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Country Blues => Weenie Campbell Main Forum => Topic started by: Johnm on September 12, 2005, 05:39:20 PM

Title: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on September 12, 2005, 05:39:20 PM
Hi all,
I have been thinking a long time about the question of what happened to the degree of chordal complexity and content in the country blues as it has evolved in the period since it was first recorded.  We are accustomed, rightly or wrongly, to thinking of creatures, artistic styles, or anything else that changes over time, as evolving from greater simplicity and lack of specification to greater complexity and  more specification over time.  Yet in the country blues, almost all of the recorded performances showing an expanded chordal vocabulary, extending well beyond the I, IV and V chord, were recorded either within the first ten years of country blues being recorded, or were recorded by musicians who were already active in that period, but who didn't get a chance to record until later years.  How do you explain the music that Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson and Papa Charlie Jackson played evolving into the music that Lil' Son Jackson, Dr. Ross, John Lee Hooker, R. L. Burnside played?
   * Generational differences in popular musical style are very short, five years or less, so that the generational age difference between the first and second groups of musicians named above is not nearly as far removed as their generational stylistic difference.  There is every reason to believe, based on their music, that Jefferson, Blake, Lonnie Johnson and Papa Charlie Jackson all heard Ragtime and Classic Blues, and were influenced by them.  Likewise, influences of the Parlor guitar craze of the late 1800s and pre-Blues ditties can be heard in the music of John Hurt Elizabeth Cotton, Henry Thomas, and Frank Stokes.  There appears to be virtually no trace of circle of fifths progressions associated with Ragtime or the expanded chordal vocabulary of Classic Blues in the music of Lil' Son Jackson, Dr. Ross, John Lee Hooker, R. L. Burnside, or Robert Belfour, for that matter.  It would seem that the greater the remove there is between a solo country blues guitarists's years of greatest career activity and the era of Ragtime and the Classic Blues, the less likely it is that the guitarist will use chords other than I, IV and V.
   * It may be that thinking of the music of Blind Blake, Lonnie Johnson and Papa Charlie Jackson as Country Blues gives an unrealistic impression of the degree of chordal complexity that most country blues players of the period 1926-1936 employed in their music.  Even during the early years of recorded country blues, there was a strong strain of blues recorded with a very pared-back harmonic content.  Think of Rube Lacey's "Mississippi Jailhouse Groan", the slide pieces of Sam Collins and King Solomon Hill, and the early solo recordings of Henry Townsend.  In the main, these are one-chord pieces.  Is there any reason to assume that there were more guitarists out there who went un-recorded who had a Papa Charlie-like degree of chordal sophistication, than there were guitarists who played one-chord numbers?  I don't think so.  I think it is more likely that the kind of sophistication that Lemon, Blake, Lonnie Johnson and Papa Charlie Jackson showed, while arising naturally out of the music that was popular in these players' formative years, was nonetheless the exception rather than the rule among country blues guitarists, even during the years when these players were most popular.
   * In the mid-30s and beyond, it seems that whatever impulse there was toward a more chordally complex treatment of the blues went into ensemble music-making like the Harlem Hamfats, and the various Chicago groups led by Tampa Red and Bill Broonzy.  More complex yet were the Jump Blues of groups like Louis Jordan's while the Blues as played by boppers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie employed a harmonic language closer to that of Jazz Standards than that of "Mississippi Jailhouse Groan".  Solo country blues guitarists playing chordally complex music in the post-1935 period are as rare as hen's teeth, and where they do occur, they were almost invariably born prior to 1910.  Bo Carter and Rev. Davis were both born before 1900.
   * Changes in the rhythms that country blues employed in the post-1930 period worked against chordal complexity.  In the pre-1930 period, recorded country blues was most often played in cut time, with a 2/2 feel.  John Hurt never recorded a piece in 4/4 in his life, nor did Charlie Patton ever record a shuffle.  The shuffle feel, with its 4/4 meter and under-lying triple feel, was a rarity in the 1920s.  The vast majority of country blues players recording then worked in the duple feel common to Ragtime, pre-Blues and the Minstrel songs of the 1900s.  One of the few musicians anticipating the coming rhythmic direction of the blues was Memphis Minnie, in her duets with Kansas Joe.  Minnie is also unusual for her formal and metric consistency.  She was a great player and played great leads, but when you think of it, it is all pretty much done over I, IV and V, with the exception of an occasional I-VI-II-V number.  The shuffle survives today as the fallback groove of choice for Chicago blues bands and blues jams around the world.  The very predictability of its accompanying chordal progression works in its favor, for it allows musicians who may never have heard the song they are playing along with to join in, so long as they know what to do when someone says, "Shuffle in G".
   * Adoption of the electric guitar as the accompanying instrument of choice also made chordal complexity of less significance than in the era when Blind Lemon and Blind Blake had to fill up musical space on instruments with little or no sustain.  One of the advantages of the electric guitar is the greater sustain it affords the player, thus allowing a more vocal approach to phrasing that was pretty much available only to the best slide players in the pre-amplification era.  When what you're playing sustains longer, you can get by with playing less.  Moreover, if you think of the role of the solo country blues guitarist as being an accompanist to dancing, creation of a strong danceable beat will trump chordal complexity for a dance crowd every time.  That fact goes a long ways toward explaining the popularity of an artist like Dr. Ross, who never met a V chord he liked, but was a groover par excellence.  In many ways, the model of a perfect present-day country blues guitarist as dance accompanist is Robert Belfour, who combines tremendous grooving with smoking bass runs, sinuous treble fills and powerful singing.
It seems possible that Country Blues, at least as played by non-revivalist musicians in the latter part of the 20th century, may have returned to the the musical materials that the Country Blues started with about a century earlier:  heavy emphasis on pulse and phrase length rather than meter, as driving forces, heavy emphasis on riffs for melodic content, and relatively little emphasis on chords or chordal content.  Whatever the explanation is for the rise and fall of the role of harmony in country blues, if what we're left with is the music of Robert Belfour, we're doing pretty darn well.

All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: dj on September 13, 2005, 04:03:36 PM
Interesting post, John.  I've been thinking about it all day, and I've come to a few conclusions.

First, although it's counterintuitive, I think it's the tendency of all styles of music to lose complexity over time.  When a style of music is young, it has few conventions and a lot of experimentation, and gradually, as the style ages, it acquires more and more conventions and becomes more and more formalized.  You can see this, for example, in 18th century French instrumental suites, which started out as loose collections of any dances the composer wanted to include, and ended up in a very rigid, formalized set of dances and key relationships. 

I think the tendency is especially apparent in the phonograph age.  In the early days of recording any musical genre, record companies don't really know that much about a style.  They know, for example, that some guy singing "blues" with an acoustic guitar is selling lots of records, so sign up every guy who sings blues with an acoustic guitar and see what happens.  After awhile, they begin to get an idea for what "the blues" is, and consciously mold their artists to that style.

The tendency to record almost anyone who walked in the room and could sing was exacerbated in the twenties as record companies got the idea that if you recorded someone from Bristol, Virginia then people in Bristol would buy a phonograph to hear his record, and once they had the phonograph, they'd want to buy other records.  So if the Carter Family had turned out to be minor recording artists, sales-wise, at least the fact that they'd recorded would have sold some phonographs in their hometown.  By the mid-thirties, the record companies had dropped this attitude and were more focused on artists with a more homogeneous sound who could command a broad audience.

One thing that you touch on that I really wish I knew more about is how dance styles affected the development of the blues.  It's the chicken and egg thing.  Did musicians develop a shuffle rhythm because someone was doing a dance that fit that, or did dances to shuffles arise when musicians started playing that rhythm?  Anyway, I have always had the feeling that if I knew a lot more about the dances that people were doing to the blues over the years, I'd know a lot more about why the blues evolved the way they did.       

Well, that's it.  Thanks for your patience.

David
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: GhostRider on September 13, 2005, 04:17:54 PM
Hi:

Actually I've thought a lot about this, more in connection between country blues and early Chicago electric blues.

I think one point that you, John, didn't address on why country blues became more harmonically simple is that maybe it didn't!

 Entering in on the '30 was the Depression, of course. The record companies could not afford to record artists who might not sell "just on spec". They relied more and more on proven hitmakers (Lonnie J., BBBroonzy, Tampa Red etc.) and fomulistic approaches they thought would sell (survival). Thus harmonically simpler tunes would be the consequence, a proven formula.

It's quite possible that the more complex folks were still out there, but wern't being recorded. That, the distance from when ragtime was more popular, and the availibility of records, providing hits to emulate rather than "figuring it out yourself". may be reasons for a harmonically blander product.

The thing I do about the Greatest Country Blues Hits of 75 years old has made me make the yearly transition, and I've noticed the change.

Or not,
Alex
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Muddyroads on September 14, 2005, 05:52:41 AM
So you are saying in an ever more sophisticated and technological world the use of the one chord blues form  grew while the more  complex chordal approach waned?  My question then is, what was it in the chordal simple pieces that reached the players and listeners/dancers who responded to this music.  The corporate types were only interested in what would sell.  What sociological pressures lead to this music taking over for harmonically more advanced music?  Was it the rise of jazz and later R&B? 

There is a security in a one chord vamp.  A sureness in its incessant.  Electric guitars make it more powerful.  There is something in the I-IV-V blues changes that persists.  As a forty year + fan of the blues, I find these things still comforting, moving, exciting  and only occasionally boring.

Mud
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Cambio on September 14, 2005, 08:17:40 AM
I think that the harmonic complexities might have had something to do with the popular music of the turn of the century, which is what all of the early blues greats came up on.  Not just rags, but marches, waltzes, comic songs, coon songs and the like.  If you start listen to some of those old records of people like Collins and Harlan, or Billy Murray, you start to hear hints of where some of the early blues players got some of their  material.  Indeed, some of the great women blues singers started out singing poplular music of the day in tent shows, think of Ma Rainey, before they had even heard of blues.
Maybe the blues lost that complexity after that sound became old fashioned and no one wanted to hear it anymore.  I'm currently reading a biography of Sam McGee and there definately came a time in country music when people didn't want to hear Sam's kind of music anymore.  Instead they favored the simpler music of people like Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe.  The music started to become more standard and sterile.  There was no place for an old medicine show veteran who had apprenticed with Uncle Dave Macon.  What a shame.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on September 14, 2005, 11:06:26 AM
Hi all,
Thanks for your responses to all who answered my post.? You've given us a lot to chew on, certainly.? I think, David, your point about styles simplifying as they evolve is well taken.? It does seem that before a style's identity is fully formed, it encompasses a broader range of influences.? As it evolves, it becomes more language-specific, and undergoes a sort of formal hardening of the arteries.? This is especially true of the blues, and the movement of the blues from a solo player/singer music to an ensemble music accelerated the adoption of blues conventions, e.g., 12 bars, each of four beats, the IV chord landing on the fifth measure, etc.? The need for musicians in an ensemble to arrive at the same place at the same time creates a certain pressure for hard and fast formal guidelines.? To the extent that less rigidly structured approaches to the blues survived in the post-30s era, they almost always survived in the playing of soloists, not ensembles.
Ensemble playing need not necessarily result in "paint by the numbers" music, though.? As Todd points out, in the early years of country blues, the acceptance of a host of popular music types that ensembles of the era played right along with blues in their performances had the effect of making both the blues and the non-blues material seem fresher, and less bound by formal conventions.? Bands like the Mississippi Sheiks or Peg Leg Howell with Eddie Anthony and Henry Williams sound loose as a goose when they play blues, as they do when they play "Turkey In the Straw" ("Turkey Buzzard Blues").? Part of the diffference between these earlier bands and later bands is that the idea of a "blues band", which confines itself to the performance of blues only, is a later development, just as the idea of the "blues musician", who only plays blues, is a later development.? Can anyone think of a blues musician earlier than Henry Townsend, who recorded more than a couple of titles and who only recorded blues?? I can't think of one right now.
Alex's point about the record companies contributing to the reduction of harmonic content in blues and formularization of the blues is right on, I think. Commercial? record companies for the most part, I think, live for two things: Hits, and Covers Of Hits.? To the extent that the ensemble recordings of Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy sold, they spawned more imitators, speaking the same musical language.? And there was much to admire in the smoothness and tightness of the musicianship involved in this kind of music-making.? Listeners who would mourn the passing of rougher and more varied earlier styles were probably in the minority.?
As time passed, though, this trend resulted in a tipping of the balance of the musical components which combine to comprise the blues.? In the early years of recorded country blues, rhythm, melody, harmony, and quality of sound existed in a close to par basis in much of the music, though harmony did did most often take more of a back seat to the other qualities.? I think that balance is part of what makes pieces like Lemon's "Bad Luck Blues", Charlie Patton and Henry Sims' "Elder Green Blues" or Papa Charlie Jackson's "Airy Man Blues" so beautiful and strong.? As the years went by, harmony's role in the country blues progressively diminished, as did melody's, and rhythm and quality of sound came to predominate.? A parallel development occurred in Pop Music, as it moved from the era of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and other writers of that ilk into Rock and Roll.?
I think what we're left with is undeniably strong, when played as well as it can be played, and as Muddyroads points out, it is"comforting", in addition to being "moving exciting and only occasionally boring".? Prokofiev once said, "Audiences want to be lulled", and I think that sense of predictability and knowing what you are going to get explains the popularity of much blues today.? The lack of variety may also explain, though, people who categorically state, "I don't like blues".
One other point that occurred to me about the diminishing role of harmony in country blues over the years, is that I referenced that waning role to the loss of any kind of influence from Pre-blues, Ragtime or Classic blues material in most post-1935 solo blues musicians.? I realized, though, that I could think of at least two solo blues musicians of the later years with expanded chordal vocabularies that did not derive from Pre-Blues, Ragtime or Classic Blues:? St. Louis pianist Walter Davis and Robert Pete Williams, of Louisiana.? Both Walter Davis and Robert Pete employed modal sounds to expand the harmonic vocabulary of the blues, and I think the directions they took in their music show new ways to sound in the music that are nonetheless appropriate to the style.? The possibilities they made clear in what they did are still waiting to be explored and utilized.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: blueshome on September 14, 2005, 02:13:32 PM
What an interesting thread. I've been thinking about this since John mentioned his ideas at Northampton.
 I think a major factor is sociological - the audience moved.

The period under consideration was when the largest migrations were taking place to the cities from the South. Thus old social structures were destroyed and new ones formed. Perhaps the opportunity to learn music from the local home town guitarist or other musician was reduced so that direct aural transmission lessened. Also surely newcomers to the city, like all immigrants tend to want to lose their "country" ways and become more "civilised" thus turning their back on downhome styles.

My thesis is thus that, in addition tp the very valid points made by others, there was less demand for the older styles, and there may have been a smaller pool of musicians versed in them over the course of the period in question. Music in general being a business, folks would play what people wanted to hear and the old style would diminish at the same time as its skills were being lost (except to us middle aged white freaks who dug it 30 years later).
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Muddyroads on September 15, 2005, 09:51:42 AM
I think that the harmonic complexities might have had something to do with the popular music of the turn of the century, which is what all of the early blues greats came up on.  Not just rags, but marches, waltzes, comic songs, coon songs and the like.  If you start listen to some of those old records of people like Collins and Harlan, or Billy Murray, you start to hear hints of where some of the early blues players got some of their  material.  Indeed, some of the great women blues singers started out singing popular music of the day in tent shows, think of Ma Rainey, before they had even heard of blues.

Cecil Brown, in his book Staggerlee Shot Billy , discusses this issue.  As much of the Afro-American  music was orally transmitted, he makes a case for the music traveling from the bordellos where ragtime was played,, to being sung by stevedores .  It is a short trip to the fields, etc. as the music made its way through the community.  The melding of styles and the eventual  solidification of  a  I-IV-V format  was part of the  reaction to cultural forces then at play.  Ragtime died out as swing started to emerge .  The music smoothed out, if you will with boogie-woogie, an immensely popular  form and the room for improvisation over a simpler  chord structure allowed for  blues to become what it is today.  I may be over simplifying  this but music, like water will take the course of least resistance in at least in  its popular form.

My 2 cents,

Mud
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: waxwing on September 15, 2005, 12:20:31 PM
I think another factor that needs to be considered in this discussion is the regional differences that were apparent in the earliest recorded "country" blues. This came up for me, in a discussion over on the 'Shed,  arguing against Elijah Wald's "blues was created by the record companies" theory .

It seems to me that, if the source of all the musical awareness of the earlier players was the popular music at the turn of the century, there would have been a lot less regionalism. I think the route from Tin Pan Alley to the fields was not quite so smooth. Perhaps a great deal of regional "folk" music was created by the isolation that poor antebellum  blacks lived in. A song, taught to plantation slaves by their white masters, could have taken many different forms as it was passed down from mentor to child over several generations in a rural area with little or no contact from mainstream pop music of the antebellum era. Perhaps these regional styles could have been influenced by an earlier musical heritage, especially in areas where slaves were brought in shortly before emancipation.

It is clear that the southern blacks were still used as an enslaved workforce, but no longer being a possession of the plantation owners, representing monetary wealth, their welfare was no longer much of a concern. They weren't really an issue for anyone until they were recognized as a viable market. Perhaps this occurred because blacks like Scott Joplin started to create music that influenced the white market.

I don't know when the tent shows that led to the blues queens actually started, but, to my limited awareness, this seems to be one of the earliest attempts to mass market music to blacks. There may have been an element of wanting to learn the new "pop" tunes by the local rural musicians, but I don't think that their existing "folk" repertoire would have been so easily dismissed. I think there was a much stronger sense of community at the turn of the century and "folk" music is a strong part of community identity. The pop tunes would have probably been transformed to fit the local styles. Being children of the Transient Age, we often overlook these strong social sensibilities.

Of course, all this was eroded by the transience brought about by the mobility of the 20th century. When blacks learned that there may be a somewhat better life somewhere else, whole communities almost dissappeared or were transplanted to Chicago and other parts north and squeezed into neighborhoods with many other "communities". Not only did sense of community break down, but so did family structures in these communities. Having lost these landmarks of identity, perhaps for many the only sense of identity was one's race. It seems natural that the regionalisms of the music would disappear.

Of course, the record industry had a homogenizing effect, as well. Being easily able to hear other styles in any juke box as opposed to the occasional touring show, made musicians of the late '30s much more able to transform their own style.

As you said, John M, generational differences occur every 5 years. Quite a few would have gone by in relative isolation between the Civil War and the advent of the 20th century. Strong regionalisms were created and certainly have to be considered in addressing the transformation of this music we call blues.

All for now.
John C.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on September 16, 2005, 12:10:44 PM
Hi all,
It does seem likely that migration could have an effect on the music by uprooting people from their past or sense of history associated with where they had lived for as long as they could remember.? Similarly, the effect of such dislocations combined with the ability to market musical developments as they occurred to a broad audience via recordings must have worked to change the music too, and smooth out regional differences in musical styles from the pre-mass media era.? Why the changes should have resulted in a diminishing of the role of harmony in country blues remains a mystery, though, and will probably stay so.
It may suffice to attribute the changes to two things: generational evolution of the music and the ability of recordings to influence the directions the music evolved.? People generally limit their nostalgia for the Pop Music of the past to the Pop Music that was popular when they were in their teens and early twenties.? Nothing seems so remote or out of date as the Pop Music of the recent past.? It is not hard to imagine young Blues record buyers of the mid-1930s feeling? like the music of such 20s icons as Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake was hopelessly out of date.? And to the extent that the earlier music spoke of country matters, mules, etc., it must have seemed all the more out of touch to listeners residing in large industrial northern cities.? Musicians always want to be on the cutting edge, too, and for young musicians in particular, part of what is involved in being on the cutting edge is rejection of the music of your forebears.
As long as the music remained popular and people continued to play it, it would continue to evolve.? It is interesting that Jazz and Blues evolved in opposite directions with regard to their emphasis on harmony.? In Jazz, harmonic complexity and exploration have been hallmarks of the music since the beginning of the Bebop Era, despite a few hold-outs like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.? Country? blues evolved in the other direction, with an eventual paring down of harmonic content, so that many of the solo players of the 50s and 60s specialize in one chord numbers.? As far as assigning causes for these changes goes, it is probably too complex a result to come up with simple explanations.? It had to turn out some way, and this is how it turned out.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Rivers on September 16, 2005, 01:28:12 PM
This may or may not be true but here's what I have believed for some time. Provenance was (possibly) some sleevenotes, plus comments I read elsewhere by Big Bill Broonzy. I'm no expert on record labels so it may be hogwash.

As I understood it the push to record ensemble playing kicked in strongly after the depression. This was to compete with jazz and find a wider market, rural blues was being increasingly looked down upon. I believe this movement was spearheaded by Lester Melrose, a slightly dodgy character heading up the Bluebird label. So we see great solo players like Tampa Red teamed up with various other Bluebird artists, Broonzy w/Gillum, etc.

Net result was a move toward a formula that disparate musicians meeting for the first time could intuitively pick up. Quirkiness and broken timing was out the window, as were complex sequences beyond the common ragtime ones. The dreaded bland 12 bar blues bloomed like a toxic algae and became the cliche that laypersons usually think of as the blues.

Probably seemed like a great idea at the time but ultimately it choked the delicate flowers of rural blues. We should learn the lessons of history but quite what that means I'm not too sure.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on December 17, 2005, 11:42:31 PM
Hi all,
I was thinking about this topic again recently and remembered one player who was active in both the pre and post-War periods, and whose post-war recordings continued to show a great degree of harmonic content and sophistication:? Jesse Thomas.? I heard a tune of Jesse Thomas's recorded in the early '50s, maybe 1952, on a CD Phil Thorne loaned me at the EBA Blues Week last summer.? Unfortunately, I can not remember the name of the song, but Jesse's playing on it was a real ear-opener.
The song was an A blues in standard tuning, and for his primary voicing of the A chord, Jesse Thomas chose the following (strings number from 6th to 1st):
? ? ? ? ? ? ?
? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?0-4-5-2-x-x

Jesse was thus voicing an A7 chord, starting at the 6th string, 5th-3rd-7th-Root.? It has a beautiful, deep smooth sound.? And what was particularly slick was that when the song resolved to the IV chord in the fifth bar, he fingered the D7 chord so:

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?0-3-4-2-x-x

This is a rootless voicing of the D7, and it works out as 9th-7th-3rd-5th.? There is a beautiful economy in the way he switches from an A chord to a D chord by simply moving two voices down one fret, while keeping the other two voices (on the 6th and 3rd strings) the same.? The elegance of the movement between the two chords wouldn't count for much if it didn't sound good--in fact, it sounds great.
I find instances like this really encouraging, because they make me feel like the musical language is not played out yet, and that there are still little nuggets of this type to be found.? It also illustrates that while the post-War harmonic language of the blues may have been pared back in the main, in the case of individual exceptional players, a complex language was still being spoken and innovations were being made.

Edited 12/18 to pick up correction from Waxwing
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Bunker Hill on December 18, 2005, 12:40:17 AM
As I understood it the push to record ensemble playing kicked in strongly after the depression. This was to compete with jazz and find a wider market, rural blues was being increasingly looked down upon. I believe this movement was spearheaded by Lester Melrose, a slightly dodgy character heading up the Bluebird label. So we see great solo players like Tampa Red teamed up with various other Bluebird artists, Broonzy w/Gillum, etc.
Melrose recalled it thus:

"I believe it was in the later part of 1928 that I met up with Thomas Dorsey, who was quite a composer as well as the leader of the Hokam Boys. They recorded the selections Beedle Um Bum and Sellin' That Stuff on Paramount and the record was a tremendous seller. About a year later McKinney's Cotton Pickers recorded the same selections for RCA Victor. I also recorded Big Bill Broonzy on Paramount and Gennett Records.

In 1930 I received a request from the American Record Corp. to record some of my blues talent. This company had various labels for chain stores. I got together a dozen musicians and vocal artists and went to New York City and recorded about thirty selections for them. The vocalists consisted of the Famous Hokum Boys (Georgia Tom Dorsey, piano; Big Bill Broonzy and Frank Brasswell, guitars). The records turned out very well and I made several more trips with artists to New York for recording sessions. There was very little recording being done in 1932 and 1933 due to the effects of the Depression.

However, in February of 1934, taverns were opening up and nearly all of them had juke-boxes for entertainment, I sent a letter, which was just a feeler, to both RCA Victor and Columbia Records, explaining that I had certain blues talent ready to record and that I could locate any amount of rhythm-and-blues talent to meet their demands. They responded at once with telegrams and long distance phone calls. From March, 1934, to February, 1951, I recorded at least 90 percent of all rhythm-and-blues talent for RCA Victor and Columbia Records.

Along with the Famous Hokum Boys and Big Bill Broonzy, I recorded Washboard Sam, the Yas Yas Girl (Merline Johnson), Tampa Red, Lil Green, the Four Clefs, Big Boy Crudup, St, Louis Jimmy, Roosevelt Sykes, Memphis Minnie, Curtis Jones, the State Street Ramblers, Roy Palmer, Jimmy Yancey, Joe Williams, Walter Davis, Sonny Boy Williamson, Doctor Clayton, Lonnie Johnson, Peter Chatman (Memphis Slim), Tommy McClennan, Big Maceo Merriweather, Amos (Bumble Bee Slim) Easton, the Cats and the Fiddle, the Dixie Four, Leroy Carr, Junie Cobb, Lovin' Sam Theard, Jimmy Blythe, Victoria Spivey, Johnny Temple, Dorothy Donegan, the Big Three Trio (Leonard Caston, piano; Bernard Dennis or Ollie Crawford, guitar; Willie Dixon, bass), Jazz Gillum, and many others."
[extracted from My Life In Recording published in The American Folk Music Occasional, Oak, 1970 p.59-61]
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: chipmonk doug on December 18, 2005, 04:41:43 AM
Wow, ya'll know a lot.  I just pick some music.  :)
Learn more all the time reading this stuff.

Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: waxwing on December 18, 2005, 11:08:35 AM
John M, this is reminding me of the double stop voicings Steve James taught us on the mandolin this summer. Let's see if I can remember this correctly without getting out the mando or class notes. In G, play the G7 by fretting the 7th (F) on the 3rd fret of the 3rd pair, and the 3rd (B) on the 2nd fret of the 2nd pair, you could go the the IV chord (C7) by moving the form down one fret, getting the 3rd (E) at the 2nd fret of the 3rd pair and the 7th (Bb) at the 1st fret of the 2nd pair. Then just move the form up two frets to get the V chord (D7). Making for a very simple comp in G. I realized this was because the interval between the third and the dominant 7th is a tritone, a flat 5th, or exactly half of an octave, i.e. the interval from the 3rd to the 7th is exactly the same as the interval from the 7th to the next higher 3rd. I started to get an idea of just how important the tritone is.

BTW, I think you have a slight error in your description of the A7 voicing above. Shouldn't the open 6th string be the 5th?

Thanks for bringing this over to the guitar for me.

All for now.
John C.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on December 18, 2005, 11:53:09 AM
Hi all,
Thanks for the catch, John C.!? I sure enough had the open 6th string in Jesse Thomas's A7 voicing mis-labeled as a root, when it is in fact the 5th, as you observed.? It's nice to know someone is paying that much attention.
Your observation about the significance of tritones in blues harmony is dead on the money.? One of the interesting things about tritones in a circle-of-fifths progression is that they move down chromatically and invert with each successive chord.? So if you think of a typical raggy progression like I-VI7-II7-V7-I, in the key of C, in which each chord, beginning with the VI chord is the V of the chord that follows it, you get the following chordal positions, which I venture to say, a lot of you have played:
 
 C:? ?0-3-2-0-1-0
 A7:? 0-0-2-2-2-3
 D7:? 2-0-0-2-1-2
 G7:? 3-2-0-0-0-1
 C:? 0-3-2-0-1-0

In this progression, starting with the A7 chord, the tritones are moving down the second and first strings, so that in the A7, D7, and G7 chords, the chord voices played on the second and first strings are, respectively:

? ?A7:? 3rd-7th
? ?D7:? 7th-3rd
? ?G7:? 3rd-7th

Note that when the G7 tritone resolves to C, it contracts.? This is because it is voiced 3rd-7th, and in that configuration it resolves to the I chord by moving up a half-step from B to C, and down a half-step from F to E.? The tritone always wants to achieve the closest resolution possible.?
If you imagine a V7-I resolution in which the tritone in the V7 chord is voiced 7th-3rd, like in a D7 to G resolution as shown below, you get a different resolution movement.

? D7:? 2-0-0-2-1-2
? G:? 3-2-0-0-0-3

In this case, to achieve the closest resolution, the tritone expands, with the lower note, C, resolving down a half-step into B, and the higher note, F#, resolving up by a half-step into G.? From looking at these examples, you can see that in a V7-I resolution, if the tritone in the V7 chord is voiced 3rd-7th, from low to high, it wants to contract when it resolves.? If, on the other hand, the tritone is voiced 7th-3rd, from low to high, it wants to expand when it resolves.? It is pretty cool stuff, and is transferrable to any instrument you might want to play blues on that can play more than one note at a time
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Charles Freeborn on December 18, 2005, 12:25:07 PM
I think Cambio's take is probably worth a good look. Those of us that play (or try to play) these kinds of music tend to look at it from a technical / musical viewpoint, when perhaps we should take a step back and look at it from a cultural one. The players were playing what the people wanted to hear/ dance/re-produce, etc. to. The musicians were then (as now) bringing their own form(s) of expression to the gig, but first and foremost they needed to get paid.
I also find it interesting how forum discussions (don't get me wrong, I think it's important to study technique) on particular players, such as Blind Blake, will endlessly obsess over the minutiae of  technique while ignoring the cultural, and in the case of Blake musical influences (he played with Louis Armstrong for instance) that shaped his musical voice.
-C
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on December 18, 2005, 01:26:25 PM
Hi Charles,
Welcome to Weenie Campbell!? I agree that obsessing over technique can be a bit arid, particularly when discussing how long-dead musicians executed a particular move.? Without a means of observing how the playing was in fact performed, it is all conjecture in any case, made more or less plausible by the person making the claim's ability to reproduce the sound in question successfully.
I would differentiate between technique and music, though.? Technique is an imponderable in most cases when dealing with the earliest generation of country blues musicians.? Music that resulted from those techniques though, is an entity that at this point has a conceptual and aural substance that is an historical fact and a life of its own out in the world.? And the fact is that books and discussions of the cultural background that gave rise to the blues, biographies of the players, etc., are significantly more easy to come by than are analyses of the music.? Discussion of the actual music of the blues has a very long way to go before it catches up with everything that has been written about the culture of the blues and the people who made the music.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Buzz on December 18, 2005, 01:46:46 PM
I have been reading and following this thread, lurking! 8)

John, I hear what you are saying about the "need" for the ongoing exigesis/dissection/discussion of the   technique and musicality of this music we listen to,  especially since there is so much written about the culture and times of origin. I agree with that, I think.

I'm fascinated, at my level as an on-going student of this country blues music, by the seemingly endless minor and major differences in technique, chord voicings, single string runs, etc. that keep popping up, and that seem so new to me. There is a wealth of technical pearls learned and practiced by these original men and women that have yet to be identified and described, and then to be heard and tried, then slowly and repeatedly played,  learned and incorporated by me...

Anyway, the discussions seem appropriate and ever inspiring to me.
Buzz
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: waxwing on December 18, 2005, 03:13:05 PM
Hey, Charles. Yes, it is good to see you here. Welcome.

Discussion of music is very helpful to me. Having come to the blues at age 50, five years ago, I don't really have a lifetime left to devote to ingraining the music into my ear only by listening. Sure, it's just the I, IV, and V chord, and really I guess I could just strum the first position chords and sing the blues all I want, but somehow the tremendous complexity that was brought to the music by the many, many players, each with their own interesting style, so much inspired by the finger playing of their ancestors on simple strtinged instruments, is what fuels my passion to perform and hopefully inspire others with the music. Through the guidance of teachers like John M, and your good friend Woody, I have made remarkable progress from my perspective, both in playing, and in "hearing" the music, and seeing the musical connections between different players' approaches to the simple I, IV, V form (or even the Rag circle of 5ths) allows me to grow and assimilate styles even more quickly.

Of course, having heard your playing, Charles, I know you share some of this passion, even if it is in a slightly different direction from my own.

As to culture, it's hard for me to draw a cultural parallel between what drove the early blues musicians and what drives me. Of course, the earliest country players may have had quite a different audience from the later, more professional players, who were recorded much more heavily, but certainly they both wanted to engage their audiences varying tastes. So few people have any awareness of country blues today. I find, when I perform, that even people who have never heard this style of music performed are often quite taken by it and anxious to find out where they can hear more.

This is very encouraging, both for me as a performer, but also for the country blues scene in general. However, I think it is important today, culturally to have a more varied style than the early performers did. If I were to only perform the music of say, Blind Blake, I don't think the audience would be as involved as they are when I emulate the styles of several players, Delta Piedmont, St Louis styles, or what have you. Nor if I were to attempt to shorten my own individuation process by just borrowing the songs of these players and ignoring their styles, creating "my own" style from scratch.

Elijah Wald, in his popular book, Escaping the Delta, makes a statement something to the effect that today a "country blues" player is judged by how good an actor one is. He seems to be saying this in a derrogatory way, refering to putting on the "country bumkin" image of the pop press which he spends much of the book debunking. But, having been an actor for much of my life, I took this in an entirely different way. If, by creating the "character" of the style of each individual artist that I emulate, to whatever detail I desire, I felt I could understand the cultural background that brought that artist's style about, totally on a subliminal level, of course. By putting myself into all of these various "characters", yet, over time, allowing each to affect the others, thru my instrument (particularly my voice, but certainly also my hands), I think that my own style will grow from these cultural antecedents. I was particularly encouraged in this regard by John M's post after PT mentioning the differences between Dave Bro's and my emerging styles (thanks again, John for that feedback). I hadn't really felt that, if I had a style, it was that discernable yet, until I read John's post.

In the spirit of some of the recent posts on the Back Porch, I would also like to register how much this forum has meant to me in my own personal musical growth. Thanks, all! And thanks, Charles, for sparking this little epiphany. It's good for me to express my sense of my own journey, to others, from time to time.

All for now.
John C.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on July 18, 2009, 10:47:22 PM
Hi all,
It's been a long time since this thread was posted to, but I've had occasion to transcribe Curley Weaver's recording of "Some Rainy Day" from the early '50s recently and found one aspect of his performance that made it relevant to this discussion.  The performance (which can be found on the JSP "Atlanta Blues" set) has Curley backing himself out of G position in standard tuning, and one of the most distinctive aspects of his sound is his heavy emphasis of the 6th behind his I chord, G.  He opens the song playing in G and fingering the sixth (E) located at the second fret of the fourth string under his G chord.  Throughout the song, he plays runs on the interior four strings while picking the open first string, and concludes the performance with a strum of the top four strings open, a G6 chord in this context.

I'm hard put to think of another Country Blues recording with such a heavy emphasis on the sixth of the I chord.  The closest I can come is the music of Jimmy Lee Williams, who loved to sing or hum a VI note against a III note he was playing with a slide.  In the case of "Some Rainy Day", it sounds as though Curley Weaver was infatuated with the sound of the sixth chord, the I chord of choice for Swing Era guitarists, and chose to incorporate it into his sound, at least for that song.
All best,
Johnm

 
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on July 21, 2009, 06:38:39 AM
I've thought a great deal about this subject since John Miller's original post, and have a few thoughts.
We all recognize the year 1929 as the beginning of the Great Depression, and even though the word depression was used to describe a rapidly contracting economy, with concomitant loss of jobs and income,we know too well that the effects on people caught in such circumstances can be profoundly depressing in the psychological sense.
Homes are lost, marriages collapse, family members drift off in search of work elsewhere. Social destabilization becomes the norm. What emerges is an image of the future grey and featureless in its aspect, hopeless feeling, repetitive and maybe endless. A rut, a groove a monochromatic, monotonic world which insists on a joyless march of survival unrelieved by even small letups in its monotony. Contrast that to the preceding period of hysterical economic extravagance.  A mirror image, a society endlessly able to generate novelty, accelerated change in fashions, and in the arts. High spirits and a sense of an unlimited future of progress and good times prevailed.
I contend that the phenomenon you describe, the development of chordaly complex, fast tempoed, joyfull music often with novelty lyric content was a product of the hyper optimistic twenties, and that the reductionistic impulses that became predominant post '29 were an instinctive response to the overall sense of a world with reduced possibilities. Simplistic perhaps but it does seem to fit the circumstances.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: lindy on July 21, 2009, 09:24:06 AM

I've got a couple of problems with that analysis, mostly concerning the increasing complexity that occurred in other art forms around that time. Jazz kept evolving in complexity in the 1930s (Duke! Prez!) before the commercial interests found that big swing bands that played high-tempo, joyful, and harmonically simple/repetitive riffs were where the money was. Classical music moved toward more diversity and complexity, visual artists on both sides of the pond were experimenting with all kinds of rich ideas during the period.

Methinks economics had a lot to do with why country blues didn't go down the same path toward more complexity. Before The Depression, talent scouts were willing to record a few sides from a large number of unknown players who showed up at their hotel rooms, since they could afford to, and perhaps they would find a really big $tar in the bunch that they did record. Those players had all kinds of rich musical ideas to share, we're all thankful that we have access to the tips of those creative icebergs. And as we all know, when the money dried up the companies were only willing to record a small number of tried-and-true money-makers, and those artists were not as harmonically complex. (There's a whole bunch of exceptions to talk about, but they were exceptions.)

A competing simplistic analysis to move the conversation forward. Fire at will.

Lindy
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on July 21, 2009, 12:22:01 PM
Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemp  1913
Picasso's Mademoiselles d' Avignon 1907
Matisse's piano lesson 1916
Joyces Ulysses, 1918

If "other art forms" got more interesting and complex after that I must have missed it.

Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: lindy on July 21, 2009, 01:17:15 PM


I surrender my sword to you, good sir, but aren't those the trailblazers who made it possible for other modernists to continue evolving in the 20s and 30s? Perhaps I need a better time line than my Reader's Digest copy.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on July 21, 2009, 05:50:35 PM
Hi all,
You make an interesting case for the more monochromatic chordal vocabulary employed by Country Blues players in the '30s and later mirroring the drabness of the feel of the Depression Era, O'Muck, as do you alternatively in your semi-rebuttal, Lindy.  I'm interested in explanations of these types because they wouldn't occur to me in a million years.  There's certainly no obvious purely musical explanation for the change.  I've been thinking about the issue again and have a couple of different ideas to put on the plate.
You could say that it was just a result of a change of fashion in a Popular Music style, but that's begging the question, and perhaps confusing cause and effect.  One thing that occurs to me is that, to the extent that the more chordally complex raggy blues of the '20s mirrored the harmonic vocabulary of much of the Pop Music of the day, it was still a pretty simple vocabulary, with lots of circle of fifth progressions, like I-VI7-II7-V7, or III7-VI7-II7-V7.  To the extent that the vocabulary ventured outside of the I-IV-V orbit, it tended to work with dominant 7th chords and the occasional diminished 7th chord, at least as it manifested in blues players.

The chordal vocabulary of Pop Music continued to expand and evolve into the '30s, though, to include lots of minor 7th chords and minor7flat5 chords as the decade wore on, and these additions to the vocabulary were not easily incorporated into the raggy blues vocabulary of the previous decade.  Moreover, the raggy sound had become passe.  So to the extent that Blues players continued to play the blues, they jettisoned the raggy sounds of the past and focused on the I-IV7-V7 harmonic core of the music.  

Some musicians were sophisticated and adaptable enough to continue to play both I-IV-V blues and the harmonically expanded Pop Music of the Era.  People like Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, the Mississippi Sheiks and Bo Carter could work both sides of the fence, though they were generally recorded doing the more bluesy material.

Musicians who valued harmonic innovation enough to be put off by a steady diet of I-IV-V, probably exited the blues scene and opted instead for Pop Music or Jazz, where Blues harmony continued to evolve (and still continues to evolve).  A topic that I think would be fascinating to study but that, to my knowledge, has never been really examined, is what factors determined whether musically inclined youngsters of the same background and from the same locale in the early decades of the 20th century ended up playing Blues or Jazz.
All best,
Johnm        
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: phhawk on July 22, 2009, 12:01:00 AM
Although external and environmental influences undoubtedly shape the content of any blues piece, I think the move from more harmonically complex pieces to simpler forms may be something as simple as the development and evolution of portable amplifiers and electric guitars, which seem to parallel this development. As Marshall Mcluhan says, "the medium is the message". Those that embraced the new technology seemed to rise in popularity while those that didn't were gradually (or not so gradually) pushed aside.

With the new technology, came new demands for new forms that more closely complemented the properties of the new technologies.

Does this mean that we will all eventually be turned into robots? Probably!       
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on July 22, 2009, 06:32:22 AM
Quote
Musicians who valued harmonic innovation enough to be put off by a steady diet of I-IV-V, probably exited the blues scene and opted instead for Pop Music or Jazz, where Blues harmony continued to evolve (and still continues to evolve).

Probably true and documentable.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: uncle bud on July 22, 2009, 06:53:19 AM
I do think the business of music and its tendency to force homogeneity is in large part to blame, as has been mentioned. But I wonder if musical laziness had something to do with it as well. Some of the monotony of modern and contemporary blues seems rooted in apathy to me, a going-through-the-motions attitude where you put in your time for a few bucks and that's about it.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on July 22, 2009, 09:42:03 AM
Hi all,
Thanks for bringing other thoughts to the discussion, folks.  I thought of a big "oops" exception to my assertion in my most recent post that the raggy sounds of the '20s were jettisoned by '30s blues musicians:  Blind Boy Fuller, who did about a zillion 16-bar blues (18 with the tag) that had I-VI-II-V A parts.  And Fuller was hugely popular, too.  Oh well, I guess he must have been the exception to the trend.  Yeah, that's it.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: lindy on July 22, 2009, 11:34:17 AM
Fuller was one of two exceptions that I was on the verge of mentioning in my first post. The other was Bo Carter, who kept recording throughout the Depression and who remained harmonically interesting, if repetitious at times due to the number of songs he recorded. (I understand that his record sales were comparable to Fuller's.)

And regarding the move of country blues players to pop and jazz, I again think that the recording "biz" played a part in that. It may have been that a lot of country blues players who had really interesting things to say musically got their two sides of fame, wanted more, and figured that the way to get invited back into the studio was to play just like the most popular players of the time. The lacquer giveth, the lacquer taketh away in terms of encouraging continued harmonic complexity within the country blues genre. There was lots of creative stuff going on in other forms, and there's always the question of where one ends and the other begins. I don't want to go there.

I've also given some thought to your post, O'Muck, in which you mention, "What emerges is an image of the future grey and featureless in its aspect, hopeless feeling, repetitive and maybe endless." I think that pretty much describes the black experience in America, especially in rural America, from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression. Good times, bad times, Gilded Age, the recessions or depressions that occurred periodically in the last part of the 19th century--those things affected everyone, but when you were poor and black in the areas where the country blues emerged, it didn't matter nearly as much as it did for white Americans. Life was pretty bleak, but some harmonically rich music came out of those environments and experiences.

Lindy

Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on July 22, 2009, 12:39:52 PM
Can be explained by geographic distance (NC) from the main musical trends in Blues.....maybe?
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Johnm on July 22, 2009, 01:11:56 PM
I think you've got something there, O'Muck.  Fuller was essentially a busker who made records, whereas the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple was more of a producer's studio-created music.  Fuller was a throwback in a lot of ways--his harmonic language was simpler than Blake's or Papa Charlie Jackson's, to say nothing of Bobby Leecan or Rev. Davis.  Blind Boy Fuller used more than I-IV-V, but in no way was he harmonically innovative. 
All best,
Johnm 
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: dj on July 22, 2009, 05:08:54 PM
Quote
Fuller was essentially a busker who made records, whereas the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple...

Don't forget that Tampa Red recorded a lot of pop and swing with his Chicago Five until Bluebird told him it wanted only blues.  And Bumble Bee Slim was so frustrated being locked into the piano and guitar blues mold that he gave up his recording career and moved to California.  We know from surviving notebooks that Memphis Minnie and Little Son Joe included pop and swing into their live sets.  And I've always wondered about Leroy Carr - he was one of the most adventurous "blues" singers, including pop songs, hybrid pop/blues, and hokum into his recorded repertoire until his career was temporarily halted by the Depression in 1932.  When he resumed recording in 1934, he waxed nothing but blues.  Was that at the behest of his record company?

As for Fuller, he recorded on the East Coast under the direction of J.B. Long, who wasn't a record company employee.  Had he fallen into the clutches of Lester Melrose, we might today have an entirely different picture of him.

By necessity, we're forced to make inferences on what musicians played based on their surviving recordings.  But those recordings don't necessarily tell the whole story.  The recordings may have been an agent of change rather than reflecting changes that were already taking place outside the recording studio.       
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on July 22, 2009, 05:33:22 PM
Quote
've also given some thought to your post, O'Muck, in which you mention, "What emerges is an image of the future grey and featureless in its aspect, hopeless feeling, repetitive and maybe endless." I think that pretty much describes the black experience in America, especially in rural America, from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression. Good times, bad times, Gilded Age, the recessions or depressions that occurred periodically in the last part of the 19th century--those things affected everyone, but when you were poor and black in the areas where the country blues emerged, it didn't matter nearly as much as it did for white Americans. Life was pretty bleak, but some harmonically rich music came out of those environments and experiences.

I almost modified my original statement with such a proviso regarding the general tenor of African American experience in the period under discussion and excised it at the last minute because despite testimony by rural Blacks that the depression barely made a dent in the overall level of poverty, its not credible to me that it didn't have some worsening effect. Additionally, Black string bands routinely played for White functions and even though they themselves were not the economic beneficiaries of the roaring twenties, they would have had to have been familiar with some of its Raggy, upbeat repertoire in order to please their audience, dontcha think? Then again economic hardship is not necessarily an indicator of artistic impoverishment. A very complex web we're stuck to here I'm thinkin'.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: lindy on July 22, 2009, 06:48:50 PM
I agree with your comment about string bands, but I think that's a pretty small sample of the blues genre. Mississippi John Hurt is part of another specialized population of blues musicians who played for hoedowns, I have no idea how many others made some pocket change playing with other black musicians or white musicians in front of people doing dosey-does. Those same musicians may have been well-versed in rags, for the simple reason that the greater the number of musical niches they could cover, the greater the chances they could make some money from their music. Think Howard Armstrong playing Italian love songs on his mandolin.

Which brings up another aspect of this complex web, which my long-suffering Weenie brethren have heard me go on and on about before: the blues as dance music, with players in jooks playing the same riffs over and over and over with subtle variation, a very African approach to dance groove music making. I'm amazed at the thought of some of our heroes playing for hours on end at a country dance, in many cases as the only musician. (Mance Lipscomb was really good at that, I've heard.) I know that it's possible to have harmonically complex melodies on top of basic rhythmic grooves--Duke Ellington was the best at it, in my mind--but I also suspect that the preference for simple riffs on top of basic rhythmic grooves for dancing had something to do with reducing harmonic complexity in the blues, country and otherwise. Simple entertainment in small rural towns during hard times. I think the laziness that Uncle Bud mentioned about modern electric blues bands is tied to the desire of customers to go to a club and get on a dance floor, and the desire of the bands to get invited back to the club.

Do you like repetition and harmonic simplicity? Go to a zydeco club where one of the new generation bands has a gig. Which brings me to the only zydeco joke I know. Keith Frank had to hire a new guitar player for his band. At the audition he asks the first player, "Can you hold an Em7th chord?" The guitarist says, "Sure, no sweat, just like this." To which Keith says, "Yeah, but can you hold it for 45 minutes?"

Lindy




 

Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: allenlowe on July 27, 2009, 04:27:44 AM
"the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple was more of a producer's studio-created music."

how do we really know this as an absolute truth?
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: Bunker Hill on July 27, 2009, 11:23:59 AM
"the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple was more of a producer's studio-created music."

how do we really know this as an absolute truth?
Bumble Bee Slim wasn't a happy bunny that's for sure. In 1962 he was complaining that "My contracts called for 40 tunes a year and they wouldn't give me the accompaniment I wanted". Each time I go to the studio I have a piano player and a guitar player. Piano and guitar, piano and guitar, you hear one number, you hear them all".
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: allenlowe on July 27, 2009, 11:45:17 AM
there is no doubt that Lester Melrose put his stamp on those sessions, as Ralph Peer did on his sessions; but that does not mean that all those who recorded felt the same way - or that the configuration was necessarily different than that used in clubs. You may well be right, but I always feel that it's important to be cautious when making statements like that because we only have spotty, anecdotal evidence. As a matter of fact, there is a live recording of Lonnie Johnson from around that time, in which he is performing with - piano and guitar. So it may have been as much a matter of repertoire - but without set lists we don't know for sure. What did Tampa Red feel? Or Tommy McLennan? or Memphis Slim? Little Brother Montgomery (who has said that he felt limited by what the producers wanted)? They all recorded for Bluebird as well -
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: dj on July 27, 2009, 02:00:20 PM
Quote
I always feel that it's important to be cautious when making statements like that because we only have spotty, anecdotal evidence

I couldn't agree more, both about the fact that it's important to be cautious when making statements about the past and about the fact that we only have spotty anecdotal evidence.

Nevertheless, the evidence we have, while spotty, is compelling, including, besides Bumble Bee Slim's statement:

Roosevelt Scott stating that he "played polka, Italian music, German music... we'd play blues, too..."
The request list and keys of songs list from Memphis Minnie and Little Son Joe reproduced in Paul Garon's Woman With Guitar
The oft-quoted fact that the McCoy brothers played Italian songs for Chicago's gangsters
Lonnie Johnson's recordings from the Boulevard Lounge in 1941.  Yes they were either two guitars and bass or piano (which Johnson played) guitar and bass, but of four extant songs, only one is a blues
Tampa Red's Chicago Five recordings
The McCoy brothers' work with the Harlem Hamfats

The list above is hardly exhaustive, one could certainly add to it with a bit of digging.  And it is admittedly spotty.  But If we're careful with what we say, I think we're justified in drawing a conclusion, and that conclusion is that of the musicians who made race records in Chicago in the second half of the 1930s and who were at least partly based in Chicago, a fairly large percentage were familiar with and at least occasionally played styles other than blues.

We'll never know what these musicians preferred to play and listen to, though at least in the case of Lonnie Johnson there's enough evidence to feel fairly certain it wasn't blues.  But it's fair to say that a significant number of them could and did play more than just the blues.
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: waxwing on July 27, 2009, 04:01:54 PM
I guess a few of the respondents on this thread are tied up this week, but, aren't we getting away from the topic a bit, which I thought was Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues, not whether the repertoire of recorded country blues artists included material outside of CB?

Certainly the observation that players well away from the Chicago studio scene, even those in groups like the Shieks, managed to maintain more complexity, innovative or not, tends to lead towards some sort of consideration that the studios had some effect on the music. I'm sorry I'm not as familiar with the discography as the rest of you, but, are there examples of players recorded alone and later recorded with a studio combo backing? Or how about someone like Tampa Red? Was he recorded earlier with groups that might have been "his" band  that could be compared to later recordings with the studio band?

When you think that, say, the Shieks, for instance, were a group that rehearsed and played together and could work out complex harmonic or rhythmic arrangements, but that a player matched with a studio combo just for a session might have to resort to the lowest common denominator or lose the session, this seems to make sense.

And what do we know of the "club" scene in Chicago post depression but pre war (and pretty much pre electrification)? Was there already a "star" system of headliners who would pick up back up players for each gig, as seems to be the situation even today. This too would seem to tend toward the LCD of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Or were there groups that actually arranged and rehearsed together, but were not recorded. I guess the Hamfats would qualify but seem to have progressed somewhat beyond blues, or certainly country blues.

Hope I'm not missing the direction everyone is going here.

Wax
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: dj on July 27, 2009, 04:42:06 PM
Wax,

I think your post is appropriate, thanks.  I'd considered adding some additional statement to my post, but didn't mostly out of laziness. 

The point of my post is that it certainly wasn't laziness or unfamiliarity with other styles that was driving the simplification of the harmonic structure of the blues during this period, as it can be demonstrated that at least a significant minority of players was familiar with and could play in other styles.

 
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: allenlowe on July 28, 2009, 08:46:26 AM
"But it's fair to say that a significant number of them could and did play more than just the blues"

that's not really what I was objecting to - I was objecting to the statement that this was purely a producer's music, forced on the musicians - I think the truth is more complex - sorry to continue ot -
Title: Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
Post by: dj on July 28, 2009, 09:15:56 AM
Quote
that's not really what I was objecting to - I was objecting to the statement that this was purely a producer's music, forced on the musicians - I think the truth is more complex

Then we're in agreement.  Sorry for the misunderstanding.
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