The Blues, and roots acoustic blues in particular, covers a lot of ground. With so many regional styles and so much history, its a complex landscape to describe.
If someone were to ask me ‘what’s the difference between Country Blues and Folk Blues?‘ I’d say ‘Woah, don’t let classifying the music be a distraction from what the blues is really about“. For me, that is a visceral connection to the real emotions lived by real people, in their struggles, in their triumphs and their downfalls. The blues singer expresses all of this, for all of us, playing a role comparable to the village griot–the African storyteller–who carries forward the tradition in his stories, but is also an interpretive artist and poet.
As a guitarist myself, the blues is also a place I go to get creative. Learning about different styles of fingerstyle blues, deciding what kind of songs I want to play–deciding what kind of effect I want my music to have–I’ve learned to distinguish the flavors and notice what creates the specific impact of different traditional guitar styles.
In the beginning there were just the blues. What have become to be known as ‘pre-war blues‘ are just the earliest recorded examples. It’s not clear how the term ‘country blues’ may have been in use at the time the music was being recorded. It occurs to me that it only came into being once it was necessary to distinguish rural blues from urban blues. Meanwhile, ‘Folk Blues’ is a term that came into use in the 50s and 60s during a revival of interest in folk music by white audiences. But the popularization of the fingerstyle roots of the music by people like Jorma Kaukonen in the 60s has created a deep connection and abiding interest in authentic blues forms. Many modern musicians have enhanced their recordings and performance by employed the distinctive sounds developed on acoustic guitar by rural blues musicians a century ago.
As a performer, it’s like there are two distinct repertoires. The following is how I sort it out. Country blues are songs in the blues form, 8 bar and 12 bar blues, often of the true ‘american primitive guitar” type. Players like Charley Patton and Fred McDowell. The more expansive term ‘Folk Blues’ encompasses more folkloric and popular music, from field hollers and gospel to vaudeville–a repertoire like Leadbelly’s, who had a ‘country blues’ approach to folk music.
Country blues are rooted firmly in the pentatonic scale, the ‘blues scale‘–minor pentatonic over dominant 7 chords. Performed primarily on the guitar, what I think of as country blues often tends towards open tunings and slide guitar–and gives fairly rudimentary attention to form. Even the lyrics are minimalist, with the emphasis on energy and emotion, and the singer cast as an isolated outsider. Chord changes don’t always happen within a strict 4 beat per bar basis, ‘time’ is stretched artistically by the player based on feel. It could also be said that the right hand technique in real ‘downhome‘ country blues tends to be less precise and complex, compared to the kind of fingerstyle that I associate with the style of modern folk blues players.
For me, the folk blues repertoire incorporates more jazz harmony, mostly in standard tuning, and uses more classic song forms and devices, for example, the singer taking on a more narrative character. Country blues comes straight from the heart, unadulterated, while folk blues songs deal on many levels, including the wider cultural setting, the oral tradition and community values reflected in the songs. Frequently, the kinds of tunes that make up what I call the folk blues repertoire can have more variations in structure, a variety of different modal settings, the use of dominant 3 and 6 chords, II-V changes and the incorporation of elements of European folk, like reels, ballad forms and the Harmonic Minor scale.
Country blues players were original artists, playing their own compositions or playing fiercely personal versions of common, traditional blues, often for little money or acclaim. But players like Reverend Gary Davis and Leadbelly wrote songs, and also sang folksongs and gospel to earn a living. They were arrangers and performers at a truly masterful level, and widely recognized during their lives.
I play different styles depending on my mood. Country blues is more elemental, like one of it’s forms, the Delta blues, while folk blues songs give me a break from 1, 4, 5 tunes and lets me play around more with creating different textures and arrangements, a little more personalized expression. I tend to say I play folk blues, because there’s more room there; I love to play country blues, but that music is so steeped in the particular life–the difficult life–of the people who created it, I tend to think of it as primarily theirs.
These are arbitrary categories; it’s not like the blues players made these distinctions, these labels were invented by record labels or blues scholars, which I am not, I just have my way of seeing things. I’m uncomfortable with calling original artists like the early bluesmen folk musicians and filing country blues under the heading folk music. Things are more complex than that. Blind Lemon Jefferson‘s blues are ‘country blues’, but so original in content, style and the depth of his guitar technique–he is really a jazz musician, a complete professional, journeyman musician. Mississippi John Hurt plays some of the most satisfying–folk blues? country blues? what do you think?–but spent most of his life literally in the cottonfields. The two men’s music could not be more different. But they are both the blues.
The boundaries are blurry. Folk Blues, capital F, capital B has become a wide landscape around that deep and ancient-hearted Mississippi River of the Country Blues, wide enough to encompass the creativity and innovation of today’s–mostly-white–modern practitioners, even those like myself who use the guitar styles but write lyrics with themes that are outside the traditional blues canon of whiskey and women.