Brent Simmons’s weblog.

Last updated July 10, 2018, 9:10 p.m.

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I don't remember the opening day of the App Store as well as I remember the July 4th before as I was frantically finishing up NetNewsWire 1.0 for iPhone — so I could get it submitted in time.

As people were coming to my house for a big family barbecue. As I was stuck inside on a nice day.

As I did get it finished, and then we had a great barbecue, and then on App Store day one it was all worth it. :)

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Twelve-bar Blues

Without the twelve-bar blues progression there would have been no rock-n-roll. Without rock — the music of rebellion and of fun — every decade from the 1950s on would have been very different.

On the theory that knowing something about how music works helps your appreciation — after all, musicians themselves understand music, and this enhances and does not dim their love — I figured I'd explain twelve-bar blues to people who don't know about it.

Three Groups of Four

There are many variations, but the basic progression looks like the below. We'll use the key of C to illustrate. Each note here represents a chord played for four beats.


Instead of specifying the key, you could use Roman numerals. The root chord — the one matching the key (C in this case) — is I. If you count C-D-E-F, then F is IV. And C-D-E-F-G makes G number V. So you have:


In the key of E these would be E, A, and B, for example. Same pattern, any key.


In a very traditional blues, you sing the first line, then repeat it — maybe slightly differently, because the chords are slightly different, and because some variation is good — and then sing a line that rhymes with that first line. Something like this:

Oh baby, don't you want to go

Oh baby, don't you want to go

Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago

(This is from "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson.)

But it's not always that way. Consider the lyrics to "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins:

One for the money
Two for the show
Three to get ready
Now go, cat, go — but

don't you
step on my blue suede
(no singing)

You can do anything, but
lay off of my blue suede
(no singing)

(Also note that "Blue Suede Shoes" uses V V to start off the third line instead of V IV. There are no rules other than sounding good.)

Electronic Blues with a Backbeat

(I'm simplifying a lot here, obviously, but I think the below is correct as far as it goes.)

The earliest blues was played in the South on acoustic guitars. And then two things happened: the African-American Great Migration, and the invention of the electric guitar. And then you had urban blues — in Chicago, Memphis, and elsewhere.

Rock music started as just another form of the blues. It's impossible to say where electronic blues turns into rock. But one thing was especially prominent in rock music: the backbeat.

Blues and rock both have four beats to each measure. The accented beat is not the first beat, or first and third — it's the second and fourth: beat BEAT beat BEAT.

It's where you clap along. It gives rock music its drive. It moves you to dance — where, for instance, the acoustic version of "Sweet Home Chicago" probably doesn't.

Another Difference

The early greats of rock in the '50s were — not surprisingly, given where the music came from — African-Americans: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and plenty more. (Chuck Berry is the singular indispensible rock-n-roller.)

There were white artists too: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Bill Haley and His Comets, Buddy Holly (the first nerd rocker), and so on. And this was a pretty big difference from the blues.

Great music should be shared and played by whoever feels it and can do it. Great music can bring people together — and rock music helped bring down segregation. At first, at least.

But what happened next is the tragedy of rock: by the late '60s, just a little while later, an African-American playing rock was an anomaly. There was Jimi Hendrix — and who else? The list is short.

People other than me have written about this at length. But the upshot was that decisions were made to separate the music racially into Rhythm & Blues (R&B) and rock categories, and rock was largely white. (Yes, this isn't a complex and nuanced telling of the story — but it's enough for this blog post.)

Never mind that every white rocker was playing, essentially, a form of the blues. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, the Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival — they were all blues bands of a sort.

These Days

You don't hear twelve-bar blues in rock so much these days. In fact, you may not hear that much rock-n-roll at all, depending on your taste.

But it's worth knowing something about this music, about how it works and where it came from. And the good it did, and does, and the tragedy. All of it.

We can't change the past, but we can understand what happened and remember it. And maybe we can notice when we're about to make similar mistakes, and not make them.

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Uncle Whisky

When I was a kid we spent more time with my Mom's family than with my Dad's, but we still spent lots of holidays with my Dad's family.

My Dad is the oldest of four siblings. The youngest, his brother, is only 10 years older than me. I remember my uncle and his sisters when they were teenagers.

The thing about the family was that everyone was constantly joking and laughing. I loved this.

I wanted to join in, so I did, from an early age. And sometimes I even got laughs! But most of the time I didn't.

One day my uncle — who must have been about 20 then — gave me some advice about it. He said, "Hey, you don't have to say everything you think of. Just the ones that are actually funny."

Okay, I thought, so now it wasn't enough to be fast enough to think of something that might be funny — I had to also evaluate it for likeliness? All in the space between sentences? And make it seem natural? Who can think that fast?

I think what he was doing was trying to get me to be less annoying. But I took it as earnest advice. And, well, I remember thinking, after a while, that it worked.

* * *

My uncle, Peter Simmons, became an actor and writer. He lives these days in Minneapolis, and he surely remembers none of this conversation.

* * *

My uncle had a dog named Whisky who was born the same spring when I was born. I called him Uncle Whisky, and I believed, until I was about 10, that of course dogs can be uncles too. Perfectly natural.

* * *

Whisky — sometimes called Wick for short — enjoyed hors d'oeuvres in the afternoon. There was always chips and that sour cream and onion dip. When you picked up a bad chip, you gave it to the dog. Those were called Wicker Chips.

To this day when I get a bad chip I mentally set it aside for Whisky, who was a good dog and a great uncle.

* * *

I'm a terrible introvert. The other introverts around me seem extremely outgoing. I marvel at them.


But I had this weird family training, and so I can, for instance, go around a room at a conference with a microphone and talk to every single person, put them at ease, quickly think of things to say, make it seem natural — and even be a little funny.

Not only that — I enjoy it!

And I can do a podcast. And I can point to the latest episode with Aaron Cherof as one of the better episodes. I suspect Aaron may have had a family kind of like mine.

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Om Malik on blogging:

They are incomplete and by nature more mysterious, more episodic, and thus more interesting. Blogs are meant not to leave you with everything. The whole idea is to think to deliberate, and to come back again and again, to finish what was started a long time ago. But there is no end, just a pause, for a voice to start, talking again.

I love that.

I never became the Hemingway or Fitzgerald type of writer that I wanted to be when I was young. No short stories, no novel, no cover of Life magazine.

But I have written a blog for almost 19 years — and that's something. It's still a new medium, and it's new to have blogs hitting (and even passing) the 20-years-mark.

Here's a provisional thought (all thoughts on a blog are provisional) — to read a good blog is to watch a writer get a little bit better, day after day, at writing the truth.

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On Not Doing Prepared Talks Any More

Some time last year I decided to retire from doing prepared talks at conferences.

I've been doing them for 15 years, and I've enjoyed some of them. Eventually I started playing with the form, and that was kind of fun.

The best talks I ever did usually had some story-telling parts, and those turned out to be the parts that people liked most. The only problem with that is that my stories usually didn't have anything to do with the conference. I just like telling stories. Stories about raccoons and squirrels. :)

Preparing a talk is a lot of work, and my standards for my talks kept going up, which meant ever more preparation, and more stress — and since I didn't love it, I decided to stop.

I don't mind being in front of an audience, though — I'll emcee, appear on a panel, moderate a panel, or play in a Breakpoints Jam.

But the actual talks from me are over.

Here's the thing, though: this means one less middle-aged white man taking up a slot. This is a good thing. If you were thinking of asking me to do a prepared talk at your conference, instead ask someone who doesn't look like me.

And if you're having trouble finding someone, just ask me and I'll help.

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