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Country Blues => Weenie Campbell Main Forum => Topic started by: CF on April 23, 2008, 08:31:52 AM

Title: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: CF on April 23, 2008, 08:31:52 AM
I've been watching a lot of country blues stuff on youtube lately.
Too bad when people ask about note-for-note accuracy when performing this music they never mean the vocal.
I see unending praise for musicians who play a mean guitar but who's singing is so poor it makes the guitar part void, for me. & I don't mean kinda bad singing, I mean nigh atrocious, as if they're not even listening to the song or . . .
If Son House, Skip James, Leadbelly . . . even Blind Blake who's vocals are often criticized, sang as poorly as some of todays' players we probably would be talking A LOT less about them.
When is there going to be a country blues VOCAL revival?
This is a major, major problem with the country blues situation today as I see it.
Sorry for hijacking your thread reuellis but I spent a long night shaking my head at a hundred videos of amazing guitar players & probably not a single great singer.

Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: uncle bud on April 23, 2008, 10:07:30 AM
I'm betting you didn't watch Paul Rishell then.

While I tend to agree that more emphasis in general needs to be put on singing this music, to be fair, Youtube does not necessarily represent a good sample. For instance, the clips from instructional videos put up by Stefan Grossman frequently show instructors teaching tunes they do not really perform, and vocals are cursory at best, since the focus of these videos is guitar instruction. Other Youtube video I've watched of some contemporaries doesn't catch them at their best either. And some just aren't great singers.

It's going to be hard for anyone to measure up against the likes of Son House though. You can eliminate most of House's own contemporaries too.

Ditto Leadbelly. Not many people, period, sing that well.

Anyway, a couple contemporary players whose vocals I think are always great: Paul Rishell, Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: CF on April 23, 2008, 11:04:46 AM
No, you're right Andrew, of course there are some great singers. I wasn't trying to imply there wasn't. But providing a short list of accomplished singers only makes the larger list of the unaccomplished  more glaring & reveals some kind of perverse institutionalized disregard for vocal competency. I can't think of a single pre-war vocalist who's vocals are outright horrible. Of course those vocalists probably didn't get recorded. I don't think it's necessarily that people just don't know how to sing this music anymore, I think a large part of it is that the vocal tradition hasn't been embraced enough by the revivalist movement.
Let's not even compare ourselves with the likes of Leadbelly or House, two of the more obvious great vocalists. Blake is a good example. The nuances even in his admittedly meagre vocal are deep & reflect a communal influence or style that obviously valued melody & invention in the voice. Robert Wilkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Chatmon were just some of the great bluesman who were not technically great vocalists yet showed they had chops even within their limitations.  
I'm not criticizing amateurs or people who play for their own enjoyment. But would many of these people who post on youtube be so forthcoming if they had a tradition or teacher who said 'Hey junior, you got that guitar part down real nice but you ain't playing these blues right if you're not singing it right. WORK on your vocal as much or more than you do your guitar playing.'
Paul Rishell is a damned good singer. That should be a more obvious & nurtured standard for us wanting to do the country blues in the new millenium.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Stuart on April 23, 2008, 11:05:49 AM
When is there going to be a country blues VOCAL revival?

When people get back to "screamin' and hollerin' The Blues." ;)

Actually, I think that there's much to be said for both aspects. Note-for-note improves and expands one's guitar skill level and one's ear, as well as preserving the original as played. But we're not merely custodians of culture who treat the music as historical artifacts. Ari Eisinger really did a good job of summing this up in the liner notes to his recent CD.

We all connect with the music on an emotional level, but it takes some doing to put this across in a performance. You have to be able to lay it all out there. Easier said than done. Plus it helps to have the pipes.

Taking the original and making it one's own (so to speak) requires--and expresses--individual creativity. There's a lot to be said for this as well. And of course, its always nice to just sit around, relax and play in one's own style without making it a chore. The first and second generation CB musicians learned the music of others and from others, but rarely produced a carbon copy. As an aside, it's interesting that in other cultures, "writing in the style of" or "in imitation of" is an accepted and well respected genre.

The comment is often made--and repeated--that so-and-so never played a song exactly the same way twice. Of course, no one really knows with absolute certainty that that was the case for obvious reasons, but it does speak to the point that variation was and is an important part of playing CB.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: reuellis on April 23, 2008, 11:19:43 AM
one can practice a song or lick over and over and over and over and get it.  to sing (well) you have to be born with it.  if this isn't true, please teach me to sing!
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: waxwing on April 23, 2008, 11:34:56 AM
Have you spent as much time practicing singing as you have guitar playing? Do you have instructional materials on singing? Have you taken lessons from a singing coach? Your voice is an instrument that needs just as much practice as your guitar.

I blame it all on the Rev who seems to have had an overly healthy disdain for singers to the point where he smokes a cigar while singing. Sure, he could sing when he wanted to, but because he was with us in the '60s, his competitive pride about his guitar playing spawned a whole school of barely singing, if at all, guitar players who are now very influential in the "country blues scene".

All for now.
John C.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: dj on April 23, 2008, 11:57:33 AM
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Plus it helps to have the pipes.

Quote
To sing (well) you have to be born with it.

I couldn't disagree more with the two statements quoted above.  I suppose on some level, you're not going to be Son House or Robert Plant or Pavarotti unless you have some genetic basis - good vocal chords and lung capacity, and a genetic predisposition for very hard work.   ;D  But to be able to sing on key, to phrase a song, to breathe in the correct places, to project the meaning and emotion of the lyrics, and to throw in the occasional ornament or variation, all it takes is study and practice.  And practice, and practice, and practice...   

Edited to add:  Please note that I'm not in any way claiming to be a good singer myself!
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Janmarie on April 23, 2008, 12:59:22 PM
I'm enjoying this thread and would like to interject my ideas on the vocals (although am heading out of town soon and may not see your responses). 

So often on this sight the emphasis is on male guitarists but there are many female country blues artists out there who can really sing and sing well.  Not many of them played guitar in the 20's and 30's.  Memphis Minnie was an exception and amazing as well.  But some of the fine vocalists that come to mind are Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida cox, Lil Green, Ethel Waters .... the list is really quite long and only a few dip into the category of "screamin' and hollerin'".  The songs they sings are just as potent as the men's and styles as varied.  Perhaps because many of them do not play an instrument you can feel their focused passion in their phrasing and control.

I think to understand one's potential as a singer of the country blues, listening to the female vocalists as well as the men provides quite an education.

For me (mostly singer,so-so player), the key is as much listening as practicing and understanding the subtle vocal variations.  I have neither the time nor patience to replicate someone else's playing/singing but I am in awe of those who do.  I simply try to do the best I can within the framework of who I am but I suppose that's what we all do.

Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: doctorpep on April 23, 2008, 01:02:37 PM
I'm not a musician, but am a very good singer when it comes to Blues. I seem to have a very good ability to mimic voices and vocals in general, but am especially good at it when it comes to bass-oriented black Blues singers. Take a look at this guy, if you think you have the stomach: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJiRB-JRg9E . Here is an example of a man who plays guitar much better than I'll ever be able to, but who has, please excuse my language, pure whitebread delivery. I don't mean that white people can't sing Blues; what I mean is that this guy sings like he's never had problems or trouble in his life, and like his biggest worry is getting his kids to soccer practice in the nice, suburban town he lives in on Long Island, New York. By the way, just to show how important vocals (and lyrics) can be, I'd like to say that Lomax recorded a guy named Bama who had some of the most beautifully stunning vocals ever put to record, and the man never played an instrument, to the best of my knowledge. I'd rank his work up there with the best of McTell, Robert Johnson, Richard "Rabbit" Brown, Johnny Shines, Willie Walker, Gary Davis, etc.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Stuart on April 23, 2008, 01:07:06 PM
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Plus it helps to have the pipes.

I couldn't disagree more with the two statements quoted above.

Hey DJ:

I just meant that it helps, not that it was a necessity. I'm a hard work / lots of practice kind of guy myself--talent alone is rarely enough. All great singers don't necessarily have the gift of a great voice, and not all those who have the gift of a potentially great voice are great singers. Hope this clarifies things.

Edited to add: The "Screamin' and Hollerin" comment wasn't meant to be all-encompassing.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: CF on April 23, 2008, 01:11:15 PM
Oh my, I've opened a can of worms here haven't I 
Maybe to be fair to reuellis part of this thread could be moved to it's own thread. Call it The Blues Vocal Tradition or something?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: doctorpep on April 23, 2008, 01:17:29 PM
Sleepy John Estes is a guy who literally "cried the Blues", meaning he didn't have a good voice in the conventional sense. However, he put a lot of emotion into his vocals, thus the songs were meaningful. I don't think one needs to be born with a good set of pipes in order to sing the Blues well.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Stuart on April 23, 2008, 01:27:24 PM
Oh my, I've opened a can of worms here haven't I  >:D

Yeah, but it's a great can of worms.

Maybe what we need is a "What the Hell is a "set of pipes" anyway??!!" thread. I've been listening to the JSP Sleepy John set along with Howlin' Wolf's "Definitive Collection" as of late and lovin' every minute of it. So what the Hell do I know?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mike Brosnan on April 23, 2008, 03:03:49 PM
This is a very interesting thread that does seem like it should be split in two.
 
As far as the original topic: I usually try to find the happy medium between copying the originals note for note and playing things my own way.  (With varying degrees of success... :-\)

Regarding emphasis on vocals: I agree that vocals are generally not emphasized enough in 21st century country blues (not counting obvious exceptions like Mr. Rishell).  But I'm not going to decide who should and should not sing publicly whether it be on youtube, a street corner, or on stage.  Singing is healthy even if you suck.  If someone's gettin' paid to sing poorly and play well, more power to 'em.  If I don't like it I'll go elsewhere.  To each their own...

I was about to take this thread even further from its original point, but I'll stop myself and just start another one...

Mike
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 23, 2008, 05:31:52 PM
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I blame it all on the Rev

This is plain wrong! Its just that his guitar playing, great as it was seemed attainable, like something you could learn as in taking piano lessons. Who could even conceive of singing like him, one of the greatest singers of religious music ever? ...well I give it a shot.

Quote
The songs they sings are just as potent as the men's and styles as varied.  Perhaps because many of them do not play an instrument you can feel their focused passion in their phrasing and control.

If you are a dude and you want to learn to sing the blues, put on a Bessie Smith record evryday and immerse yourself in the music and try to emulate  her sound.

Singing is where the rubber really hits the road. How invested are you? What do you have to bring to the song? How much are you capable of letting yourself feel? How much of that are you willing to show? Are you willing to step out of your set identity to engage a song? Unless singing is embaressing, it ain't no damn good at all.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: uncle bud on April 23, 2008, 06:03:58 PM
Quote from: waxwing
Have you spent as much time practicing singing as you have guitar playing?

One of the key points made in this thread so far, IMO.

I disagree about the Rev, though, and don't know that he performed regularly with a cigar in his mouth, just that there's some home video of this.  Maybe he did, I dunno. But I think he's a fascinating singer, not always easy to take, but hard core. If his students didn't take anything away from his singing, that's their fault, not his.

Quote from: OMuck
Singing is where the rubber really hits the road. How invested are you? What do you have to bring to the song? How much are you capable of letting yourself feel? How much of that are you willing to show? Are you willing to step out of your set identity to engage a song? Unless singing is embaressing, it ain't no damn good at all.

More interesting points. I'd guess that for many of us guitar-playing country blues nerds, singing is a hesitant thing, even verging for many on being somewhat unnatural. Which is exactly the opposite of what you want with this music. As for embarrassment, hell, I can barely sing in front of the dog.  :P

Late addition: Listening to singers with a mind to copying them is something I would guess many people hooked on instructional video or tabs probably don't do much of, and others have made good suggestions for that. I'd only add that some of the music I've been listening to lately is prewar gospel, something I've generally avoided for the most part, and I think it's tremendously educational as a wannabe singer - plus it's some great music!
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 23, 2008, 06:10:55 PM
Quote
singing is a hesitant thing, even verging for many on being somewhat unnatural. Which is exactly the opposite of what you want

Personally, that sounds like an excellent place to work out of. Exactly what you DO want.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: uncle bud on April 23, 2008, 06:12:00 PM
Curious. How so?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 23, 2008, 06:39:00 PM
There are personal blues and entertainment blues. lets focus on the personal ones. If something feels unnatural and hesitant it is likely to be because it is not the result of a preconceived expression of ones public persona. If it feels alien that is probably an indication that you are tapping into an unvisited part of yourself. The hesitancy is a manifestation of a response to newness and an awareness of the possibility for embarrassment from exposure of personal feelings. And those are all* the necessary components of a good singer. A voice is a voice is a voice. Some are more musical sounding than others without question but everyone has one and no ones is uninteresting if pressed into service of truthful expression.

*Timing and good pitch are also good to have.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Rivers on April 23, 2008, 06:50:46 PM
Great post O'Muck.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Coyote Slim on April 23, 2008, 07:05:06 PM
Too often people think blues singing is shouting.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 23, 2008, 07:43:04 PM
Quote
Great post O'Muck.

Tenks uh lot.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: waxwing on April 24, 2008, 08:41:44 AM
OKeh, I was somewhat joking about the Rev. I didn't say he couldn't sing, in fact, I said he could. But I don't think he was prideful about his singing like he was his guitar playing. I think if you asked him he would say that everyone in church sings, but only he, Gary Davis, can play any hymn in any key the organist chooses. It was his guitar playing that he wanted to be remembered for, that he wanted to pass on to others, and if you look at many who took lessons from him, Stefan and Woody, who don't sing at all, and others, like Ernie and Jorma, who are not really known for having practiced their vocals as much as their playing, you'll see a pattern in his legacy. You've got one of the best voices of any of his acolytes I've heard, Mr. O'Muck, and your post on the vocal training thread belies some actor training methinks (pick a target for your voice - classic Linklater vocal technique). But the player/teachers I've mentioned above have instilled the same focus on the guitar to the detriment of the vocals that, unfortunately, they seem to have come away with after studying with the Rev. Not by his intention, so much, as by the happenstance of his outlook.

But I agree with you about finding your uncomfortable zone and trying to hang in it, Mr. O'M. I've actually mentioned this before here, in the context of acting, which I was a practitioner of for 30 years before coming back to the blues. I would often be coached by directors or other actors to go ahead and change that line I was struggling with to something I might say myself, something I was comfortable with. But I always hung in there with those tough lines, 'cause when I found my way into that uncomfortable line, I would usually find my way into the character as well. Those uncomfortable, different-from-me, or my persona, parts were the key.

Hey, I think we can all admit that our first attraction to playing, and singing, was, well, to look cool. But I think you have to blow off looking cool before you can really look cool, if you know what I mean?

All for now.
John C.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Stuart on April 24, 2008, 09:00:14 AM
Hey, I think we can all admit that our first attraction to playing, and singing, was, well, to look cool.

Hi John:

I started playing when I was nine years old. I just loved music and wanted to learn how to play it. "Cool" never had anything to do with it--I was too young, unaware and unsophisticated. (Nothing much has changed except the "young" part.) I guess that I'm the exception that proves the rule.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Johnm on April 24, 2008, 02:00:31 PM
Hi all,
The questions posed at the front end of this thread are very complex, but I'll offer a couple of thoughts.  In terms of sound production and tone, I would say one of the major reasons we don't sing like they used to is that we did not grow up singing in African-American churches.  That kind of formative experience of the act of singing colors the sense of proper tone production and inculcates the means of achieving such a sound at an early age (when imitation is considerably easier) so that the way of singing becomes unconsciously "right".

I think another issue, and perhaps a more significant one, has nothing to do with tone production, vocal technique, and the like, but pertains rather to the extent to which many of the old blues lyrics do not really speak to modern performers of the music, either with regard to means of expression, content or life experience.  This problem is one that vocal technique is not going to solve for you.  Basically, you have to select lyrics that speak to you in some way that makes singing them feel and sound right.  If you don't have that quality in relationship to what you're singing, there is really no point in what you're doing.  I think younger performers are more malleable in this regard.  I could sing a lot of stuff when I was a kid that I would never sing now.  I have to choose material much more carefully now.
all best,
Johnm
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 24, 2008, 03:53:59 PM
I concur. I've been omitting lyrics (sexist, violent racist) ever since I got hissed and booed at by a contingent of feminists whilst performing Willie McTells "Southern Can is Mine" in 1970. It got me thinkin'.
And i realized that I'd have to find a level of accord with the lyric content of what I was singing if I was going to make this work. More later my son needs the computer.

Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 24, 2008, 05:32:39 PM
Back again. The larger issue it seems to me is what adaptations can be made to existing lyrics to make them relevant and meaningful and palatable. Some of the lyric content of Blues is always relevant and timeless and some not. One can always write in a substitute lyric for an unacceptable bit, but the danger there is a certain kind of contemporization trivialization. Certainly part of the appeal of this stuff is its use of outmoded and arcane language. Those qualities are in themselves a bit mysterious. As to lyrics which reflect our experience; Just like Tom Thumb's Blues is a lot more reflective of my inner universe than Crossroad Blues, but Bukka White's Strange Place Blues is closer still.
Synthesis is always the key it seems to constructing enduring art in any discipline. Now I've de-specified my lyric content and sing any of a number of favorite Blues lyrics in random order and in any song I choose. The narrative is sacrificed I think, but they take on a sort of symbolic presence as part of the sound.
John is absolutely right on the Black Church component of singing. I've now mentioned Bessie Smith as someone aspiring singers should listen to (by the way as it used to say on Rolling Stones records, play this music loud!) and it is no coincidence that she was the great Mahalia Jackson's favorite singer. I have spent long hours listening to old spirituals and think that some of the country church things recorded by Lomax and others in the 50's & 60's are top tier, art for the ages stuff. That is where it all comes from, so paradoxically if you want to sing the Blues, go to Choich y'all!
I'ha'm travelin', I'ha'm travelin', tryin' ta make Heaven my ha'ome, Lord  I'ha'm travelin', I'ha'm travelin', tryin' ta make Heaven my ha'ome!

PS. I think white Blues players should only sing Bel Canto style as an ethical consideration no matter how bad it sounds...HEEYAWK! BTW that would include me.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Stuart on April 24, 2008, 06:27:02 PM
...I would say one of the major reasons we don't sing like they used to is that we did not grow up singing in African-American churches.
Astute observation, John.

I would add: How many of us grew up singing? As I recall, at the schools I attended only the kids with "potential" were encouraged to join the glee club. If you weren't a church member, or if it wasn't possible to attend choir practice, that option was not available. And how many of us grew up in musical families where singing at home was a form of recreation and entertainment?

Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Coyote Slim on April 24, 2008, 07:07:40 PM
I did not grow up singing, but I do come from a line of talented storytellers.  Mimicry is a good skill in storytelling.  As a child I was always fascinated by the different way people say the same words.  I still constantly do imitations of friends, co-workers, etc.  I think this has helped me to become a blues singer, because I listen not only to the way words are pronounced, but the tone and "placement" of the voice. For example most modern singers do not sing from the same place as the old-timers.   I don't know what it's called -- head voice/ chest voice/ neck voice??  Does that make sense?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 24, 2008, 07:43:45 PM
Quote
I think this has helped me to become a blues singer,

And a damn fine one too I might add! 'Course ya' gots a fine instrument (voice) to start with there
Mr. Coyote.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Rivers on April 24, 2008, 08:16:04 PM
I tried to grow up singing but they threw me out of the school choir when it became apparent I was not particularly gifted in that respect, to put it mildly.  ;)

It took me ages to realize my musical talents are elsewhere, and thankfully fairly multifaceted. Recently I discovered, probably confirmed to myself, that I have some talent for arranging. It only took 40 years of listening to everything under the sun. This is good for me, I just know I'd be insufferably egotistical if I was a great singer. It forces me to work with other musicians who can deliver the goods and when everybody digs my sensibilities that is the best buzz.

If I believed in karma I would say it's the universe working as it should.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: uncle bud on April 25, 2008, 07:44:23 AM
Choral training (of the Western European kind, not the African-American church kind), as great as it may be, will only take you so far. I've heard many trained singers who are terrible pop or jazz or blues singers. The approach is different, the phrasing different, the emphasis on vocal clarity and diction different. (OMuck's bel canto joke fits well here.) 

Let's not forget as well that there are any number of blues artists whose singing is not of the big, hit-the-back-of-the-hall variety but is immensely enjoyable because it has character, phrasing, texture etc. John Hurt, Leroy Carr, Bo Carter, Noah Lewis, Clifford Gibson, Ramblin' Thomas, John Jackson, Luke Jordan, you name 'em. While I agree with recommendations to listen to the great singers like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, not everyone is going to have a big voice. Listening to what lesser pipes did is beneficial too, because they're doing things right in their own way.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 25, 2008, 10:32:31 AM
Did I say voice? Oh I meant to say hit the back of the hall with a gob! Wasn't this a thread about hocking?

Good points Andrew, but I've found the ability to project well is scalable. It gives one more control at whatever volume you choose. If you're performing what we call Blues you're talking about producing a whole shitload of quite different sounds. Ma Rainey just had to sound like Ma Rainey not Blind Lemon Jefferson, Arthur Crudup and Ma Rainey. I'm not speaking here of vocal impersonation (or am I?) but the songs of all these people do require a certain chameleon like flexibility, ne'st cafe? 

Of course my experience pertains to the time in my life before I started experiencing rapid fire re-puberty attacks, which kept hacking away at my vocal chords, depositing patches of hair in unlikely places, removing it from others and inducing frequent fits of priapic insanity.

While I couched the Bel Canto joke in racial terms it probably has more to do with geographical location and ones family culture. Back in the days when I frequented open mics (then called hoots) there were a few African American performers whom I suspect came from the musical theatre world, using "trained" voices while attempting to sing Blues. They had the cognoscenti rolling in the aisles, but the uninitiated often thought they were just dandy. I don't know what any of this means.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Richard on April 26, 2008, 08:08:10 AM
Mr O'M
Quote
Of course my experience pertains to the time in my life before I started experiencing rapid fire re-puberty attacks, which kept hacking away at my vocal chords, depositing patches of hair in unlikely places, removing it from others and inducing frequent fits of priapic insanity.

Ha ha a wonderful description of it and almost, if I may say so, quite surreal in an English humoUr type of way :)
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 26, 2008, 08:43:25 AM
Quote
if I may say so, quite surreal in an English humoUr type of way

The Pythons were the one of the only things that helped me stay sane (?!@!?) in disco era New York City.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Richard on April 27, 2008, 11:51:12 AM
An interesting thought to see you in disco, even more interesting to see me in one  >:(
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 27, 2008, 04:11:20 PM
I was never in one. Its just that it infected the music and culture of my contemporaries. Python was like a refuge of sanity.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Doc White on April 27, 2008, 11:49:21 PM
There are quite a few good blues singers around. Paul Rishell has been mentioned and (at the risk of opening a wound rather than a can of worms) so is CW Stoneking. By the way he is halfway through a US tour.
I like Roy Book Binder's vocals even though he's not a great singer. Tim Williams is also pretty good. Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Taj Mahal are great but the bloke who seems to me to sound closer than anyone else is Tom Waits.
Chris
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 28, 2008, 04:50:57 AM
Everyones entitled to their opinion of course, but Waits has never sounded like anything other than an actor doing a part when singing, to my ears. It never seems to be an integral part of the music, instead it feels like a stylistic imposition ON the music. KWIM? (Know what I Mean?) There are plenty of good singers around though including some of the ones you mention.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: CF on April 28, 2008, 06:13:35 AM
All of the above points are good & of course everyone has their own opinion & taste.
I would like to stress the point that O'Muck just made about Waits who, I agree, sounds to me like he's been doing a life-long impression of a blues singer or what-have-you. I think Waits is a great artist: performer & songwriter. I would almost consider him a modern-day minstrel in his approach to Americana sounds. Also CW Stoneking, who I also think is a very talented musician with an uncanny ability to mimic the oldtime blues & folk sound. I would put him in the modern minstrel category as well. [*edited to add . . . I personally think the minstrel tradition is very compelling altho' it has deserved negative historical/racial connotations. Much of the music is very powerful & entertaining. I, for one, absolutely love Al Jolson's music]. In fact I find there are a lot of people in their 20s-30s nowadays with a passion for prewar music who are doing some really incredible impressions of the old vocal & instrumental sounds. One of my favourite things to do when I'm drinking & jamming with my buds is to try to sing as much like Charlie Patton as possible. It usually gets a pretty good chuckle from them. I've noticed that the younger crowd finds the oldtime act much more compelling than the personal take on the country blues. So if I wore a bowler & an old suit & had more of an act I would probably get more work, to be honest. But when I lament the state of contemporary country blues singing I don't really think of these type of artists. I like what these cats lay down & I admire their talent but I think it's a different thing than someone singing directly about their life & ideas & still retaining a 21st century personality & presentation with a strong but not so pervasive prewar component. Does that make sense?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: tommersl on April 28, 2008, 11:17:28 AM
I've been watching a lot of country blues stuff on youtube lately.
Too bad when people ask about note-for-note accuracy when performing this music they never mean the vocal.
I see unending praise for musicians who play a mean guitar but who's singing is so poor it makes the guitar part void, for me. & I don't mean kinda bad singing, I mean nigh atrocious, as if they're not even listening to the song or . . .
If Son House, Skip James, Leadbelly . . . even Blind Blake who's vocals are often criticized, sang as poorly as some of todays' players we probably would be talking A LOT less about them.
When is there going to be a country blues VOCAL revival?
This is a major, major problem with the country blues situation today as I see it.
Sorry for hijacking your thread reuellis but I spent a long night shaking my head at a hundred videos of amazing guitar players & probably not a single great singer.


There are good Country Blues singers, check out Wesley Jefferson. http://www.livebluesworld.com/profile/WesleyJefferson
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 28, 2008, 01:34:53 PM
Leon Redbone was the first of this breed I do believe. People went absolutely ape shit for his whole routine and persona. He's a terrific guitar player but I find the persona thing a bit hard to take after a song or two. I even had occasion to tell him so one drunken evening. Nevertheless when he came on the scene, it was hard going for  other revivalists trying to get work, all the clubs wanted Leon! CW Stoneking is an awesome mimic but one song is plenty for me, thanks.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Johnm on April 28, 2008, 02:21:47 PM
Hi all,
One present-day singer I have not heard in years, but who I thought sounded great when I heard him years ago, both as a singer and player, is John Mooney.  He was really a terrific singer when I heard him in the late '70s, very strong, natural and relaxed sounding and a fine player.  A stand-out singer, though, I thought at the time, and I have no reason to think he isn't still a fine singer.
I think there are actually a lot of good singers around, and I tend to like the ones who don't sound too concerned with being idiomatically correct.  For some reason, I found vocal imitation a lot harder to take than instrumental imitation.
All best,
Johnm
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Doc White on April 28, 2008, 05:04:12 PM
John Mooney is still around. Apparently he had a few personal demons to conquer but he came out with a CD called All I Want a few years back that is pretty good.
Re this mimic thing - how do you decide if it's the real thing or not? To take it completely out of the CB realm for a tick - is Diana Krall mimicing white jazz divas from the 50's or is she doing her thing in that style or Wayne Hancock mimicing Bob Wills or Bob Dylan doing a Woody Guthrie. Everybody draws on their musical forebears. Mimicing to me means you copy someone as opposed to adopting a style or a persona. Don't forget Waits and Stoneking and other working performers are in show business as was Emmet Miller, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. What attracted people to those performers initially was the show, then the record sales came. It's about getting work so you can continue to do your art. All those publicity shots of CB performers feature them wearing suits, not overalls and t-shirts, because that was part of the show business razzamatazz that was required to play live and sell records. By all reports Charlie Patton was a great showman which is why he worked a lot. Audiences want to be entertained and some performers can do it by getting up on stage and being themselves (Leo Kottke comes to mind) but a lot rely on developing some sort of stagecraft which may include developing a performance persona. To me this doesn't diminish their work but adds another dimension to the music.

Cheers,
Chris
 
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 28, 2008, 05:42:31 PM
Good points very cogently presented Chris. Shit! Now I'll have to work harder to draw distinctions. We know from what happened to many of the Blues players who didn't "make" it in the first wave of the twenties-thirties, that the Blues had a life as a private and personal form, apart from any sort of public entertainment. There is I think a difference between serving a studious (and maybe ridiculous) apprenticeship as Bob Dylan did, and arriving at an entire replacement personality for whoever it is you actually are. The question then becomes, who's singing?
If its an artificial construct performing, what is there for us to connect with on a deep level?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: bighollowtwang on April 28, 2008, 06:43:28 PM
Hi all,
One present-day singer I have not heard in years, but who I thought sounded great when I heard him years ago, both as a singer and player, is John Mooney.  He was really a terrific singer when I heard him in the late '70s, very strong, natural and relaxed sounding and a fine player.  A stand-out singer, though, I thought at the time, and I have no reason to think he isn't still a fine singer.
John Mooney is still around and he's one of my favorite singers.

Unfortunately there's not much of him on youtube, but these two are my favorites:
http://youtube.com/watch?v=bAlVchj4q1I
http://youtube.com/watch?v=hoEsCQ36uVs

For anyone interested there's a streaming video of an entire show here:
http://www.kennedycenter.com/programs/millennium/artist_detail.cfm?artist_id=JOHNMOONEY#
Well worth watching if you have an hour to kill.

Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Doc White on April 28, 2008, 10:36:33 PM
Hi Mr O'Muck
Quote
If its an artificial construct performing, what is there for us to connect with on a deep level?
There are plenty of times when we do that - inspired performances on film or on stage; great novels; works of art. Art is by it's very nature representational and what you connect with is the work not necessarily the person making the art. One of my favourite films is Hud and I really like Paul Newman's performance and really like the story but I'm sure Paul Newman is not Hud. Sure, there are bits of him in there but he constructed a character that was believable and which I reacted to in a kind of visceral way. Some people grow into their stage persona. I think this is probably the case with Tom Waits but to give the guy his due he has produced over 20 albums, been in a couple of flims, written a Broadway stage show or two and all of it has been a very high artistic standard. On that count alone I reckon he's the real deal.
In 1980 I worked in Andy's Guitar Store in London and met a lot of "upper echelon" musicians and most of them were very different from how they presented on stage. The one who struck me as the most unlike his stage persona was Rory Gallagher who was as quiet as a mouse and very unassuming. The one who was most like his stage persona was Elvis Costello.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Stuart on April 28, 2008, 11:39:36 PM
"'All the world's a stage'--and its all an act." Take it any way you like.

Excellent topic and comments, Chris and Mr. O.

But is it a difference of kind or degree?

Speaking of high art, here's a YouTube clip of Tom Waits, Martin Mull, and Fred Willard in performance.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_0E7x3Nqys

My apologies for the re-post to those who have seen it before.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 29, 2008, 04:42:12 AM
I guess I believe there is a difference between theatre and music performance. Theatre, certainly can be extremely affecting and moving. It is a different animal however than music and music performance. It has always seemed to me that the greatest music performances I've seen have little or nothing to do with theatrics.
People totally focused on their music have little left over for presentation*.

*Except James Brown!
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Chezztone on April 30, 2008, 02:16:19 PM
Re: John Mooney, whom someone mentioned stands out from the pack. One reason might be that he studied with Son House, when both were living in Rochester in the 1970s.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: dave stott on April 30, 2008, 04:32:17 PM

THIS is the reason why some people should not sing blues songs

skip james - crow jane on ukulele

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTr3rJOpweU
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 30, 2008, 05:49:49 PM
Ya mean you don't LIKE that?@!?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: CF on April 30, 2008, 08:16:46 PM
Quote
THIS is the reason why some people should not sing blues songs

skip james - crow jane on ukulele

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTr3rJOpweU (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTr3rJOpweU)

Honestly, I like that more than any number of guys with guitars doing pale attempts at the original. Maybe I'm really perverse 
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on April 30, 2008, 09:06:21 PM
Personally I think that constructing hierarchies is for bad people. I think everything is exactly the same all the time...Brittany Spears has exactly the same artistic merit as Robert Pete Williams.....except for on the odd Wednesday here and there. Yep thats the ticket...yep thats it all right...all the freakin' same. ;) everything is everything KWIM (know what I mean)? Or, no, what a minute, evrything is NOTHING! Thats it. Everything is nothing.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Bricktown Bob on April 30, 2008, 09:31:26 PM
But on the other hand, nothing is everything, so where does that get us?
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Doc White on May 01, 2008, 04:43:15 AM
Back to the topic
I reckon one reason we don't sing like we used is that there is much less community singing. We're all too isolated - hooked up to MP3 players and the www and we don't get out and commune with one another vocally.
Another thing that definitely does not lend itself to the development of that rough hewn singing style (black or white) is the quality and power of PA's. You just don't have to strain to be heard.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Mr.OMuck on May 01, 2008, 07:10:39 AM
Chris, in my neighborhood I'm surrounded by freakin' opera singers! You can't walk down the goddamn street without one of these diaphragmatic freaks nearly knocking you off your feet with a blast of Puccinni or Verdi! All hours of the night and day! If i have to listen to one more Sigfried dying I'm gonna have to move! No problem with PAs 'round here!
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: uncle bud on May 01, 2008, 08:36:34 AM
LOL. I've walked through neighbourhoods like that. It's freakin' scary.

Chris, I agree. The opportunities for just plain old singing in daily life are fewer these days. Singing is so often a performance now with all that implies: mics, cameras, YouTube, Idol, MySpace, whatever. No wonder it freaks me out.  :P
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Slack on May 01, 2008, 08:54:56 AM
I agree as well.  To state the obvious, the standard of living is higher and the pace of life is faster now... more distractions and lots more technology to bring us entertainment of all kinds.

Not sure this analogy holds, but without poverty, the French Quarter in New Orleans would never have been preserved - it would have been bulldozed for new condos.  These old musical styles might not be possible or fully realizable without the pace and poverty of the times. 

Hmm, there should be a better way to state this - but it escapes me.     
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Michael Cardenas on July 06, 2010, 12:40:12 AM
When is there going to be a country blues VOCAL revival?
This is a major, major problem with the country blues situation today as I see it.
The 60's revival brought the riffs and it was compounded by many electric guitarists raving, "This is what you need to learn." My guess is the folk scene at the time was exhibiting a care for vocal presentation since the guitar parts weren't rocket science. So if you have the folk scene latching onto vocal ideal, then the Blues revival is a parallel scene championing the understatement of guitar prowess. The irony to me is in that guitar playing in a Blues tradition travelled similar currents Old Time music did to get to modern repertoire, but we all know this as Country Blues fans. It makes sense to demand singers live up to the standard someone like Leadbelly set, but we could demand the same of singers in respect to Jimmie Rodgers. The bar Rodgers set has probably been given more attention. I'm not of the mind to say it's any more easily accomplished or less worthy of praise.

I cannot admit Blues singing is or should be entirely raw. Maybe unbridled at times, but there needs be control or at best awareness. It might be difficult for modern singers to approach it because frankly if you commit yourself then you have to accept and achieve an almost hallucinogenic physical state. If you weather the storm of singing wide open for an hour or more you will accept how impossible it is and to sing that way while remaining grafted to a guitar, producing one congruent intrument is what made it art then and now.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: Blue Poodle on July 25, 2010, 03:26:45 PM
The old country blues singers that we know of were mostly pros, which I take it to mean that they were the best of their generation.  Given that they performed in acoustic settings, they had to be able to play and sing loudly in order to heard, and to be successful.  So, not only was there a selection for best appeal and talent, but maybe more importantly, a selection for performers with the best volume.

Performers today just don't have the same requirements.  If you play or sing quietly, using a microphone, a pickup and an amp will often allow you to get away with singing quietly and introspectively.  Although everyone has some natural ability to sing, singing the blues like the people we admire is a technique that has to be learned.   Without that kind of training and learning, it's hard to duplicate the wide open, full-throated, field holler sound of a Son House.
Title: Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
Post by: jugblowr on August 25, 2010, 08:04:02 AM
Important discussion here.  I'm a bit late to the party, but at least I made it.

When I work up a song, I go to the source and really dig into it and try to absorb the vocal phrasing and inflections.  Then I try to make these work in my own voice.  I'll sing the song over and over, without a guitar, searching for the right way to do it in 'my voice'.  I'm not trying to duplicate the original version, but I'm trying to channel it well enough so that someone who knows it will appreciate what I'm doing with it. 

I think this music really works best when it's out on the edge, beyond the comfort zone.  I am trying to find my way into the song, rather than trying to make it fit me.  When I play out with a group we set up a condenser mic, gather around it and play.  This adds some pressure to me as the lead vocalist, but it keeps the band and the audience more engaged.  There's nowhere to hide, so we've got to do it right!
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