Country Blues > Weenie Campbell Main Forum

Set Pieces

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eagle rockin daddy:
Tremendous topic John.  I've thought about this a great deal.  I always used to think that players made up their arrangements on the spot, all improvised, and that there was something wrong about making up an arrangement, or a solo, memorizing it and then performing it.  My attitude changed after a lesson with Paul Asbell where we spent most of the hour discussing this.  Paul said that many jazz players work out their solos in advance, and play them during gigs.  He said that only a small number of players have the ability to truly improvise everything all night.  He also asked something like, well, don't you want the audience to see your best stuff?  That question really hit the nail on the head.  Of course I do.  When performing, I do want the audience to see and hear my best stuff, and that would involve playing a set piece.

I really love arranging songs for guitar.  I think that is really what we do, and how we play on stage reflects that.  One of my favorite recorded concerts is Dave Van Ronk's last cd.  The arrangements are all beautiful, and perfect.  I have no doubt that they are all set pieces.  In fact, I believe the introductions are all set pieces.  The introductions and stories are every bit as entertaining and enjoyable as the songs and guitar playing.  I have sometimes considered memorizing the intro and performing the intro and and song as a set piece, especially 'Ace in the Hole' which I love and have almost finished learning.  In fact, I did this once, when I had the pleasure and huge honor to perform at the Utah Phillips remembrance at Old Songs a few years ago.  I performed 'Ship Gonna Sail', complete with Bruce's introduction.  I know how carefully Bruce thought out all his intros.  In particular I know that he wanted this important song performed with the intro, because when I asked him for the words, he said that he would send me the intro also. The amazing thing was how well it all worked, and how the audience applauded for me at the right spots in the intro, just as they did for Bruce.  These types of performances are very powerful.  I think that that is what is the real idea here, the performance.  When we are just fooling around, or picking with our friends, or trying to learn, then of course we improvise, and crash and burn.  But in general, how entertaining is it for the audience to see you crash and burn? (unless you are watching Jerry Garcia and everyone is tripping....)  I want the audience to be entertained, and I want them to see my best stuff, and I want to feel comfortable with my playing so i can concentrate on connecting with the song, and the audience. 

But what about John's question about players?  Lately, I have spent a lot of time with Blind Blake's Early Morning Blues, and I am convinced that much of it is a set piece.  I think much of Rev. Davis' arrangements are set pieces.  the thing is both of the geniuses played so much, that they could also 'mix and match' or take certain set licks and insert them where the fit.  Is that improvising?  or just cutting and pasting?  Who know and who really cares.  I do believe the more you play, the easier it gets to improvise on the spot, or perhaps cut and paste riffs and licks.

I know I love playing a set arrangement well.  The challenge is to make the arrangement full, not repetitive and interesting.  This is a great subject, and I look forward to others comments.  Wax?  O'Muck?


Hi all,
I've been listening a good bit to the music of Roosevelt Holts lately, and it has been a special treat because I somehow missed his music altogether when his albums were first released.  Based on listening to the tracks from his Horizon album, his Arhoolie "Roosevelt Holts and Friends" album and the "Franklinton Musical Society" album, he comes across as a player with a strong compositional bent who favored set piece arrangements, much as did Tommy Johnson.  There are songs where he plays the same instrumental pass through the form from beginning to end, and also instances where he uses the very same accompaniment to back up different songs.  He was such a strong and assured player and singer, and maintained focus so well that you never have the impression that he was going on "automatic pilot" or losing contact with his material the way you can sometimes when playing a memorized piece.  His musical results argue very strongly for his approach to music-making--it certainly worked beautifully for him.
All best,

Re John's mention in the lyrics thread about Big Bill Broonzy being a set piece player at points in his career, I was wondering if anyone could throw up any other names we'd describe as set piece players. The reason I'm interested is I'd describe myself as one and have always been fascinated by the concept. I think if you work an accompaniment up that you like in a couple of different positions it affords you more scope for a decent vocal performance. Names I could think of off the top of my head is Papa Charlie Jackson, William Harris and Sonny Scott.

Hi Thomas,
I think that set piece players in the early era of Country Blues recording were in the majority. I agree with those that you named, and would add, most definitely Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson and Bo Carter, and probably Arthur Pettis, Ed Bell and a host of others. Some players I believe played some set pieces and had other pieces where they resorted to a more improvisatory approach; I'd put Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton and Lightnin' Hopkins in such a category. And others expressed themselves using a vocabulary of licks in a favored tuning/playing position but appeared to re-assemble pieces in an improvisatory way in performance; I"d put Big Joe Williams and Henry Townsend in that group.

Re-cycling of accompaniments for different songs, a la Big Bill, is a good indicator of a player being a set piece performer.

All best,

Forgetful Jones:
I was thinking about this just recently and wondered exactly when a song is considered a set piece or not. In particular, I was listening to (and trying to play) Blind Boy Fuller’s “Untrue Blues.” The verses seem pretty set, but he plays a couple breaks in there as well. Do the breaks disqualify the song from being a set piece?

What a great groove he gets into with the washboard backing!


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