What can we learn from Willie Dixon?
Blues music continues to lose ground. The fans are getting old, clubs are closing, big radio stations only play blues on Sunday nights, if they play it at all. Willie Dixon enabled a blues renaissance in the 1950s. What can we learn from Willie Dixon’s accomplishments to help blues music find new energy and be embraced by a younger audience?
I believe that Willie Dixon’s songwriting was the essential factor in giving rise to a new blues tradition that was both more popular and more relevant to its time than what had existed previously. It had legs. Contemporary blues artists haven’t strayed very far from Dixon-era Chicago blues, epitomized by Muddy Waters and his bands. There has been growth in instrumental prowess, especially on electric guitar, which has become the main draw of the blues for the general public. Blues songwriting has not kept pace with cultural change and our common understandings of the world we live in every day.
Blues music had informed and engendered many other American music forms – jazz, Broadway, ragtime, pop, and Willie Dixon himself was instrumental in developing rock and roll, playing bass on Chuck Berry’s hit records on the Chess label. I have long believed that Dixon’s genius was to bring elements of these newer forms back into the blues as he wrote songs and produced records.
He wrote songs with refrains and choruses, AABA structure, minor keys and other techniques that departed from the 12-bar blues progression and the formulaic lyrics of traditional blues.
My intuited belief was validated when I recently read Mitsutoshi Inaba’s scholarly work, “Willie Dixon: Preacher of the Blues.”1 He really digs in deep! The book started life as a PhD dissertation submitted to the University of Oregon in 2005. Six years later Inaba expanded his thesis into a book that covers Dixon’s career from beginning to end.
Willie Dixon’s first steady gig was with The Big Three, led by Baby Doo Caston. They played blues and boogie-woogie but also pop and Tin Pan Alley material. To Dixon, it was all blues music. Inaba comments, “In Dixon’s mind there was no distinction between writing blues and writing other kinds of music.” His daughter, Shirli Dixon, said, “in his mind, Big Three Trio was just as much blues as Muddy Waters or any other.”2
Inaba dissects each and every Willie Dixon song that has been recorded 3 and places the song in context with the environment it was created and recorded in, and how it related to the performer who recorded it. He notes the musical forms within each song and how those forms relate to one another across Dixon’s catalog.
Inaba explains the many elements that Dixon used innovatively in pushing the boundaries of blues music. Here are a few examples.
He often used a lyrical template – setting up a repeated phrase that changes by substituting words from a list of similar concepts. Example – “Third Degree”:
Got me ‘cused of peeping
I can’t see a thing
Got me ‘cused of petting
I can’t even raise my hand”
and as the song continues he substitutes a different word in each ‘cused of line (murder, forgery, taxes, children.) 4
Another example of this list/substitution formula is “Don’t Go No Further” which also has a catchy chorus/hook. Also, “You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover.”
Dixon’s lyrics related to his contemporary culture – he wrote about things that were interesting to African-Americans of his day. Some lyrics were more like pop songs than traditional blues, such as “I Want to Be Loved” recorded by Muddy Waters. 5
Willie Dixon consciously departed from the 12-bar standard blues form. He said, “What happened, the world was trying to hold the blues at one basic thing as a 12-bar music. And by holding it at a 12-bar music, it only meant that you would be putting another verse to the same music all the time… And so what I would do then is make a 24-bar system out of it.” 6
He used Latin rhythms (Mellow Down Easy), stop time contrasted with walking bass (I’m Ready), and always wanted people to dance to his music. “…if people dance to something…they learn something about the words of it that gives them a certain education they wouldn’t learn otherwise.” 7
Another innovation was using a minor key in blues music as early as 1952 (The Big Three “My Love Will Never Die”, a hit for Otis Rush in 1956) 8
Inaba has lots more examples but I think I’ve made my point. Willie Dixon reclaimed elements of related music forms and merged them back into the blues music from which they had originally evolved.
The big question for me is – HOW DID THIS MUSIC BECOME THE NEW BLUES TRADITION?
I used caps on purpose to emphasize that this is a very important question. If Willie Dixon could juvenate the blues in the 1950s, a contemporary artist could do the same tomorrow. 9
Certainly it helped to have the songs recorded by established blues artists with standing in the blues community. A person can write “a blues” but that doesn’t mean it will sound like “the blues”. Can you imagine Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf singing a song and it not sounding bluesy?
Another huge factor – the music was accepted by the record-buying public which, in the 1950s, was mainly African-American women. They could relate to the lyrics of songs that reflected their culture and times. And dance to it.
But let’s note that his songs were not accepted at first. Shirli Dixon commented, “Most of the artists refused to sing Dixon songs at first.” Muddy Waters was the artist most willing to try these new ideas and, obviously, other artists became eager to record Willie Dixon songs as his successes built up.
Are there newer music forms that some future Willie Dixon could assimilate and make part of a new blues tradition?
Well, what are the new African-American music forms that have become popular since 1970, when blues itself stopped changing? 10
It seems to me that Hip hop is the obvious candidate that could be re-assimilated into blues music and establish a more vital new blues tradition – just as Willie Dixon revitalized the Mississippi Delta tradition that dominated prior to his coming on the scene. Hip hop has rhythmic elements that could fit, but most significantly, the lyrics are important in hip hop. They tend to reflect modern African-American culture and that, I believe, is what blues music needs the most – to become relevant to modern culture.
To a much lesser degree, Techno/Disco music could give something back to the blues with its more modern instrumentation and dance-ability.
The typical Blues fan in 2016 is, like me, a baby-boomer. We are all going to die over the next 20 years or so. Somewhere out there is an African-American teenager who will re-imagine what blues music can be, just as Willie Dixon did sixty years ago. I suspect that most of us won’t like her music very much but we need to encourage her if we want this music we love is to become more than a museum piece.
In closing, I’ll quote Mitsutoshi Inaba. 11 “Dixon’s ultimate wish as a songwriter was that his songs could speak for people of his community. Dixon said, “That’s what makes hit songs, things that are common to any individual – and it’s not a complicated thing. It makes it easier for life, easy to express, easy to say. Blues songs are facts of life, whether it’s our life or somebody else’s.” Amen!
1) Mitsutoshi Inaba. “Willie Dixon – Preacher of the Blues” Scarecrow Press 2011 scarecrowpress.com
2) Inaba p50
3) There are a small number of songs where he was unable to find a recording to analyze
4) Inaba p75
5) Inaba p95. “I Want to Be Loved” has a 32-bar pop form with an A-A-B-A structure. Little Walter’s harp solo is a straight 12-bar, inserted after the third A section.
6) Inaba p80 from an interview in Living Blues. Corritore, Ferris and O’Neal “Willie Dixon (Part 2)” Living Blues no 82 (Sept/Oct 1988)
7) Inaba p112 from an interview by Worth Long. “The Wisdom of the Blues…” African American Review 29, no. 2 (Summer 1995):210
8) Inaba p47, p161
9) The reason I started his blog is because I believe that blues music will soon become nothing more than a museum exhibit if it doesn't evolve and grow.
10) I feel that the blues-rock and blues guitar jam bands were a new fruit from blues roots: offshoots, not essentially blues. You might disagree.
11) Inaba p 299