© All rights reserved for Doug MacLeod   •   Design and hosting powered by www.studiomdesign.ca

Go back to » www.doug-macleod.com

Archives Doug MacLeod Blues News

Doug MacLeod is one of the few blues singer-songwriters to achieve a long and consistent career performing his own songs almost exclusively.1 What can I learn from his work to help me be a successful blues singer-songwriter?

I started to wonder if his songwriting has changed over the course of his career, and decided it would be instructive for my own songwriting to dig deep. I listened to seven albums – No Road Back Home (1984), Unmarked Road (1987), Whose Truth, Whose Lies (2000), Dubb (2005), Utrecht Sessions (2008), Brand New Eyes (2011) and There's a Time (2013). I was interested to see whether he changed the things he wrote about, how he wrote about them, how did they relate to blues tradition…

I believe that blues would be more popular if we were to write songs about our actual day-to-day lives that use common, everyday 21st century language. That’s the whole focus of this blog. Academic study of blues music posits that traditional blues songs are usually about travel, romance and anxiety. Blues developed (like all folk music) as an oral tradition; blues musicians recombined existing blues lyrics to make new songs – a formulaic approach. (A good place to start reading about this is David Evans’ book, “Big Road Blues”.)

As blues recordings became more available, songwriters started to get a bit more creative, introducing new ideas, modern references to African-American history, songs about news events and so on. Willie Dixon, more than any other songwriter, brought blues into the 20th century. Blues had spawned pop music, Broadway tunes and jazz. Dixon brought some parts of this modern music back into the blues - musical elements such as bridges and choruses, chord structures that had evolved out of the blues. He wrote about current city culture, you could dance to the blues.

OK, first I’ll talk about lyrics. Doug MacLeod’s songwriter roots are evidently the singer-songwriters that preceded the Willie Dixon era – even though he spent many years as a band member in Chicago-style electric bands. His song topics generally fit into the blues tradition – travel, anxiety and romance. But every album has one or more tunes that don’t fit that mold; some give us advice or commentary on some aspect of the sorry state of the world. He rarely uses recombined formulaic phrases from existing blues songs.2 His songs usually make sense and the verses relate to one another and progress in a linear way. It does not seem to me that he wrote about different topics as his career progressed.

The main change I hear is that he got better and better at doing what he does. The writing is more refined, adept, there are more layers of meaning, and meanings that go deeper; he allows questions to go unanswered. This is not a clear, qualitative old/new MacLeod difference; he tackled difficult subjects early on in his career.  Long Black Train, from 1984, shows us how there is a good side and a bad side to what life gives us. And no easy answers.

Some themes that run through the albums I listened to –

  1. There is a reason for leaving your lover. A woman may look good, act sexy, but there is something wrong inside. A man might be too self-involved and selfish to really show love. Doug leaves women more often than they leave him.

  1. Life is what you make it.

  1. The devil is involved in a lot of things that go wrong.

Some things I notice he doesn't sing about –

  1. Having fun getting stoned or drunk. Drugs and alcohol generally have bad consequences.

  1. Ordinary day-to-day activities like shaving, shopping, changing clothes, having a conversation with his wife, dealing with the travel arrangements and details of his touring life…

This was a lot of listening. Fortunately, I can listen to Doug MacLeod all day – the same way I can listen to Muddy Waters. I took detailed notes on lyrics for six albums (excluded Utrecht Sessions) and on four albums for musical content.  

My discussion of musical qualities excludes the 1984 album No Road Back Home (blues-rock band) and also Dubb (2000) and Utrecht Sessions (2008) because I focused on early versus late.

Musically, Doug MacLeod’s songs are always well constructed with a feel, chord structure and delivery that is appropriate to the subject of the sing – good prosody in other words. I’m not going to talk about production or very much – the producer(s) have the most influence there, and I’m focusing on songwriting.  But I do want to applaud his wide variety of tonal textures (guitar sounds, vocal styling, etc.) which is common to all of the albums.

Many acoustic blues musicians of the past 50 years who were guitar studs (as opposed to songwriters) went down the Blind Blake/Reverend Gary Davis road, playing pre-arranged and ragtime piano-inspired songs. Doug Macleod certainly has the chops but he didn't do that – he stayed within the blues tradition to a large extent.

There are certainly some ragtime chord progressions, but generally not the piano left hand type of arrangements you hear from Stefan Grossman et al. He often takes it outside – a discordant open string accents the chord, maybe a chromatic figure, often an unusual chord choice between verses or as a turnaround.3  But every album has solid traditional 12-bar blues songs, played in the traditional way.

Most albums employ a rhythm section and the early ones feature guest musicians. I think the production has refined in later albums to showcase and focus on Doug’s playing and singing. He has a lot of songs that establish a groove, often on one chord, for the verse with a couple of additional chords to turn around or for the refrain. Often he uses a b3 – 4 chord progression here, not a traditional blues thing as far as I know. 

He doesn't use bridges. Also, very rarely is there something you might call a chorus, though he does use a lot of refrains.4

Bottom line – Doug hasn't changed what he does over the past 30 years of his solo career. He just has gotten better at doing it. And if I want to be a blues singer-songwriter in the blues world that exists today, I should write more songs within the travel-romance-anxiety paradigm.

Willie Dixon would be 100 years old on July 1st, 2015. He changed and rejuvenated the blues by writing great songs.

Let's do some more of that!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Doug MacLeod observations


1. He recorded a Bukka White tune The New Panama Limited on A Little Sin, Willie Dixon’s Bring It On Home and Muddy Waters’ Rollin and Tumblin’ on Ain’t the Blues Evil.

2. Formulas – like Necessary Clothes – no particular story, verses don’t relate to one another as much as other song have it. But he doesn’t use formulas much and this isn’t really just a formula song.  Old Country Road is formulaic – traditional treatment, extra measures of instrumental noodling at the end of the line (in verse 1).  V1 – walking blues away on country road, v2 – moon lonesome, me lonesome too cause my baby treats me so unkind, v3 why do you treat me bad, I’m a good man.

3. Unmarked Road has greater variety of harmonies in guitar – weird chords. Whose Truth Whose Lies has greater mixture of styles and songs about things that are out of the usual blues topics. Norfolk County Line – about lost love, a wistful expressive lyric sung as a duet. St Louis on My Mind - formulaic. Black Pony – very metaphoric. Unlonely – a simple love song.  Also a lot of guitar textures – distortion on Going Down Country – do we hear that on anything else? You Won’t Find Me has a little distortion – also a less usual chord progression – JL Hooker boogie A-C-D riff with an occasional b7 between verses. Time for a Change – discordant open strings, minor key. I wonder if the later albums go back to more traditional blues structures and timbres.

  1. 4.If I wanted to be 100% right about this, I’d go back and listen to everything again but I just don’t want to. 

Posted by Nigel Egg

2015 - Year of the Blues Songwriter