Country Blues => Weenie Campbell Main Forum => Topic started by: Johnm on June 12, 2011, 12:41:30 PM

Title: Repetition
Post by: Johnm on June 12, 2011, 12:41:30 PM
Hi all,
I've been thinking a lot recently about the role of repetition in Country Blues accompaniment, most especially after being reminded of how effective a compositional device it is by frankie's recent rendition of Robert Wilkins' "Rolling Stone", over in the Performance Corner.  I have come to think of repetition as being an essential element in the language of the Country Blues, in whatever era it was or is being performed.

If you think of notably strong recordings of Country Blues down through the years, a telling majority employ some kind of signature lick which answers the vocal phrases, the wordless voice talked about here elsewhere in the past.  There are very few performances which employ a wide variety of licks in a scattershot fashion.  I think this is because when you're talking about the instrumental side of a Country Blues performance, most often, the identity of the song being played, in particular, resides in that portion of the accompaniment which is being repeated.  No repetition = no distinctive identity.  The repeated lick identifies the song because it is memorable in and of itself.  There is a beautiful conceptual economy in this, too; it takes so little compositional material to make a strong blues, and the stronger the original idea, the better it bears up under repetition.

There is a tendency in recent years, influenced I think by modern electric blues, to value variety in licks almost for its own sake, or as a sign of instrumental mastery and imagination on the part of the player.  The problem with using a non-repeating variety of licks in the instrumental response role is that the musical effect of the approach is to make all the songs subjected to this treatment sound more like each other than they would if each song had its own signature lick.  So it is that using the same approach for providing response licks to any number of songs results in a repertoire in which the songs sound generic and musically interchangeable, rather than a variety of distinct musical statements.  It's the kind of thing that makes some people say "All Blues sound the same." 

Another problem with the Random Lick Generator approach to blues accompaniment is that there is never any sense, in listening to music made with this approach, that the licks being played in the response role are responding specifically to the words being sung, or were selected specifically to accompany that one song.  So it is that the song being sung and the responses being played end up feeling like two things existing side by side rather than two components of one whole.

Of course, signature licks in some instances end up being associated not just with a particular song, but also with a particular player.  Lonnie Johnson and Albert King come to mind in this regard.  To the extent that a player utilizes a signature lick across his/her repertoire, as opposed to using it for a particular song, the musical result is an identifiable personal style, with the lick acting as a kind of brand.  Hear the lick, hear the sound, and you can identify the player.  But even with such distinctive signature licks as those that Lonnie Johnson, Albert King, and other blues players have employed, those licks were played for the first time in a particular context.

It's relatively easy to change this music from what has gone on before, because the building blocks that go into making the music are accessible to hear and use.  If you choose to change things, though, it may be worth considering:
   * Does your new approach have the compositional rigor, clarity and identifiability of the original?
   * Does the new approach link the instrumental responses to the lyrics in something other than a "fill in the blanks" fashion?
   * Are you ending up with a musical piece that will be heard as a stand-alone entity or one of countless others of the same type?
All best,
Title: Re: Repetition
Post by: lindy on June 13, 2011, 09:09:08 AM

I have lots of not-yet-fully-coherent thoughts running through my mind about the connection between country blues repetition and African drumming, mostly about how African drummers will play the same rhythm for extended periods of time. They will inject minor variations into their patterns that dancers and experienced listeners will immediately pick up on, but that outsiders might never catch. Of course, most of our heroes never had the opportunity to stretch out like that during recording sessions, the red light in the studio started flashing at the 2:50 mark. I've always wanted to go back in time to hear someone like Mance Lipscomb play at an all-night dance to hear what kinds of variations he injected into his basic riffs and grooves.

A couple of weeks back at Folklife Festival in Seattle there were many many examples of how repetition works in a range of musical genres. On one occasion I listened to a dozen djembe players layering different rhythmic patterns for free-form dancing in the grass; then walked over to the contradance stage where I heard a band play two reels for 10 or 15 minutes, putting springs into the steps of a couple-hundred dancers in long lines executing precise, formal, and repetitive dance steps; then walked over to another stage where a live salsa band was somewhere in-between: congas/timbales/bass putting out a repetitive groove, horn section sometimes doing the same, sometimes soloing, dancers mid-way between formal repetition and creative free-form moves. No three-minute limitations in any of those groups I heard during my walkabout. It takes time for repetition to get into the bones.

I'll repeat what I mentioned in a post a week ago about the non-country blues music I am working on, and how my three African teachers all emphasized tempo as central to their music. So at the risk of stating the obvious, I will add this to your short list of things to consider if you're interested in changing the music: does it make your body want to sway or your foot want to tap?

Personal taste, but for me the form you mention of a vocal line followed by a repertoire of licks works best in slow, Delta style blues. At the moment I can't think of an example of a song that relies on a repetitive signature lick at a really slow tempo, someone please give me an example if you can think of one.

Title: Re: Repetition
Post by: Stumblin on June 14, 2011, 04:32:40 AM
Both interesting posts.
I like the repetitive nature of country blues, I get bored by too many flashy guitar licks. Maybe that's just because I can't do them very well?
I also do African derived drumming, playing Repinique in a samba band, that's all about repetition of grooves & we get a lot of variation in how the break patterns are timed. I'll think more about your posts tonight at rehearsal.
Title: Re: Repetition
Post by: Rambler on June 23, 2011, 03:27:37 PM
As Paul Geremia has pointed out, you can approach a tune like Statesboro Blues as a classic piece of music or riff on the changes, which reduces it to another random blues.

Coming to the country blues from an urban blues background, I was quickly taken by the melodic possibilities in these tunes.  I had never got very interested in the BB/Albert approach to accompaniment anyway. I gravitated to guys like Freddie King and Magic Sam, whose tunes had defining riffs. Studying Lemon Jefferson, Gary Davis and Lightnin' Hopkins has really opened up the fret board its melodic possibilities.  Once you get a taste for it, its hard to look back. So, yeh.

Title: Re: Repetition
Post by: Bald Melon Jefferson on June 24, 2011, 10:07:14 AM
Another thoughtful and insightful posting John. Something I need to remember in my usual "More is More" approach. I don't sing and I'm not a good memorizer. My usual playing/practicing/noddling/whatever it is I do is to start out on a song for a few bars then....after that... anything and everything I know in that key (and sometimes not in that key) is fair game. It makes it fun and interesting for me, the minutes and hours slip away and it has helped me learn the fretboard in my own A.D.D. way. Granted, many of my "discoveries" would have been more quickly facilitated by a few lessons or playing with others. But my point? This may be a great way to practice but not so much for entertaining the masses. On the rare occation when there are real live humans listening to me, (not just the dog and cat), nothing will hold their interest, get the toes tapping and impress them more than a single riff at a steady tempo. Something as simple as for example, as hanging on the E chord forever with an occational A thrown in for variety.  Simple repetition rules the reptillian brain. The natives get restless when I try to stretch-out and impress (impress myself). To paraphrase something John said to me the one time we met up at Weenie Camp, "I don't judge how much I like a song by how easy or hard it is to play".
Thanks, I really really enjoy this forum.
Title: Re: Repetition
Post by: Johnm on May 22, 2016, 06:40:22 AM
Hi all,
This is for Lindy, about five years late:  You asked in your post in this thread for an example of a song with a repeated signature lick which is done at a very slow tempo.  R. L. Burnside's "Like A Bird Without A Feather" would qualify, as would a lot of Lightnin' Hopkins tunes like "Penitentiary Blues", "Crawlin' Black Snake", et al.
All best,
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