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A First Book of Blues: 16 Arrangements for the Beginning Pianist

A First Book of Blues: 16 Arrangements for the Beginning Pianist

by David Dutkanicz

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With these easy-to-play renditions, beginning pianists of all ages can enjoy one of America's most celebrated art forms. Sixteen popular blues melodies include traditional songs such as "St. James Infirmary" and "Careless Love" as well as several numbers by blues giants Jelly Roll Morton and W. C. Handy, including "St. Louis Blues," "Joe Turner Blues," and


With these easy-to-play renditions, beginning pianists of all ages can enjoy one of America's most celebrated art forms. Sixteen popular blues melodies include traditional songs such as "St. James Infirmary" and "Careless Love" as well as several numbers by blues giants Jelly Roll Morton and W. C. Handy, including "St. Louis Blues," "Joe Turner Blues," and "The Hesitating Blues."
Students, teachers, and other pianists will find these arrangements much simpler and more melodic than other versions. The selections include suggestions for fingering and are arranged in order of increasing difficulty. Introductory material by editor David Dutkanicz offers helpful explanations of the melodic and rhythmic theory behind the blues. 

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Music for Piano Series
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Product dimensions:
7.90(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.30(d)
Age Range:
4 Years

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A First Book of Blues

16 Arrangements for the Beginning Pianist


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17165-4


The Blues Scale

When playing the works in this book, [??] you'll be sure to notice more accidentals than you're used to seeing in more traditional and classical piano music. This is due to the use of the "blues scale." Simply put, the blues scale is a variation on the traditional scale—and what give blues music its character and flavor. Originating in African folk music, it evolved over time and was assimilated into a new musical language.

Although there are a few versions of the blues scale, they all involve altering three important steps of a traditional scale: the 3rd, 5th, and 7th. For example, in a C major scale, the E, G, and B would be altered:


Below are two versions of the blues scale: the "ten-note" and the "six-note." The ten-note is specifically arranged for this edition in order to help performer's fingers and ears (and eyes) prepare for the technical demands at hand. The six-note scale is the more popular and modern version, indispensable for future study and performance. These serve both as an excellent warm-up and introduction to the blues.

Blues Rhythms

In addition to special scales, blues music also has its own unique sense of rhythm. These beats have a playful nature that helps propel melodies, emphasize accents and speech patterns in lyrics, and create powerful accompaniments. The two aspects of rhythm essential to blues are syncopation and swinging eighths.


Technically, syncopation is an accent on an unexpected or weak beat. This can occur within a measure on a downbeat, or on any upbeat (e.g. the "and" in 1 and 2 and ... ). This shift of pulse creates a feeling of displacement, which could be described as "uplifting" or "suspended." Compare examples I and II:


The first has clear accents (or "thumps") on beats 1 and 3, since the longest note of a phrase (here half notes) would carry the most weight. By introducing the quarter note on the first beat, the gravity of the phrase shifts to beats 2 and 4. Keep in mind that the tempo doesn't change, only the accents. It sounds clearer when played on a scale:


The same would apply to quarter notes. In these examples, they are introduced earlier and shifted to the left by an eighth note:


Syncopations are often notated in a way that can make them appear more complicated than they really are. Rather than writing two eighth notes tied together, the values are combined and represented as one quarter note. Remember, the two measures only look different but are played the same:


Ties can also create syncopations by delaying a downbeat. Here are some simple examples taken from rhythms found in this book:


Syncopation may feel awkward at first, but it quickly becomes second nature. Remember, you are "going against the grain" and there will be a disconnect between how you naturally feel the beat, and what your fingers will play. If you find some of the passages difficult, pause for a moment and try a few of these practicing devices:

1. Count the beat out loud (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 1 and 2 and....). This will create a frame that you can place the notes into.

2. Write the beat on the music (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +).

3. Divide the measure in half, and then subdivide further by figuring out where each quarter note lies.

4. As mentioned above, think of syncopated quarter notes as two eighth notes linked together. Try playing them as two eighth notes until you feel the right rhythm.

Swinging Eighths

Another characteristic of blues (and jazz) is the use of "swinging eighths," where a series of written eighth notes are performed as dotted eighth notes plus a sixteenth note (in more advanced performance, they are played as 2-to-1 triplets). Although not always, this is marked at the top of the page with the following symbol:


Here are two examples of how blues are written, and how they are played:


The same applies to a series of eighth notes beginning with a rest. The upbeat is still played as a sixteenth note:


Rather than calculating every note as you play, try to hear these swing rhythms first and then feel them in your fingers. It may be difficult, but with a little practice and a lot of listening swinging eighths will become part of your musical instinct.

Down Home Blues

Tom Delaney (1889–1963)

Tom Delaney was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in the Jenkins Orphanage. This orphanage was famous for its music programs and many performing ensembles. Delaney wrote this song while he was impatiently waiting during a layover in Baltimore.

Outta' Bed Blues


When a blues melody is described as "traditional," it means that there is no single person credited with composing it; rather, it was passed down from one generation to the next. Before playing this piece, notice the key (G major) and how the numerous accidentals are part of the blues scale. These include the lowered third (B[??]) and lowered seventh (F# becomes F[??]).

Crazy Blues

Perry Bradford (1893–1970)

This song was written in 1920 and played a pivotal role in introducing the world to blues music. After trying unsuccessfully for years to produce blues artists, Perry Bradford finally convinced Okeh (pronounced: "okay") Records to take a chance. Its popular reception and commercial success warmed the entire industry to a new genre of music.

St. James Infirmary


This anonymous blues tune traces its origins to the English folk song The Unfortunate Lad. It tells the sad story of a young man cut down in his prime as a result of some bad life decisions. The title is in reference to London's St. James Hospital, which was also tragically cut down by King Henry VIII to build St. James Palace.

Prison Bound


The term "blue note" refers to those small yet powerful dissonances that color and propel a melody. This song is full of these examples for piano, with even an E[??] played against an E[??] in measure 10. Don't shy away from the dissonances; rather, revel in them as they make resolutions more pronounced.

Weary Blues

Artie Matthews (1888–1958)

Artie Matthews was born in Braidwood, Illinois and was taught piano at home by his mother. At the age of 16, he tried to perform at the St. Louis World's Fair, but was pushed out by the swarm of musicians that had arrived. His career catapulted in 1915 after Weary Blues won a contest for a song that could compete with the enormously popular St. Louis Blues.

St. Louis Blues

W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

Known as the "Jazzman's Hamlet," this song was the first blues song to be a popular hit. Handy said that when composing it, he aspired "to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition." The song's popularity has given it a life of its own: it's been performed by bagpipers at royal weddings, adopted as a battle hymn during WWII, and is the name of St. Louis's professional hockey team.

Yellow Dog Blues

W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

This curious title finds its origins in the Southern railways. "Yellow Dog" was slang for the Yazoo Delta Railroad in Mississippi, whose cars were stamped "YD." The closing line of the song quotes a ragged train station performer who sang of going to "where the Southern [another railway] cross the Yellow Dog"—which historically would be near Moorhead, MS.

Joe Turner Blues

W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

The character of Joe Turner is based on Joe Turney, a corrupt lawman who would scour Memphis and sentence falsely accused men to forced labor on his plantations. Notice that the "swinging eighths" are written out in the left hand. Nonetheless, they still do apply to the melody in the right hand, so be sure to swing.

Careless Love


This beautiful song is based on a Southern folksong of unknown origin. Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornetist, was the first to include it in his band's repertoire as early as 1900. Note that most recordings omit the opening verse and begin with the first chorus (found on the next page).

Arkansas Blues

Anton Lada (c. 1890–1944) & Spencer Williams (1889–1965)

This song was co-written by drummer-bandleader Anton Lada of the Louisiana Five, and pianist-composer Spencer Williams. It was a huge hit, gaining exceptional popularity in New York City where it was recorded extensively. As a result, Lada and his ensemble were one of the first bands to ever tour the United States.

The Hesitating Blues

W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

This song was adapted by W. C. Handy from a traditional spiritual. Pay attention to the right-hand passages where the index finger crosses over the thumb and returns (e.g. measure 3). This may seem awkward at first, but with practice it will become a very useful technique.

Beale Street Blues

W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

Beale Street was the "Broadway" of Memphis, an entertainment district closely linked to the evolution of the blues industry. With lyricist Harry H. Pace, Handy opened the Pace & Handy Music Company in 1913 at 386 Beale Street on the second floor of the historic Tri-State Bank building. This song was an ode to the wild, lively, and inspirational street they called home.

Royal Garden Blues

Spencer Williams (1889–1965) & Clarence Williams (1898–1965)

Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams (ironically, they were not related) co-wrote this song in 1919. The title refers to the legendary Royal Gardens Dancehall on Chicago's Southside. At first a dud, the song soon rocketed to fame after it was recorded by The Original Dixieland Band.

Jelly Roll Blues

Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (1885–1941)

Published in 1915, this work has a lively ragtime character while exhibiting many blues characteristics and even foreshadowing some future styles. Don't be nervous about the accidentals, especially in the opening. They were especially written to be easier to play on all black keys.

Memphis Blues

W. C. Handy (1873–1958)

Originally composed as a campaign song called Mr. Crump, this upbeat blues tune was rewritten into its present form. While performing the work on street corners, there was such demand from passer-bys to purchase the song's sheet music, that Handy decided to self-publish it. This composition is considered to be one of the very first blues to ever be transcribed and printed.


Excerpted from A First Book of Blues by DAVID DUTKANICZ. Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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