The Difference Between Country Blues & Folk Blues

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.

country-blues-artist-blind-willie-mctellAs 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.

About Mokai

Fingerpicking Fool

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2 Responses to The Difference Between Country Blues & Folk Blues

  1. Theo April 30, 2009 at 5:15 PM #

    Now just a fingerpickin’ minute there, son. You may play the blues a hundred times better than I ever will. In fact I’ll concede that right away, and am frankly in real admiration of your knowledge of the blues and your ability to assimilate these influences and make something out of it that it uniquely your own.

    Despite your disclaimers, you discuss “Country” vs “Folk” blues as if they’re 2 different things – even pointing out the differences in chord patterns etc. But what is different about Country vs Folk Blues has nothing to do with the music itself, and everything to do with the different lenses through which the music is viewed.

    As you rightly claim, Folk Blues is a term that reflects the interest of 1960s white audiences in folk music. Those musicians that were influenced by the 60s generation have adopted the term, end of story. But blues music WAS WHAT IT WAS long before the 60s kids “re-discovered” it, and IS WHAT IT IS, regardless of the fact that some people want to call it “Folk” and others “Country”.

    “Folk” and “Country” are relative terms that reflect the viewers own aesthetic influences, rather than anything inherent and objective about the music itself. So let’s not try to give our own particular lenses any historical objectivity.

    I certainly agree that there are core “standard” 12-bar blues with the chord changes etc we all know, and then there are wider and wider rings beyond that incorporating all kinds of other influences. Dave Van Ronk is a perfect example of someone who, while being heavily influenced by blues song forms and guitar techniques, also incorporated lots of adjacent musical styles from folk, irish, etc. The point is that we should call his style “Folk Blues” NOT because it has influence x, y or z, but because THAT IS WHAT HE CALLED IT.

    When speaking of something that occurred at a given time in history, we should call that thing, wherever possible, what it was called by the people that did it at the time.

    Blind Lemon is a perfect example. In retrospect, you may believe that Blind Lemon has so much in common with what has become known as Jazz, that you label Blind Lemon a Jazz Musician. And in the widest sense, that is true. But I doubt it is a term that he would’ve related to.

    – “Hey Lemon, what is that music you’re playing?”
    – “Jazz, son, this what they call Jazz”.

    And if tomorrow we stop calling it Jazz and call it “Afro-American Classical Music”, then we should also apply that label to Blind Lemon as well?

  2. Mokai May 11, 2009 at 11:30 PM #


    You can’t imagine my joy to see your reply to my post. Since you are obviously one suckled at the very breast of the great folk muse (and perhaps never weaned,) I want to reply as respectfully as I can to your trashing of my brilliant analysis; hopefully my reply will rise to the level of intellectual fervor of your own.

    But don’t imagine there is any pretense that my opinions are objective, let’s settle that right now. What I am describing is how I look at it, for my purpose of distinguishing between techniques and approaches, but also–just how I have come to understand the terms.

    I think this whole controversy is a tempest in a teapot. It seems you’re disagreeing with me as you agree. All I was saying was a) that Folk Blues is an artificial term imposed by outsiders after the fact. Yet it is in use and it is not equivalent to ‘country blues’. If anything Folk Blues is an umbrella and country blues just a sub-set, with it’s own distinguishing characteristics. Folk blues would itself be a subset of Folk. But b) calling blues ‘folk’ music is unsatisfying. It would be like calling flamenco folk music. How can something so infused with personal creativity be called folk music? Besides, isn’t blues the root of Jazz? So is Jazz folk music? Or only jazz blues? It seems there is an objective difference between the popular music of a particular period, the creative output of the musical pioneers of an era or region, and the folk songs that gave the artist the same vocabulary as his/her audience.

    We have no idea what Blind Lemon Jefferson called his music. He certainly didn’t call it folk blues. It’s not certain he called it ‘country music’. Most likely he would have called it ‘blues’, but that really doesn’t help someone just getting started listening to blues today. Blues to most people is ‘Chicago blues’ (also an unsatisfying term,) or any electrified blues like B.B. King or even Robert Cray. In any case, most people think of something that goes well with beer and BBQ.

    You’re right, it would be preposterous to impose the term “Afro-American Classical Music” on the music from what we refer to as the ‘pre-war blues’ era, though some future generation might. But unlike today’s classical guitarist painstakingly plucking his or her way through Bach études–there is no real ‘country blues’ curriculum; the blues argonaut is out there picking (literally) and choosing and deciphering his or her way through the historical record like some pre-carbon-dating egyptologist seeking meaning and comprehension by peeling back layers (overwrought metaphor for the ‘surface noise’ on those old 78 rpm records).

    I’m not a historian; I’m an artist looking at his palette and noticing the effects of different hues. I see the recordings of ‘american primitive guitar’ styles as interpreted by rural players as examples of the real country blues, which was not merely folk music, and is distinct from the more sophisticated styles of Blake, Broonzy, Johnson et al. again not folk, but more like proto-jazz, which in turn is distinct from the ‘folk blues’ of the modern era, which evolved out of completely different circumstances and who’s main proponents in many cases came from a separate culture. Time has moved on and the ignorant (and possibly racist) concept of Folk Blues needs to be looked at. Originally– in the 40s–it was imposed on any country blues because, well, the blues comes from the folk tradition and is a folk idiom. Also, it was quaint that these old men were still playing this antiquated music, so they must be folk musicians, right? Never mind how they thought of themselves, we could simply fold them into the ongoing ‘folk revival’. So, Big Bill Broonzy, a seasoned professional musician, was introduced as a “sharecropper’ to the crowd at Carnegie Hall during the premier tribute to African American music at the historic “Spirituals to Swing” concert, because that fit better with white sanctimony than to explain that he was one of the top selling black recording artists and they’d never heard of him, so great was the divide between the races at that time. Black music simply didn’t count to mainstream Americans.

    Today, we have a real appreciation of the creativity and passion of the early blues players. And next to that, how one guitar picker chooses to think about the music, is not that important. It just makes for conversation.

    BTW, here’s Van Ronk, –perhaps one of the best of examples of all that is good about ‘Folk Blues’–on being called a folksinger: “I never really thought of myself as a folksinger … but [as] a kind of jazz singer manqué”.

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