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Just sounding off about a peeve: Why do journalists so commonly describe the material a blues master teaches an aspiring artist (who later becomes famous) as "the rudiments"?
I just saw it again today in an otherwise decent article about Bobby Rush in the New York Times. He learned "the rudiments" of harmonica from Little Walter.
I've also seen it in descriptions of Howlin' Wolf learning from Charley Patton, Junior Wells learning from Sonny Boy Williamson, etc. In all these cases, I would guess the student already had the rudiments down pretty well, and went to the best musician he could find in order to learn advanced techniques.
The term is condescending at best, probably incorrect, and likely racist.
When a master European classical musician teaches a promising student, the writers probably assume they are passing on the finer points of the art. But with blues artists the apprenticeship is always and only about "the rudiments"? 

Well, fortunately, we now have several African Americans teaching streamed MasterClass videos on YouTube. I don't see Taj Mahal or Corey Harris, but Herbie Hancock. And Morgan Freeman teaches an Acting MasterClass.

But I do hear what you are saying, Chezz. I think it's more of a writer thing, wanting to create a sense of detail without any real awareness of the history. Not to mention wanting to use a $5 word as opposed to "the basics". Of course, you're right, it wouldn't happen in the highly codified realm of classical music, where the concept of a musician who has proved themselves through audition gets to take classes from a master has been around for centuries.

I'm not sure if there is really a racial aspect, except possibly this individual writer or that, and I think white folk artists, about whom the writer knows little background, would probably have learned "the rudiments" from whatever known player with whom they may have been associated. You think June Carter was said to have learned "the rudiments" from Mother Maybelle in this or that bio? It's possible.

A corollary pet peeve of mine is the oft expressed notion that Patton, Jefferson, etc., were savants, somehow so talented that they just could play better than anyone else without any thought or practice involved. It follows that mere mortals shouldn't even bother attempting to learn their styles as "you need to be a god to play like that." To me it is clear that these players put in a tremendous amount of practice time, and, altho they may not have had any formal training, were highly intelligent. I think they applied a great deal of thought to how they set up and played their instruments and how they used their complex vocal apparatus to be heard in noisy surroundings, experimenting with techniques, understanding the fretboard and developing a deep and complex awareness of harmony and rhythm.

And then, a lot of players just copied the best players as well as they could, given that they may only hear them live a few times, or on a record that pretty much only played at full speed. When they got to recording, of course, the A&R guys had them change the words so they could call it an "original" and cop royalties. I think if they had slowdown software, they would have used it happily. (wink)

I think the notion that ignorance through lack of education correlates to lack of intelligence and understanding, that an untrained individual could only be great through some "gift" or miracle, may have a racial component in many cases, and is certainly condescending. And wrong.


Maybe someone at the Times also disliked “rudiments.” It now reads:

“Rush’s book is strewn with lessons in life and music gleaned from legends like Waters, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, a neighbor who taught him the basics of tongue-blocking, a harmonica technique.”

Thanks for pointing out the article.

Hi Steve:

I didn't see "the rudiments" used by the writer, Brett Anderson, in the NY Times article, but I know what you mean. For those who don't have access, here's the paragraph:

"He was a savvy, prolific networker. Rush’s book is strewn with lessons in life and music gleaned from legends like Waters, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter, a neighbor who taught him the basics of tongue-blocking, a harmonica technique. In his memoir, he recalls the harp player explaining, 'That’s how you git it dirty — make them notes bend.'”

People learn from one another. In the early stages of acquiring a skill we generally establish a solid foundation by learning from other people who know more than we do. People go on to expand and build on what they have learned. And we continue to learn.

I look forward to reading Bobby Rush's memoir. From the above paragraph, it seems the writer is attempting to give a very short synopsis of something that occurs throughout the book, with a single example.

Brett Anderson is primarily a food writer/critic based in NOLA--And apparently a very good one.

But to return to your peeve, Chezz, I agree. Oftentimes when I read something along these lines, it's almost as if the writer is simply plugging in a well worn simplistic "Bluesist"--and perhaps even in some instances, racist--trope that fails to speak to the individual learning process and the great intangible of individual personality. Thank Heavens things--and people--are not that simple.

And Wax, I totally agree with your final paragraph. As I've mentioned previously, I drove a taxi full time. When one listens, the intelligence and wisdom of those with a limited formal education can rival, if not surpass, that of the so-called mental giants who walk among us.

Just my 2 cents

"Formal" vs "informal" education also is subjective and cultural. I remember a Southern Studies class in which the professor described a folk artist's education as informal. Fortunately a student pointed out that it was actually very formal: the master artist taught techniques that the student emulated, got critiqued on, etc. I also remember at Port T one year when Darick Campbell (the now-late sacred-steel guitarist) described learning his instrument by playing in church, and how determined he was to not mess up. "Or you'd hear about it later?" someone asked. "No," he answered. "You'd hear about it right then and there. They'd tell you to leave the stage." Again, that is a very formal educational process, even though that professor might call it informal since it's not in a university setting.


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