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Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It

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Hi all,
I was recently hired to do a transcription of William Brown's recording of "Ragged and Dirty" which he did for Alan Lomax, collecting on behalf of the Library of Congress, in 1942. William Brown played the piece out of G position in standard tuning, capoed up and sounding in D, so if he was tuned to to concert pitch, he would have had to have been capoed to the seventh fret.
In working out the piece, I was interested to discover that Larry Johnson's version of the song, which is discussed a few posts back in this thread, is more closely based on this version than I had originally thought. Willie Brown, as did Larry in his later version, employed a "doubled up" form, roughly multiplying the "normal" bar lengths of a 12-bar blues and the amount of musical space devoted to the I, IV7 and V chords by two, but with some additional changes which have the effect of making the progression more anomalous and putting William Brown's personal stamp on the performance. Here's how William Brown's structure breaks down, and it is perfectly consistent in the opening solo and his verse one accompaniment.

   |    G    |    G    |   C7    |   C7    |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |     G    |

   |   C7    |   C7    |   C7    |   G7   |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |

   |    D    |    D    |   C7    |   C7    |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |   G7    |

So William Brown ends up with a twenty-six bar form. Interestingly, like Larry Johnson, he is one bar shorter in his second phrase than he is in the first and third phrases . . . but in each phrase, he is one bar longer than Larry was in his version.
The reason for this is that William Brown inserted a "breath catcher" bar following the completion of his signature lick as the final bar in each one of his three phrases. William Brown's signature lick is a two-bar phrase which is played and repeated in each phrase--In the first and third phrases it falls in bars five--eight, and in the second phrase it falls in bars four--seven. By doing this "breath catcher" bar and inserting extra beats, William Brown accomplishes two things:
   * He is able to complete the two signature licks without the second one being interrupted by the vocal pick-ups to the next phrase, and
   * He creates space, both musical space and concentration space, so that he doesn't have to be thinking about the vocal entry while he is concluding the signature lick.
These additional breath catcher beats to accommodate vocal pick-ups abound in the recorded performances of Lemon Jefferson, Furry Lewis, Robert Wilkins, Booker White and a host of other players. In a form which is not doubled up, the places where that is done are characterized by a 6-beat measure (or two extra beats) at the conclusion of an instrumental response. In William Brown's case, because the form is doubled up, what would normally be two extra beats becomes four extra beats--an entire measure.

Here is William Brown's performance of "Ragged and Dirty". It's tricky to figure out where the downbeat of his opening solo through the form is because he warms up a little bit, out of tempo, before starting to play time. When he starts playing time, he plays three beats, enough to accommodate the unsung, "Lord, I'm", before the downbeat of the form.

What I've come to realize about these kinds of analyses of blues forms is that while they may end up providing you with the effect of how a musician phrased a song and the musical structure that resulted, they certainly won't get you to the cause of why the song was done that way. That can only be attributed to the musician's taste, choices, and sense of how the song should be done.
All best,

Thanks, John!
As a (very) amateur musician, I find your explanations and inquiries to be priceless. I've always wondered if William Brown was attempting to  capture some of the sound of Yank Rachell (mandolin) and Jab Jones (piano) as heard on Sleepy John Estes' "Broken Hearted, Ragged And Dirty Too" from 1929:


What a great identification, Jeff! William Brown is indeed working to approximate Yank's signature lick from the Sleepy John Estes version of the song. Moreover, William Brown phrases his vocal and the form based on Sleepy John's phrasing, for Sleepy John sticks in those breath catcher bars following Yank's two times through the signature lick in each phrase, before the downbeat of the next vocal phrase. The rhythmic feel in the two versions is not altogether the same, mostly because, I think, of  Jab Jones' playing of time--he was so straight up and down, and William Brown had a bit more swing in his treatment of time.

Sleepy John deserves credit as the fountainhead or source of this way of playing the tune, I think. Lemon Jefferson's "Broke and Hungry" pre-dates Sleepy John's version, but it is a more conventionally phrased rendition, and is clearly not the source for William Brown's or Larry Johnson's versions of the song. If you haven't listened to Lemon's version in a while, check it out--it's pretty great, too!

All best,

Tim Connor:

--- Quote from: dj on January 20, 2005, 04:01:22 AM ---
--- Quote ---One of my peeves for years has been that when Frank Zappa, for example, throws in a few extra beats at the end of a line, he's hailed as a genius, but when Booker White did it, the comment was always "He doesn't have a good sense of time".   

--- End quote ---

This was kind of controversial even among the bluesmen of the time--Gary Davis was particularly critical of players who "broke time" (OK, he rarely had a good word to say about anybody but Blind Blake)--he said "I don't think I'd ever be lucky enough to dance to Blind Lemon Jefferson." But there were others who insisted on four beats to a bar, and those who very consciously didn't. John Lee Hooker said that he could play straight time, but didn't want to; Lightnin' Hopkins was once put in the studio with a white rock band, and did his usual thing--after the take, the bass player said, "Hey, Lightnin', you changed to the A a beat early." Lightnin' gave him the full 200-watt Ray-Ban glare and said "Lightnin' change when Lightnin' want to."

For me the hardest thing was to let the vocal lead, and follow with the guitar, which is very opposite to the usual structure of Western music.
--- End quote ---

David Kaatz:
I never thought adding beats meant a poor sense of time. IMHO, with good time and phrasing, a listener will barely notice added beats, because the song just flows.
To me, a poor sense of time, for example, means that one 4 bar phrase may be 2 seconds long, but some other 4 bar phrase in the same song may be 2.25 seconds long. The time varies. One cannot regularly tap ones foot to the song. Just adding beats, you can still tap your foot regularly to the song.


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