Sometime in the 1920s, a peculiar form of blues emerged that was substantially different from the better-known varieties. The style is commonly known today as talking blues. Despite the moniker, however, it rarely employs the 12-bar chord progression that is typical of most blues music. Many talking-blues songs are instead built on other cyclical three-chord patterns, and some borrow progressions from ragtime or early jazz styles.
Regardless of the musical backing, the most common feature of talking-blues songs is that the lyrics are spoken, not sung—as you may have guessed. However, it’s not unusual to find songs in the talking-blues canon that feature tuneful choruses between the spoken verses, such as Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
While some of the earliest practitioners used talking blues for comedic or novelty effect, folksinger Woody Guthrie (Arlo’s father) was one of the first songwriters to use the form for political commentary—most notably in his 1940 song “Talking Dust Bowl Blues.” In 1941, the Almanac Singers—a collective cofounded by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other New York City folkies—recorded the similarly structured “Talking Union.”
A generation later, in the early 1960s, Bob Dylan wrote and recorded songs in the idiom—including “Talkin’ World War III Blues” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Over the years since, there have always been writers who’ve explored the form—including Shel Silverstein, Johnny Cash, and loads of lesser-known tunesmiths. Satirical protest songs may not be in vogue these days, but it seems that the talking-blues form will live on as long as there are poets and guitars and tribulations.
Anything You Want
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”—the droll 18-and-a-half-minute ramble featured on Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 LP Alice’s Restaurant—is an exemplary example of a talking-blues song with relatively sophisticated harmony. Based in the key of C major, it loops a 16-measure progression that features A7 and D7 chords, as well as A#dim—a colorful passing chord that connects two chords (Am and G/B) native to the key.
The instrumental intro to “Alice’s Restaurant” is the inspiration for the first three musical examples in this lesson. It’s as good a place as any to begin exploring the talking blues because it’s one of the most widely known and is based upon a fairly common template.
Example 1a begins with a walkup from a G chord to a C chord, passing through Am and G/B en route. Shortly after you arrive at C, a #9 on beat 3 casts a blue shade on the otherwise cheery chord. (Note that everything sounds in the key of D, a major second higher than written.) On beat 3 of that same measure, use your first finger to hammer from the open D to the first-fret D#, then keep your finger moving until you’ve landed a half-barre to make the A chord in the following measure. Shift up to third position (relative to the capo) to make the D7 chord. The final measure here is not unlike the first, except that now the melody notes are syncopated against the four-on-the-floor bass line.
The first two measures of Example 1b should be familiar, as they’re identical to what you played in Ex. 1a. The latter two measures, however, are markedly different. Here you’ll slide up to the root of the D7 chord, and hang on the chord for the duration of the measure. The walkup (measure 4) this time includes a jazzy A#dim passing chord between Am and G/B.
In Example 1c, stay on the C chord for two full measures—employing the #9 again in measure 1, as well as another melodic flourish in measure 2. Use your thumb to fret the low F bass note in measure 3, rather than making a full F barre chord. The thumb-over-the-neck fingering allows to you sound the open second-string B on beat 2. Likewise, fret the low F# in measure 4 with your thumb.
Satirical protest songs may not be in vogue these days, but it seems that the talking-blues form will live on as long as there are poets and guitars and tribulations.
Between the Bars
Though the talking-blues style isn’t exactly hot among modern-day troubadours, there are a few who still appreciate its charm. Among them is Aaron Lee Tasjan—an East Nashville–based singer-songwriter whose New West debut, Silver Tears, has drawn high praise. “12 Bar Blues,” from that album, is a talking blues cut from cloth similar to “Alice’s Restaurant.” Wry verses are spoken over a ragtimey guitar accompaniment, offset by recurring chorus sections that have a distinctive melodic hook.
Example 2a is based on the intro to “12 Bar Blues” and is similar to some verse passages in the song as well. The chord shapes are fingered in the key of C major, and will be described here as such. With the capo at seventh fret, as indicated, the song sounds a perfect fifth higher—in the key of G major.
Pick the bass notes with your thumb and the melody notes with your index and middle fingers. There is a video of Tasjan on YouTube, performing the song live at The Shed in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Interestingly, he tucks his index finger into his palm—picking instead with his thumb, middle, and ring fingers. It’s also worth noting that, unlike Guthrie, Tasjan frets his D7/F# shape (measure 3 here) using all four fingers—no thumb.
In Ex. 2a, the hammer-on in measure 1, on beat 2, is not meant to sound polite. Really dig into it. The same holds true for Example 2b, in the same spot. Measures 1 and 2 here are identical to those in Ex. 2a. Things get different in measure 3, however, where you’ll play an Fadd9. (Tasjan does use his thumb for the bass note of this chord.) In measure 4, play a back-to-basics G chord walking up on beats 3 and 4, toward a presumed C chord.
Examples 3a and 3b are in the style of “Talkin’ Candy Bar Blues” by Noel Paul Stookey—the taller gentleman in Peter, Paul & Mary. This jocular song originally appeared on the folk trio’s mid-’60s album A Song Will Rise. Those who only know Stookey from “Puff, the Magic Dragon” may not be aware of just what an adept and inventive player he is.
Ex. 3a is reminiscent of Stookey’s guitar work in the song’s instrumental intro. (Similar chord sequences are peppered throughout the song.) In measures 1 through 5, hold the two uppermost notes—D and G—with fingers 3 and 4, respectively. Most of the bass notes in this example are easy to grab, except for the Db under the Dsus4 chord—measure 3, beat 3. Use your second finger for the Db and the same finger for the C that follows. Grab the subsequent B with your first finger. (Feel free to use another fingering, of course, if you find one that works more effectively for you.) Hammer with your second finger in measure 6, and use your first finger for the pull-off in the following bar.
While Stookey verbalizes, the chords gets a little less adventurous, simply cycling through the I (G), IV (C), and V (D) chords, as illustrated in Ex. 3b. The hammer-ons in measures 2, 3, and 4 give this workaday progression a bit of a lilt.
These examples may be played with a flatpick (or thumbpick), but try them fingerstyle first. Judging by the timbre of the guitar on the original recording, that’s how Stookey played it. Your thumb will pluck the bass notes. Strum the upper chordal parts with alternating down- and up-strokes, using two or three fingers.
If you play these two examples with a pick instead, the result will be pretty close to Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ World War III Blues.” (You’ll need to secure a capo at the third fret to match the key of Dylan’s original recording.) Phil Ochs’ “Talking Cuban Crisis,” from All the News That’s Fit to Sing, is another briskly flatpicked talking blues in the key of G. A more contemporary song built from this same blueprint is Dan Bern’s sardonic “Talkin’ Woody, Bob, Bruce & Dan Blues,” from Bern’s 1999 album Smartie Mine.
‘A’ Is for Atomic
One more similarly styled talking blues is Guy Carawan’s “Talking Atomic Blues” from Guy Carawan Sings Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue, first released on the Folkways label in 1959. Unlike the aforementioned examples, “Talking Atomic Blues” is played in A, with a capo at first fret; thus the music sounds in Bb. The A orientation offers different opportunities for chordal embellishments, which Carawan takes ample advantage of in this song. As with “Talkin’ Candy Bar Blues,” the three examples that follow are playable fingerstyle or with a pick.
Example 4a is styled after the song’s intro, which, it should be noted, is performed at a slower pace than the rest of the song. (Variations on this musical passage recur later in the song as well, providing breathers between verses.) Slide up into the long-form A chord on the downbeat of measure 1. Similarly, slide into the D in measure 2. In measures 3 and 4, the E chord is transformed into E6 and then E7 via small adjustments on the second string. In the remaining measures, an easy maneuver on the fourth string turns A to A6, then back again.
The straightforward Example 4b is based on the I–IV–V pattern that Carawan originally used. There are no tricky moves here, though the tempo is quite fast. Make sure to practice this slowly and clearly before you attempt it at the indicated clip.
In Carawan’s original recordings, the chorus sections are in the parallel minor key—A minor. (See Example 4c). This sort of modulation is pretty unusual for the talking-blues idiom. Once you’re in the new key, however, the chords and the picking pattern are easily accessible.
Dust to Dust
Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Dust Bowl” (sometimes cited as “Talking Dust Bowl Blues”) was the inspiration for this lesson’s final two phrases—Examples 5a and 5b. On Guthrie’s original recording, he toggles back and forth between two sections similar to these.
These two examples may look easy on paper but they’re no less challenging for their plainness. The work you’ll have to do is to practice each until it flows like running water. Remember, the nature of the talking-blues idiom is that the performer—in this case, you—recites wordy political commentary or tells a rambling shaggy-dog tale, holding the guitar part down steadily all the while. Try telling your favorite joke aloud while playing Ex. 5a or Ex. 5b. If you stumble—musically or narratively—keep practicing.