The 12-Bar Blues
In this lesson, students will listen to two blues songs (“Back Water Blues” as sung by Bessie Smith and “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair). Students will learn to recognize and analyze an AAB lyric form and compose original AAB blues lyrics.
- Students will be able to identify 12-bar blues songs.
- Students will be able to describe the AAB lyric form that some blues songs employ.
- Students will be able to recite the chord progression to a 12-bar blues (in chord numbers).
- Students will be able to compose original AAB blues lyrics.
National Core Arts Standards
MU:Cr1.1.3.b Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms and melodies) within a given tonality and/or meter.
MU:Cr1.1.4.b Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms, melodies, and simple accompaniment patterns) within related tonalities (such as major and minor) and meters.
MU:Cr1.1.5.b Generate musical ideas (such as rhythms, melodies, and accompaniment patterns) within specific related tonalities, meters, and simple chord changes.
Common Core State Standards
ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.2 Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.2 Paraphrase portions of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
ELA-LITERACY.SL.5.2 Summarize a written text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
Teachers should familiarize themselves with all lesson materials prior to launching the lesson. English & Literature teachers may either include the blues chord progression numbers or omit this music theory element and focus only on lyrics and form.
- PRESENTATION: The 12-Bar Blues
- VIDEO: “Black Water Blues” by Bessie Smith | “Rambling on My Mind” by Robert Johnson | “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair | “I Feel Good” by James Brown | “Mess Around” by Ray Charles | “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley
- LYRICS: “Black Water Blues” | “Go to the Mardi Gras”
- HANDOUT: 12-Bar Blues Basic Chord Progression
- Play a recording of “Black Water Blues” by Bessie Smith. Tell students this is a 12-bar blues and has a traditional AAB form. The lyrics are stated as a sentence, followed by the same sentence, and then a resolution.
- Replay the recording, and ask students to pay attention to any repeated phrases in the lyrics. Ask students: Do you notice a relationship between any A lyrics and the respective B resolution?
- Tell students many other blues songs (but not all) have a similar lyric form.
- Display “Black Water Blues” on slide 3, annotated with AAB to highlight this lyric relationship.
- Explain that there are many other 12-bar blues songs that follow this pattern, through many decades and many genres. Select listening examples from the following:
- Traditional Blues: “Rambling on My Mind” by Robert Johnson
- New Orleans/Mardi Gras: “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair (also called
- “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”)
- Pop/Soul/Rock N Roll: “I Feel Good” by James Brown, “Mess Around” by Ray Charles , “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley
- Listen to the 12-bar blues song “Go to the Mardi Gras” by Professor Longhair. Ask students: What pattern can you identify?
- Distribute the Lyrics: “Go to the Mardi Gras” and review the 12-bar Blues Basic Chord Progression (1-4-1-1; 4-4-1-1; 5-5-5-1).
- Now replay the recording of “Black Water Blues” by Bessie Smith, reciting the chord numbers aloud as the song plays. Invite students to join in as they get the hang of the form.
- Tell students to annotate their lyric handouts with “AAB” next to each lyric line. Confer with students to provide feedback and support.
- Once students have annotated the lyrics, have them work independently or collaboratively to write original “blues” lyrics. These do not need to be accompanied by a melody; they can simply follow the lyric form. Allow time for students to write their lyrics.
- Have students recite the chord numbers aloud along with a recording.
- Have students explain the AAB form by reciting their original AAB blues lyrics.
Used with permission. Portions of this work are based on the National Core Arts Standards Copyright © 2015 National Coalition for Core Arts Standards/All Rights Reserved – Rights Administered by SEADAE.
© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.
Meghan Swartz, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
Mark Braud, Curriculum Developer and Music Artist Liaison
JoDee Scissors, Content Producer