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Set Pieces

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Hi all,
There is a tendency sometimes to think of the country blues as always existing in the moment, and being a primarily improvisatory musical style, but the more you listen, especially to either alternate takes of an artist doing the same number, or the same number recorded by an artist with a number of years intervening, the more you realize the extent to which set piece performances comprise a high percentage of recorded country blues.  What are characteristics of set piece performances?  
   * First and most obvious, a more or less non-varying instrumental pass through the song's form, continuing from the beginning of the performance to its ending;
   * Set solos, which when listened to on alternate takes of the same song, are identical;
   * In some instances, a set accompaniment, which is not song-specific, but is moved around an artist's repertoire and is used to accompany different sets of lyrics.
   * Perhaps most common of all are semi-set pieces, in which the musician repeats some aspects of the accompaniment intact when passing through the form and has other places in the form that allow for more spontaneous riffing.

Some examples of set piece performances that fall into the first category described above would be Carl Martin's "Old Time Blues", Curley Weaver's "Ticket Agent Blues", William Harris' "Leavin' Here Blues", Shirley Griffith's "River Line Blues" and Charley Patton's "Down The Dirt Road Blues". A performance that would fall into the first two categories above would be John Jackson's rendition of "Bear Cat Blues", which he delivered pretty much exactly the same way from the time he first recorded it, in the mid-60s (and probably well before that), until his death. Examples of set piece accompaniments in the third category can be found in abundance in the recordings of Lonnie Johnson, in the E blues accompaniment of Willie "61" Blackwell, and in George Carter's accompaniment that he used for both "Rising River Blues" and "Ghost Woman Blues".  An example of the semi-set piece accompaniment would be Lemon's "Bad Luck Blues", where he plays some of the accompaniment much the same from beginning to end while allowing for some variety in his concluding licks and what he played over the IV chord.

Performance of set pieces is sometimes treated as a less musical or spontaneous approach than riffing in the moment, but the spontaneity of the performance is a function of the player's engagement with the material and commitment to it while it is being played, and is not something that breaks down predictably as set piece=stiff or canned-sounding vs. free riffing=fresh and engaged-sounding.  Just as with the best performances of Classical music, a powerfully engaged and focused performance of a set piece blues is not necessarily less exciting than one that is ostensibly improvised, viz., "Down The Dirt Road Blues"; I doubt you can come up with a freely improvised performance more exciting than Charley Patton's delivery of that number.  And conversely, unless a free riffer has an unusually large bag of tricks, listening to an entire program of such material can leave you with the feeling of shuffling a deck of cards that has only four cards in it--there's just not that much potential for variety.

It seems that engagement with the material is the key to strong results, whatever approach a musician may take.  Both set pieces and composition in the moment have the potential to be gripping or tedious, and both have potentials that are specific to the process involved in performing them.  Set pieces allow for a finely honed clarity of concept and vision that preclude the likelihood of such information being arrived at in an instant, and the more improvised approach of someone with a huge imagination and the mechanism to access ideas in the moment, like Lemon Jefferson or Robert Pete Williams, has an excitement of a type that even the best set piece performances can't achieve.

Does anybody have favorite set piece performances or solos, or favorite in-the-moment performances to contrast with the set pieces?

All best,


Hi all:

I've had the same thoughts. One artist who comes to mind is Little Hat Jones. He recorded the same accompaniment to six sets of lyrics. The accompaniments vary only slightly and he often used an identical break in multiple tunes.

I wonder if this was to establish his "sound", so it would be distinctive and therefore him recognizable (like Lonnie Johnson's D stuff). Or was it just that he found a groove he really liked and wanted to re-use, rather than make it a one off.

On the broader question, these guys must have played their tunes thousands of times (can you imagine how many times Charley Patton must have played Pony Blues live!). After a few tries at a tune you'd naturally find an approach that the audience liked and tend to stick with it. It must be impossible to be original the 500th time you play a piece. Wouldn't you gravitate back to a performance of a particular tune you really liked/was really popular and then more or less stick with it? And then record that version if you got a chance. Don't mess with success!


Big Bill is a great candidate here under all John's categories.

mike s:
Spike Driver Blues by Mississippi John Hurt comes to mind as do a few others by him.


Blue in VT:
I have to say that this topic comes at a very apropos time for me.  I've been beating myself up a lot lately because I can't riff or make it up on the fly....that's just not a skill I have...yet.  I still play most tunes very close to the way that I've learned them...sometimes swapping out verses or licks...reorganizing them ect. but still playing the same building blocks...and you know I like them that way...and the small audiences that I have exposed them to seem to like them long as I play them with commitments and passion....I've found that with music you can't BS like you can with a oral presentation... :P

So now I know I'm in the company of the greats... ;D...if it ain't broke don't fix it.

But I digress...As far as the "Greats" go...I'll come back to my usual favorite...Mance.  Wolfgang's Vault has recently released a large number of Mance concerts that were recorded at the Ash Grove in the late 60's and early 70's.  If you listen to all the versions of a tune like "Shake Shake Mama" or "Goin Down Slow" you will notice a few new licks...and often a different ending...but the rest seems very set I guess these would fall into John's category 4 or semi set pieces.  Of course these are all being played for the "same" audience.  I would love to have some recordings of how Mance played some of his tunes a true down home Saturday night dance!




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