Christopher Allen Bouchillon, billed as "The Talking Comedian of the South," is credited with creating the "talking blues" form with the song "Talking Blues," recorded for Columbia Records in Atlanta in 1926, from which the style gets its name. The song was released in 1927, followed by a sequel, "New Talking Blues," in 1928. His song "Born in Hard Luck" is similar in style.
A talking blues typically consists of a repetitive guitar line utilizing a three chord progression which, although it is called a "blues", is not actually a twelve bar blues. The vocals are sung in a rhythmic, flat tone, very near to a speaking voice, and take the form of rhyming couplets. At the end of each verse, consisting of two couplets, the singer continues to talk, adding a fifth line consisting of an irregular, generally unrhymed, and unspecified number of bars, often with a pause in the middle of the line, before resuming the strict chordal structure. This example, from "Talking Blues" by Woody Guthrie, a cover of "New Talking Blues" by Bouchillon, serves to explain the format:
Mama's in the kitchen fixin' the yeast
Papa's in the bedroom greasin' his feets
Sister's in the cellar squeezin' up the hops
Brother's at the window just a-watchin' for the cops
Drinkin' home brew ... makes you happy.
The lyrics to a talking blues are characterized by dry, rural humor, with the spoken codetta often adding a wry commentary on the subject of the verse, like Bob Dylan's "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues".
Now, I don't care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that's up t' you
But don't tell me about it, I don't wanta hear it
Cause, see, I just lost all m picnic spirit
Stay in m' kitchen, have m' own picnic. . .
In the bathroom.
Woody Guthrie and his song "Talking Hard Work" is a title-tribute to Bouchillon's "Talking Blues" and "Born in Hard Luck".
The "Talking Blues" begins with the line:
"Well, if you want to get to heaven,/ Let me tell you what to do,/ Got to grease your feet into little mutton stew."/
Several sources of the 1940s - 1950s, including the Almanac Singers, wrongly credited Guthrie as the creator of the talking blues. By the 1940s, what had started as a comedic country music genre became a more pronounced form of wry political protest singing. This sample lyric, from "Talking Union" by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell shows the development of the genre into a vehicle for political commentary:
Now, if you want higher wages, let me tell you what to do
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong
But if you all stick together, boys, it won't be long
You'll get shorter hours, better working conditions, vacations with pay ... take your kids to the seashore.
In 1958, the musician and folk music scholar John Greenway recorded an album collection called "Talking Blues" on the Folkways label. His compendium included 15 talking blues songs by Guthrie, Tom Glazer, and others, and was, according to the music historian Manfred Helfert, the "obvious source" for the many 1960s forays into the genre by Bob Dylan. The best known of Dylan's talking blues is "Talking World War III Blues" from 1963:
Well, I rung the fallout shelter bell
And I leaned my head and I gave a yell
"Give me a string bean, I'm a hungry man!"
A shotgun fired and away I ran
I don't blame them too much, though ... he didn't know me
Dylan's fame and his repeated use of the talking blues form contributed to the genre becoming a widely popular vehicle for the composition of songs with political content. When the country singer Johnny Cash recorded a song that described his trip to Vietnam with his wife June Carter Cash, he chose the talking blues format to describe his dissent against the Vietnam War.
One high, one holy holiday, on the first day of the year,
Little Matty Groves to church did go, some holy words to hear
When in come old Lord Arnold's wife, she looked at him and said,
"Come here often? What's your sign?" And off they went to bed.
In the interests of brevity, we'll omit some of the more repetitive parts of the song.
Like the part where they get undressed.
All forty-seven verses of it.