So I look at the history of the blues as kind of a struggle of a modal people to get their heads around the idea of a diatonic instrument and diatonic music.”

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