Learn to Play “Blue Skies”—a Jazz Age Classic with Clever Harmonies and a Bit of Drama

"Blue Skies,” arranged here in the guitar-friendly key of C, has been covered in many popular styles from ragtime piano to big band jazz to country.

Written by Irving Berlin for Florenz Ziegfeld’s short-lived 1926 musical Betsy, “Blue Skies” was a last-minute addition to the show after its star, Belle Baker, called up Berlin complaining the Rodgers and Hart score didn’t have a “Belle Baker” song. At that point, Berlin was an established big dog on the scene and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were the new whiz kids in town, already being compared to Gilbert and Sullivan—a delicate situation with a bunch of large and fragile egos on the line.

Ziegfeld bought the song from Berlin and inserted it into the show without a word to Rodgers and Hart, who heard it for the first time on opening night. And Ziegfeld only twisted the knife further by having the spotlight turned on Berlin in the front row as Baker reprised the song for multiple encores. It was a brutal evening for the young team, but the attention that the song received couldn’t be denied.


For all its behind-the-scenes machination, Betsy was something of a flop, closing after just a month. “Blue Skies” outshined and outlived the show. Al Jolson’s performance in The Jazz Singer (1927) made it one of the first songs featured in a talkie. Bing Crosby likewise sang it in the 1946 film Blue Skies, based on a story created by Berlin; Crosby reprised the song with Danny Kaye in the 1954 holiday classic White Christmas. “Blue Skies” has since been covered in many popular styles from ragtime piano to big band jazz, and Willie Nelson hit number one on the country chart with the song.

One of the most interesting things about “Blue Skies,” arranged here in the guitar-friendly key of C major, is the clever way Berlin gives his sunny lyric a slightly dark twist with some minor chords. These wistful harmonies add a bit of tension and keep the song’s optimistic lyric from turning the song too sweet. Note the use of a line cliché—the chord progression of Am–Am(maj7)–Am7, with its chromatically descending line of A–G#–G—that is heard in the intro and verse before resolving to the brighter major chords.


As for the strumming, I’m playing an easygoing, loping shuffle with a generally alternating bass. You could also use a fingerpicking pattern to summon a bit of old-time feel. I’m just giving you the basic structure with the expectation that you’ll find the feel that opens your blue skies. As always, experiment, have fun, and make it your own.

Blues Skies Intro/Accompaniment pattern musical notation.
Blue Skies musical notation, Part I
Blue Skies musical notation, Part II
Acoustic Guitar magazine cover for issue 344

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.

Maurice Tani
Maurice Tani

Maurice Tani is a veteran singer-songwriter and alt-country band leader based in California.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *