Wednesday, September 7, 2016

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.


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
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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Gaye Adegbalola

Gaye Adegbalola

It is a rare performer who can pull off being funny with blues music, even fewer who use the truth to supply the lyrics. Gaye Adegbalola has been writing blues songs since the 1980s, when she was a founding member of Saffire – The Uppity Blues Women. She won a W.C. Handy award in 1990 for her song Middle Age Blues Boogie.
Her songs have always spring from her actual life and circumstances.  In her words: “While I try to maintain the BLUES FORM in all my compositions, I write about contemporary content, contemporary problems (often in a humorous way). The BLUES CONTENT thrives on double and triple entendre. It is poetically rich. My song topics address ageism, sexism, domestic abuse, unemployment, education, civil rights, health insurance, incest, i.e. contemporary problems.”

Richard Skelly, writing a biography of Gaye Adegbalola for allmusic.com1. says it better that I ever could – “Gaye Adegbalola is best-known to blues fans as the flamboyant, flashy, very funny frontwoman for Saffire, The Uppity Blues Women. But on her debut release as a solo artist for Alligator Records, she's in fine voice, accompanied by some great players and, true-to-form, pushing into new thematic ground in her lyrics. That's why Adegbalola is a breath of fresh air on the contemporary blues scene…”

Yes, she is! I find it encouraging that an established blues performer writes contemporary lyrics – this is the whole thrust of my blog. But it is discouraging to realize that nobody else has recorded her fine contemporary songs on their own albums. 2.  I understand why an artist might not record a song about wanting another girl in her jail cell (Jail House Blues) and many songs are too specifically autobiographical for artists who are not black, lesbian, abused as a child or battered as an adult. But songs like Blues in the House, Tomorrow Ain’t Promised, Cold Pizza Warm Beer and Only One Truth could work for anyone.
It is sad that the song with the highest number of iTunes purchases and Spotify plays is a cover tune -  It Hurts Me Too. Consolation - Big Ovaries, Baby comes in at #2.

Adegbalola is primarily an acoustic artist. Musically, most songs derive from musical forms of older “folk blues”, spirituals and blues standards. Her melodies and chord structures are less adventurous than her lyrics, which may be a result of her desire to preserve the Blues Form as she has expressed. She could stretch out musically a little more, as shown by Images which takes the spiritual form into an extra dimension.

Focusing on lyrics, let’s start with the Saffire songs. Middle Aged Blues Boogie helped them find commercial success and this song epitomizes the humor and “uppityness” that makes them popular. The humor is broad and tends to wear on me after a while because it seems too obvious. Given that the songs have to come across live in concert, maybe they have to be that obvious. Listening to Adegbalola singing about her vagina is entertaining the first couple of times but after four or five vagina-related songs, it feels like she is rubbing it in my face.3.
I find many Saffire humor songs just a little too cutesy, even though they are honest and deal with life as it really happens in the 21st century. Humor is balanced by songs about civil rights, injustice, racism, child abuse and there a bunch of songs I’d just call fun blues.

Continuing her career as a solo artist after Saffire disbanded, Gaye Adegbalola continued to be funny, entertaining, and also damn scary honest. Who can you think of that could pull off a humorous tune and a six-minute political speech on the same album?

I hope that Adegbalola inspires blues songwriters to write about what is actually happening in their own lives, and what they truly feel about these things.
Some of the topics she takes on -
Being a battered woman – You Don’t Have to Take It Like I Did
Being abused as a child – Nightmare
Contraception - Bareback Rider.

She shows her honesty when she addresses nuances and contradictions in her life. For instance, she has a ton of songs that celebrate being a lesbian, but she slips in a song like Hetero Twinges where she finds herself attracted to a man. My favorite Adegbalola song is Step Parent Blues - a great example of what modern blues could and should be. It is so specific and focused that it expresses the universal – any step parent, whether gay or straight, will empathize and identify with the singer. A lesbian wife wants to be closer to her partner’s child. She has been “Stepping to the side, And Steppin to the back, Steppin on eggshells, And taking too much flack. The law won’t recognize me, And you pay me no respect. I know you want me to step away, And step back. What am I supposed to do? I got those step parent blues.” Then in the bridge – “There’s no loving her, Without loving you… I need your help, To end my step parent blues.” This timeless song is so heart-felt, so real, so honest, so Gaye Adegbalola.

Blues in all Flavors is an album of blues songs for children, with a mixture of novelty songs and advice.  Topics range from vegetables (Blues for the Greens) to good manners (Please, Please, Please, Please and The Thank You Song.) Gaye Adegbalola was a junior high school teacher for many years (awarded Virginia State Teacher of the Year in 1982); most of these songs seem more aimed at elementary age kids.  Comfort and ease going to Grandma and Grandpa’s House. She sings about bullying – using the melody of Wooly Bully in Stop That Bully. One sparkling gem is It Hurts (the Picked Last Song). A very nice touch is that Adegbalola provides lyrics and chord charts for all of these songs on her web site to make it easier for kids to learn the songs (I assume). Many local Blues Societies have Blues for Kids programs – Gaye’s “Blues in all Flavors” album would be an excellent resource. She has published her lyrics and essays here on her web site.

Good songwriters know that using the naked, unadorned truth can be incredibly powerful. Gaye Adegbalola has that power under great artistic control. Artists who have this many humorous songs are often regarded as novelty acts. Is Gaye Adegbalola a novelty act? In a sense, yes, because she is novel – totally her own category.

I listened to the Gaye Adegbalola albums Bitter Sweet Blues (1999 Alligator Records), Gaye Without Shame (2008 Hot Toddy), and Blues in all Flavors (2012 Hot Toddy). Also the 32 Saffire songs attributed to Adegbalola as composer on

2. With the exception of Saffire members. If I am wrong about this, I’d really be pleased, and eager to know who made the recordings.

3. OK, sorry. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Gary Nicholson

Gary Nicholson (Whitey Johnson)

Gary Nicholson may be the only blues songwriter I’ve written about (so far) who has received more writer royalty payments than Willie Dixon.

Nicholson writes in a variety of genres and I will guess that he has made more money from Country music than anything else. He is a Nashville pro with hit songs dating back to 1980’s “Jukebox Argument” recorded by Mickey Gilley and featured in the movie “Urban Cowboy”.  

His long-time relationship with Delbert McClinton (as guitarist, producer and co-writer) has led to over 30 blues-soaked songs including Better Off with the Blues, If You Can’t Lie No Better and You Ain’t Lost Nothin’.  A prolific co-writer, he often gets called in to complete songs that other writers or artists need help with. His songs have been recorded by B. B. King, Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and many other established blues performers.

We get a songwriting lesson from Gary Nicholson simply by listening to his songs and, especially, by reading his lyrics. No clich├ęs, solid structure, storylines, everyday conversational language. He has recorded one album of blues tunes as Whitey Johnson; this might be the best place to start studying what Nicholson can teach us about blues songwriting and co-writing.

A number of songs on “Whitey Johnson” are about romance (or lack of romance) and there are several songs that deal with topics outside that framework. Since many songs are co-writes, you don’t know exactly what Nicholson’s contribution was. However, two songs are solo writes and they stand out.
Blues in Black and White is an autobiographical account of how he came to recognize and understand racism as a child. He presents three vignettes about a childhood friend, a fellow band member and Dr. Martin Luther King being victims of racism. “How long, how long, must we struggle on before we… find a way to rise above the blues in black and white?” Devil Goin’ Fishin’ is about temptation: “Devil goin’ fishin’, and he’s got all the good bait…”

Some random gems –
A co-write with Donnie Fritts gives us a little movie posing as a song - Memphis Women and Chicken:
“There's a woman up on the bluff make her living making pies
Got chocolate covered fingers and dark blueberry eyes
Got that light powdered sugar sprinkled all in her hair
Her apple turnover is beyond compare
When it's hot late and sticky and you want something cool and sweet
She keeps the handle crankin’ on that homemade ice cream
Memphis women and good fried chicken, Memphis women and chicken”

From Leap of Faith:
“I had to rise back up on the ashes of love
And jump back into the fire”

Better Off With the Blues:
“Since you been gone I've had time to myself 
Haven't even tried to find somebody else 
When you told me you were leavin' it almost came as good news 
It may sound funny but it's true 
I think I'm better off with the blues” 

One main lesson from Gary Nicholson is summed up by this quote from Michael Laskow’s Taxi interview with Gary Nicholson that underscores the importance of giving the songwriting aspects of our music the attention it needs. “When I got to Gary's studio, it became clear to me why he's "the man." He's one of the top writers in Nashville, yet he's still got books like "Cliches" by Eric Partridge, "The Songwriter's Idea Book" by Sheila Davis, "The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary" by Sue Young, "Write From The Heart" by John Stewart, a book on American slang, another book called "Metaphorically Speaking", "The Essential Songwriter's Contract Handbook", and a few others on his shelf. Why does a songwriter of Gary's stature need to have these books? Because they're the tools of his craft.”

And from Gary himself: “I think you have to give yourself up to it. I think it's like anything else, if you want to be a songwriter more than anything else, you have to bleed for it—you have to be willing to work at it as hard as anyone would work at any career. You have to get up in the morning, drink your coffee, and then start working at songwriting—all day long. You have to live it. You look for every possible way that you can write songs. If you put that much energy into it, there's no way that you cannot have some kind of results-something's going to happen—if you work at it.

Second year of the blues songwriter

I had stopped posting. I figured nobody was really interested in the topic and my desire to see blues songwriting improve was probably just selfish and motivated mostly by desire for recognition for my own songwriting.
But it IS important to me. So I'll be posting more reviews of blues songwriting that I believe is helpful for any blues songwriter who aspires to improve his or her writing. Like me!
I would LOVE IT if readers would comment, share their own insights about songwriting, agree or disagree with me and I would especially love to hear about blues songwriters we can all learn from!