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10 July 2016


What do all the following tunes have in common?

Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll 
Big Butter and Egg Man
Big Chief Battleaxe (Main Theme)
Button Up Your Overcoat 
By the Light of the Silvery Moon
Darktown Strutters Ball 
Destination Moon 
Do Do Blues (Nothing Can Be Right...)
Don’t Sweetheart Me 
Down In Honky Tonk Town 
Down In Jungle Town 
Eccentric [first theme]
Exactly Like You 
I Can't Escape 
If You Were The Only Girl In The World 
Jersey Bounce 
I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones 
I Love You So Much It Hurts Me
I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy
I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover 
I'm Nobody's Baby
Lulu's Back in Town [in half-bars] 
Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me
Mandy, Make Up Your Mind
Me, Myself and I
My Cutie's Due at Two to Two
New Orleans Shuffle
Oh, You Beautiful Doll 
On Treasure Island 
Peg o' My Heart 
Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet [the verse - not the refrain]
Red Hot Mamma
Six or Seven Times
Somebody Else Is Taking My Place 
Toot Toot Tootsie
True: You Don't Love Me
Ory’s Creole Trombone  [main theme]
Underneath the Arches
Walking My Baby Back Home
Working Man Blues [2nd theme]
You Made Me Love You

The answer is that they all use one of the most common chord patterns - usually called the 'Four-Leaf' progression.

What happens is that the tune starts on the Tonic Chord and then follows this with the commonest chord progression of all - known to musicians as II - V - I. So a tune beginning on the chord of C major, for example, would progress on to D major (the chord of the second note of the scale), followed by the chord of G7 (the dominant seventh - the fifth note of the scale) before returning to C major. A very satisfying 8-bar musical phrase can be built on two bars each of these four chords.

It is the basis of that iconic song of the music hall era, My Old Man Said Follow The Van. This song, made famous by Marie Lloyd, was written at the end of the Nineteenth Century by Fred Leigh and Charles Collins.

The chord sequence was most common in the early Twentieth Century. Famous tunes using it were Oh, You Beautiful Doll of 1911 (with music by Nat D. Ayer), The Darktown Strutters Ball (written by Shelton Brooks in 1917), and Button Up Your Overcoat (1928, with music by Ray Henderson).

Nat D. Ayer used it again in 1916 to start his lovely song If You Were The Only Girl In The World.

Exactly Like YouDestination MoonDon’t Sweetheart Me, Con Conrad's 1940 hit Ma, He's Making Eyes At MeMemories (the Robert Van Alstyne tune), On Treasure Island, and Somebody Else Is Taking My PlacePeg o' My HeartJersey BounceI Can't Escape, and Congratulations are eleven more tunes you may know: they are all in the Four-Leaf pattern. The Progression is sometimes used in 16-bar tunes, too: an example is Red Hot Mama of 1924.

Lil Hardin and King Oliver used the structure - exactly as in my example on the staves above - for the whole 8-bar (repeated) structure of the main theme in his Working Man Blues (1923).

And another tune in which the entire structure of the first, second and final eights is built on the pattern is that great Chris Yacich classic from 1935 I Like Bananas Because They Have No Bones.

Specifically in the field of traditional jazz good examples are Down In Jungle TownAin’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll, the main theme of Ory’s Creole Trombone (written and recorded by the great Kid Ory in 1922) and Down In Honky Tonk Town.

In fact Down In Honky Tonk Town begins with four bars on each of the chords ( 1 - 1 - 1 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 2 - 2 etc.); this is a feature it has in common with the ever-popular and eponymous I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover (with music composed in 1927 by Harry M. Woods).

And another interesting variant is You Made Me Love You (1913, with music by James V. Monaco). After two bars on the tonic, it has just one bar on the second chord followed by just one on the dominant 7th. And Lulu's Back in Town follows the pattern in half-bars.

I am keeping things as simple as I can. I know that if we were to see the original piano sheet music of these songs, we would often find the use of four different chords in one bar, for example. What I am giving is the general sweep of the changing harmonies.

In connection with the FOUR-LEAF pattern, for example, some tunes begin with one bar on the tonic and then have one bar on the VI7th before moving on to the 'II'. My correspondent Allen Robnett has kindly emphasised this point and indicated some of the tunes to which this applies. He writes:

I think the following songs are improved by (and some demand)  the pattern   I  VI7  II7  V7  I:
Button Up Your Overcoat; 
If You Were The Only Girl In The World;
Oh, You Beautiful Doll;
Peg O' My Heart;
Somebody Else Is Taking My Place.

It could be argued that the tonic chord can be substituted for the VI7, but then it could also be argued that you can play everything with just I, IV and V (and, unfortunately, some people do just that.)

Allen is right on both counts.