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Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

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11 Blues lyrics and the expressive voice

The expressive use of the voice is a key element of the blues, and the recorded legacy of blues contains all sorts of examples of expressive vocal techniques. The voice also delivers a text. We refer to song texts as lyrics, but we might also see them as a form of poetry. Telling a story through vocal performance is an enduring feature of all blues songs. Blues singers adapted older styles of singing and the kind of narratives and structures they used. Ballads for example, have the same music repeated over and over for each verse, and each verse adds to the unfolding story. Hymns have a similar structure, repeating the same music for each verse, but with texts that deliver a religious message rather telling a story.

Activity 3

You listened to a brief extract of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s ‘Hangman’s blues’ in Section 6. Now read the lyrics, noting the subject matter and the structure.

Hangman’s blues

Hangman’s rope is so tough and strong
Oh, the hangman’s rope is so tough and strong
They gonna hang me because I done something wrong

I wanna tell you the gallis [gallows], Lord’s a fearful sight
I wanna tell you the gallis, Lord’s a fearful sight
Hang me in the mornin’ and cut me down at night

While a mean ol’ hangman is waitin’ to tighten up that noose
Oh, the mean ol’ hangman is waitin’ to tighten up that noose
Lord, I’m so scared, I’m trembling in my shoes

Jury heard my case and they said my hand was red
Heard my case and said my hand was red
And judge, he sentenced me, be hanging till I’m dead

They crowd 'round the courthouse and the time is going fast
Oh, they crowd 'round the courthouse and the time is going fast
Soon a good-for-nothin’ killer is gonna breathe his last

Lord, I’m almost dyin’, gasping for my breath
Lord, I’m almost dyin’, gasping for my breath
And a triflin’ woman waiting to celebrate my death

(Blind Lemon Jefferson)


Jefferson’s song is a narrative about crime and capital punishment. The singer describes his feelings about having done something wrong, facing a judge and jury, and then seeing the hangman’s rope on the gallows while a woman celebrates his death. The verses each have two lines that are almost identical, followed by a third which is different.

Jefferson’s song could be understood as a cautionary tale, but it relates to the harshness of the criminal justice system. Capital punishment was a reality in the USA at this time, and black people were discriminated against. While the lyrics don’t mention the crime, the death sentence is indicated by the reference to the gallows (‘gallis’) and the audience of the time would have been well aware of the categories of wrongdoing that would be punishable by death. This is typical of the sort of social comment one might expect in a blues song. Blind Lemon was an itinerant singer performing wherever he could find paying work. Many of his songs paint an image of a world of liquor, women and outlaws. The subject matter of his songs did not necessarily arise from his own personal experience but were part of a shared experience familiar to his audience

The structure of the lyrics of ‘Hangman’s blues’ can be represented by the letters AAB. In this song, A is the repeating line and B is the new one. In performance, the singer repeats the first line, sometimes with slight lyrical and/or melodic variation, but always in a way that maintains the final word. The AAB pattern is a very typical structure in blues lyrics. A simple variation of it has rhyming words rather than repeating words for the A lines, creating what is known as a rhyming couplet. This pair of lines is followed by a single line that can be used as a refrain. The important thing to remember about this verse structure is its three-line format as it fits the musical structures of the blues.

Love, sex and betrayal are common themes in blues lyrics, but songs may also contain elements of bitter social or political comment. Urban blues in particular feature topics of love, separation from loved ones, betrayal, law and injustice, poverty and survival. These black musicians were rooted in segregated and economically depressed areas whether in rural agricultural communities or overcrowded city slums and their life experiences were often harrowing. They had to deal with poverty, hunger, lack of employment, political marginalisation and unjust judicial systems.

Imagery in the lyrics of country blues or down-home blues may draw on experience in rural farming environments with references to nature, but these are used metaphorically, for example, comparing ones troubles with the falling rain. The separation of couples due to the economic necessity of finding work often put men into urban environments and left women to make a living as best they could in rural communities. Female singers recount stories relating to their lives trying to keep their families together as they face the effects of poverty, illness and inequality. Victoria Spivey’s ‘TB blues’, Ma Rainey’s ‘Booze and blues’ and ‘Farewell Daddy blues’ are all raw, even graphic accounts of life from a woman’s perspective. However, there is often a tension between connections in the lyrics to lived lives and contexts on one hand and an element of imagining and invention on the other. ‘Hangman’s blues’ is a case in point as the narrative implies personal experience, but it is clearly imagined as the singer is not dead but telling the tale.

Song writers also created ballads that celebrated real and fictional characters who were in some way anti-heroes, and lived lives that were played out in the margins of society, just as they too were living in a marginalised community. Political events too, sparked reactions. The decision in 1936 of the American Congress to pay a bonus to veterans of the First World War evoked a range of responses, many focusing on unfairness and inequality, while the bombing of Pearl Harbour in the Second World War was likewise a source for lyrics.