The Harp in Blues History & What makes Blues sound like the Blues

The Harp in Blues History from Learn How to Play Blues on your Harp by I. Mac Perry
As the hot Dixieland combos of the Roaring Twenties began to peak out (they had replaced the 30-year reign of Ragtime), they were taken over by Big Band Swing, an era that lasted from about 1930 to 1945 when Bebop became popular. The Swing Era introduced written charts (music) and the need for a broader fuller sound that included the orchestra harp. At this stage, the harp was used only as a secondary instrument and was heard mostly playing flurries of glissandos and arpeggios. Big Bands using harps and violins were known as Society Bands or “Sweet Bands”. Harpist Sarah Voynow, in her doctoral thesis from Julliard School in New York, lists Loretta McFarland, Ruth Hill, Loretta Thompson, Laura Newell, and Adele Girard as early classically trained harpists who became “jazz” musicians. Laura Newell’s swing septet “The New friends of Music” recorded such tunes as “Blackboard Blues”. Harp sheet music was rare in those days because arrangers didn’t understand notation or the role of the harp. Adele Girard once said,

“. . . I still used my ear, even though arrangements were provided. They wrote harp music that looked like Greek.”

Robert Maxwell, staff harpists in 1938 for the WTIC broadcast in Cincinnati wrote,

“It was sink or swim. I had to learn how to ‘fake’ and learn fast.”

There were others in those pioneering days: Betty Glamann played with jazz genius Oscar Pettiford at Birdland, New York’s jazz corner, and blues harpist Casper Reardon worked with jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The transition from the secondary role of the harp to a freely improvising soloist began in the early fifties. Sarah Voynow lists other jazz/blues pioneers: Corky Hale with her punctuating block chords and Dorothy Ashby with her single line Bebop solos filled with pedal sliding “blue notes”. Dorothy and her drummer husband John experimented with micing the harp. Sarah writes “To stifle the noisy movement of the pedal mechanism, (John) carpeted the inner body (of the harp) and Dorothy wore pieces of carpet glued to the soles of her shoes.” These early bluesy harpists inspired such notables as New Age harpist Andreas Vollenweider, Fusion harpist Susan Mazer, jazz/blues diva Deborah Henson-Conant, Rock artist Zeena Parkins, and jazz harpists Lori Andrews, Carol Robbins, and others. (See longer list in Part Five). Deborah Henson-Conant tells me that until this Hands-On-Workbook was published harp blues playing was a hand-me-down tradition: Blues pioneer Dorothy Ashby taught Carol Robbins, Deborah Henson-Conant studied from Corky Hale and Jack Nebergall, Monika Stadler studied from Deborah, etc. Special thanks to The American Harp Journal for supplying information for parts of this section.

What Makes Blues Sound like the Blues
There are recognizable characteristics of the blues that give it that bluesy sound. For instance, the frequent use of:
Flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths, called blue notes.
The sound of a minor third-based improv played over a major third- based comp.
Crushing, playing adjacent notes (diminished seconds) in unison
Slides, playing a single note then moving the lever or pedal up or down to slide into a second note a half step away.

And since the 1930s a standardization of the blues to:

12-measures long, repeated over and over (unlike the many 8-bar blues written in the 1920s.
4/4 time (also called Common Time)
A shuffle rhythm that establishes a “groove” reminiscent of the repetitive “Call and Response” of the early field workers.
The use of three basic chords: the I (Tonic), IV (Sub-Dominant), and V (Dominant) chords. Recall that Roman numbers are assigned to chords built on each step of a scale. For the F blues, the I chord is F, the IV chord is Bb, the V chord is C.
A chord progression built on flatted seventh chords (also called dominant 7ths). That is, the I chord, IV chord, and V chord are all flatted seventh chords, I7, IV7, V.7

Much of this is made possible on both pedal and lever harp by employing the Blues Tuning before you begin to play. This is the subject of the next section.

The blues can certainly be played in any time or key signature and use other modes (e.g. major or minor). And sometimes the word “blues” appears in the title and the tune isn’t even a blues. But in this Hands On Workbook, to keep teaching simple, the examples, riffs, exercises, and tunes are based on the standard, 12-bar, 4/4, flatted seventh form in which hundreds of blues tunes have been written including: “Pine Top Boogie,” “CC Rider,” “They Call it Stormy Monday”, and “Jailhouse Rock”.

This standard blues form is sometimes called a “Mixolydian Blues” because it is based on Mixolydian Scales. A Mixolydian scale is nothing more than a major scale with a flatted seventh, i.e. a dominant 7th scale.

The standard chord changes for the 12-bar Mixolydian blues are:

I7/IV7/I7/I 7/IV7/IV7/I7 /I7//V7/IV7/I7/I7

In F, that progression would be:


Since Blues melodies and improvisations are built around the arpeggios (the chord notes) of the I7, IV7, and V7 chords, (plus a few Passing Notes i.e. non-chordal notes usually played on the weak best of a measure) we need to look at these arpeggios. They are:
1st 3rd 5th 7th
I or F7 = F, A, C, Eb
IV or Bb7 = Bb, D, F, Ab
V or C7= C, E, G, Bb

So just how can we get all of these notes on a harp at the same time? The secret lies in the Blues Tuning.

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply