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Author Topic: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?  (Read 16372 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« on: December 22, 2007, 01:26:00 PM »
Hi all,
I've been thinking for a long time about how the character of the blues changed over time as the players' treatment of time evolved to address issues of musical fashion, new dance crazes and other related factors.  Much of what determines a music's fundamental rhythmic feel is the first subdivision of a single beat:  does the music divide the beat evenly, as in a straight eighth feel, or does the beat split unevenly, with the note falling on the beat getting two thirds of the beat and the + of the beat getting the remaining third of the beat, in a broken triplet or "swung eighth" feel?
Looking at the music of various musicians of the Pre-War generations of Country Blues musicians who recorded, you find some players who fall in the "straight eighth" camp, some players who play either straight or swung eighth notes, depending on the feel of the song being played, and probably some who worked exclusively in the "swung eight" camp, though I haven't identified any there yet.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, membership in the "straight eighth" camp is often found in older musicians, or musicians who had a strong pre-Blues element to their repertoire.  Henry Thomas, Mississippi John Hurt, and Frank Stokes, for instance, at least on the basis of the recorded evidence, never played a swung eighth note in their lives.  A factor in these musicians not swinging their eighth notes is their preference for a cut time (2/2) feel--they didn't play in a four-beats-to-the-measure feel.  I know from teaching, that in our present "Post-shuffle Era", it is really tough for some people to play straight eighth notes, but without straight eighth notes, the rhythmic feel of these players can not be achieved. 

Blind Blake played a lot of his music with straight eighths, though the tendency of many modern players (with the exception of Ari Eisinger) is to swing the eighth notes more than Blake did.  The one area of Blake's repertoire where he consistently swung his eighth notes was on his medium tempo blues, like "Black Dog Blues" or "One Time Blues", where he swings his eights from beginning to end.  Not coincidentally, all of these songs are played with a four feel, in 12/8, in which each measure has four beats, and each beat is divided into a triplet.  When Blake launches into one of his long runs, he may, in fact, play several consecutive beats in which he hits all three notes of the beat's subdivision.  More often, he is breaking up the pulse into 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +, and just swinging those eighth notes.  Blake's approach to playing time on these songs in 12/8 does not seem forward-looking, though, for it did not survive into the next generation of players.  Rather, it seems more of a relict of the Classic Blues era, and the small ensembles that backed the great female singers in that style.

Charlie Patton is a fascinating figure in this regard, as he was in so many others.  Prior to his 1934 sessions, he recorded no songs with a swung eighth feel, but the 1934 sessions produced four songs on which Charlie swung his eighth notes:  "34 Blues", "Poor Me", and "Yellow Bee" and "Mind Reader Blues", on which he backed Bertha Lee's vocals.  Charlie's treatment is more forward-looking than was Blake's, and on "Yellow Bee" and "Mind Reader Blues", in particular, he is essentially playing shuffles. 

I believe Charlie Patton's move into a swung eighth feel shows a musical indebtedness to the recordings of Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, who were recording shuffles as early as 1929.  I think that Memphis Minnie was in many ways often on the cutting edge of what was coming next in the blues.  She was one of the eariest Country Blues player to be metrically consistent and to adhere strictly to the formal constraints of the 12-Bar Blues, with each bar consisting of 4 beats.  More to the point of this discussion, she was early in her adopting of the shuffle feel.  A quick listen to the old Blues Classic album, "Memphis Minnie, Vol. 2, Early Recordings with Kansas Joe McCoy" shows several shuffles, "New Bumble Bee", "Plymouth Rock", and "Memphis Minnie-jitis", in a program that also includes several songs with a straight eighth feel in cut time.  Minnie's shuffle feel is a far cry from Blake's 12/8 feel.  Blake's playing sounds like it could have accompanied a soft shoe dancer, whereas Minnie's feel is altogether more driving, for it is a more insistent four, landing very heavily on each beat.  It really doesn't differ substantially from shuffles as played by modern electric blues players.  If there is someone who recorded shuffles earlier than Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, I'd like to know who it was, but absent that information, it seems Minnie must be given the credit/blame for the present day continued popularity of the shuffle in the blues.

The playing of Lonnie Johnson, especially on his slow numbers, shows an approach to playing swung eighth notes at slow tempos that has survived into present day blues playing, as has Lonnie's practice of playing time relatively simply behind his singing and then launching into florid fills in between his vocal phrases.  His signature run is a string of triplets.  Just as Minnie's playing of shuffles has survived into present-day electric blues, so has Lonnie's approach to playing slow blues.  It is essentially what B. B. King does (though B. B. stops playing altogether while singing).

Whether the ways that Blues musicians' playing of eight notes was in response to the wants and needs of dancers, or led the dancers' way, (which seems more likely in the case of innovators) once a feel had been established as the appropriate way to back the dancing people wanted to do, players who wanted to keep working needed either to honor the dancers' wishes with regard to groove or come up with something cool and catchy enough to be an acceptable substitute.  Rhythmic innovation is no more common than melodic or harmonic innovation.  There are plenty of strong players who are comfortable working in a pre-existing groove framework, but musicians like James Brown are unfortunately all too rare.

Are there other trail blazers out there in the Country Blues or people whose treatment of time worked at some odd remove from the other musicians of their era?  I'd be interested to hear other thoughts on the topic.
All best,
Johnm       
« Last Edit: December 22, 2007, 10:56:16 PM by Johnm »

Offline Slack

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #1 on: December 22, 2007, 03:02:06 PM »
Merry Christmas Johnm! 

Wow, it will take me a bit of time to absorb your post - but I can tell you that I have been thoroughly hooked on the swung eighths for a long time.   However, my initial reaction is, that I believe one should play (or listen) to straight eighths songs on occasion -- in order to appreciate the swung eight even more.    :D

And glad to see you connected the discussion to dancers -- as there is no doubt in my mind that dancers led the way.  The mob rules.

Offline dj

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #2 on: December 22, 2007, 03:46:57 PM »
Quote
I've been thinking for a long time...

I like it when you think, John!   :)

All I have on this so far is a few questions.  Your earliest example of swinging eighth notes is Memphis Minnie in 1929.  Does anyone know when jazz began to swing?  What dances did people dance to swung jazz and blues?  Is there any connection?
 

Offline Johnm

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #3 on: December 22, 2007, 11:13:42 PM »
Merry Christmas to you too, John D!  I also like the swung eighth note feel, but have a special fondness for the straight eighth feel as well, maybe because I particularly like pre-Blues material.  I should say, too, that when I say that Henry Thomas, John Hurt, Frank Stokes or other musicians did not swing their eighth notes, I'm not casting aspersions of any kind on their treatment of rhythm--just making a technical observation.  These were all players with tremendous rhythmic vitality and snap, who happened not to swing their eighth notes.  If you have ever heard one of their songs performed with swung eighths (John Hurt's "Richland Woman Blues" is often played this way by present-day performers) all of the crispness and snap that John Hurt brought to the song is gone, replaced with a kind of bland bounciness.

Thanks also for your good words, dj.  Actually, I didn't say that Memphis Minnie was the earliest player to swing her eighth notes, since Blake pre-dated her and tended to swing his eight notes on his medium tempo material, but Minnie is the earliest player I have noticed playing in a shuffle rhythm.  As to when Jazz players began to swing their eighth notes, I'm unfortunately too weak on early Jazz to say, but there are people who frequent the site, like Richard, who probably have a good sense of when swung eighths became something frequently encountered rather than a rarity in Jazz.  We'll see where it all goes.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: December 22, 2007, 11:15:06 PM by Johnm »

Offline lindy

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #4 on: December 23, 2007, 08:25:34 AM »

Seems to me that we need to add ?swing? to the ever-expanding list of slippery concepts that we like to talk about on this site. There?s that technical definition of ?the note falling on the beat getting two thirds of the beat and the + of the beat getting the remaining third of the beat,? then there?s the more generic, ?anything that makes you move your feet or body in a smooth, funky manner.?

Every time I watch the Legends of Country Blues Guitarists video with a friend, I always point out John Hurt?s shoulders while he?s playing Spike Driver?s. He?s definitely not doing the technical version of swung eights, but his body is moving according to my generic definition. That was in the 1960s; if you listen to his 1928 version, the straight-eighths feel is much more pronounced.

I am blessed by living in a city where there are a half-dozen bands that play nothing but Dixieland Jazz. In many people?s minds, the best is Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band. Dr. White is a wonderful combination of a professor who has spent his career analyzing all aspects of the music, but when he?s up on stage he leaves all that analytical stuff behind and, to my ears, ?swings with a straight-eight feel.?

His banjo player strums in eighths, the drummer hits his bass drum in eighths and either his snare or cymbal in straight eighths, all while the soloists are playing riffs and slurs that would fit equally well with a straight or swung eighths rhythm section. All of us swing dancers are having a ball on the dance floor.

I feel that I?m on the verge of using a lot of words to say nothing, so let?s see if I can remember the point I wanted to make when I started this reply. I think it was to remind us all once again about that concept of ?continuum.? At some point the contemporaries of Buddy Bolden took the feel of ragtime and jazzed it up by really emphasizing the second and fourth beats. And at some point in the ensuing twenty years some musicians started messing with the technical stuff of 2/3 + 1/3 of the beat, and the rest is Louis Armstrong.

I?m reminded of the thread that JohnM started last year about how country blues didn?t go beyond a certain point in chordal complexity?I think that was the term he used, forgive me otherwise. I remember my first reaction was, ?It did, we just started calling it something else?jazz, ragtime, whatever.?

It may be the same thing with the straight-swung eighths question. A lot had to do with whether you were a guitarist working in isolation in a specific section of Mississippi or had access to a record player or some other way of hearing the music that was moving up and down the Mississippi River between New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago. I also think that some of the old country blues players who leaned toward straight eighths did anything but straight eighths with their singing, and the result fits the generic definition of swing.

This is fun stuff to mull over. The local non-commercial station, WWOZ (wwoz.org) does a traditional jazz program 2-3 times a week from around 9 to noon. When I have the chance to listen, I sometimes try to figure out where the swing feel that eventually morphed into the dominant rhythm of the 30s and 40s got started. I suspect that the musicians who built the bridge listened to a lot of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, but I?ll save that for later.

Merry Christmas to all from the land of Creole Santas.

Lindy

Offline Richard

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #5 on: December 23, 2007, 11:16:18 AM »
Johnm, a happy Xmas and to all.

What an excellent topic, I shall have to put my thinking cap on and see what I can find as the earliest example jazz wise!

The Atlantic gives us some different slightly music terminolgy on occasion and this is one instance - I have assumed that by swing eigths you refer to what I was taught to call "dotted quavers" as in a shuffle.
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Johnm

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #6 on: December 23, 2007, 06:45:36 PM »
Hi all,
I think if you listen to John Hurt without watching him simultaneously, Lindy, you'll find that his time in the '60s was as it was in the '20s, cut time with a straight eighth note subdivision, though he favored faster tempos as a younger man (as do pretty much all younger men).  This is certainly not to say that his music didn't move--it moved like crazy and was very danceable as is a lot of cut time music with straight eighths, but rather that it did not ever swing in the way that duple meters with an underlying triple subdivision swing.  It takes the tension between the twos and threes to get the kind of swing that a blues shuffle has. 
I think that the Ellington title "It Don't Mean  A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" made people think that you are automatically being perjorative if you describe a piece of music as not swinging, but if you are talking about music with a straight eighth feel and subdivision of the beat, you're making a simple statement of fact.  There is plenty of highly rhythmic music, also extremely danceable, that does not swing, Bossa Nova and Samba being two prime examples.  People dance their asses off to Samba, but it does not swing, and I know some hard core American jazzers who don't care for it for that reason.
I don't equate danceability with swinging is what it amounts to, I guess.  I think there are tons of danceable feels that don't swing, including lots of wild meters that are employed in Balkan folk music, like 7/8 and 11/8.  I suspect that a lot of people use "swinging" and "danceable" interchangeably, but as a musician I don't think that cuts the mustard definitionally.
Merry Christmas to you, too, Richard, and I'll be interested to hear what you come up with from early Jazz.  Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the note names as you described them, but if you are talking about the beat subdivision that a shuffle employs, we're saying the same thing with different terms.
All best,
Johnm     

Offline Rivers

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #7 on: December 23, 2007, 08:25:35 PM »
John, I confess to not understanding the terms here. Swing is something I do, know when I'm doing it, and have no real idea of what I'm doing, beyond accenting the 2 and 4!

I'll study the examples you've given. It would be really educational for me if you could cite one or more tunes that are archetypal illustrations of each of the various terms.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #8 on: December 23, 2007, 09:43:15 PM »
John, is it possible for you to go to one of Memphis Minnie's cuts on document CD volume one and give us an exact time marker as to where one of these swung eighths occurs?  "I need my hands on it" or in this case my ears if ya' know what I mean. Only if you have time an' all.
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Offline RobBob

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #9 on: December 24, 2007, 06:29:31 AM »
Why not look outside blues for the answer.  At the same time as the blues players you discuss, jazz was becoming more popular and was being heard via recordings and performances.  They had moved away from straight eights and were transforming the rag tradition into what became known as swing b doing it.  There is not doubt that there was an audience for both times and traditions.  It should be note that what set that Carolina boy, Earl Scruggs apart from other banjo pickers was his extensive use of swinging eights and 16ths!. He had obviously spent a lot of time listening to swing.

So  the influence of which you speak became omnipresent by the late 30's and early 40's and eventually evolved into rock and roll and later the preponderance that became known as rock.

You can see the change in Big Bill and Josh White's music too.  Lemon Jefferson had a swing in his timing when soloing against his own rhythm.

Musically the thirties and forties had to be a very exciting time.  The chunky twenties gave way to a harder, faster paced music.  All of this reflects something greater in the society and the pace of life as music filled some psychic need for the audience and the players.

Merry Christmas y'all,

RobBob

Offline Richard

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #10 on: December 24, 2007, 07:13:22 AM »
This is proving harder than I thought to come up with an early jazz shuffle, there is stuff from mid\late 30s onwards but I want to find something earlier!

Johnm attached is what I was calling dotted quavers and was taught as a shuffle..... are we are on the same planet, is this what you call swing eights?
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline Johnm

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #11 on: December 26, 2007, 12:19:06 PM »
Hi all,
Thanks for your responses and I'm sorry to be slow getting back to the thread.  Thanks for your posting of the actual note values, Richard.  Now I know what you were describing earlier.  What you showed, which we in the States would describe as a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note, is not really the swung eighth feel.  To represent the swung eighth feel, imagine a measure in 4/4 with four eighth note (quaver?) triplets.  Now, assume that in each of the triplets, the first two notes are tied, so that only the first and third notes of the triplets get separate attacks, and the middle note of the triplet is attached to the first note of the triplet durationally via the tie.  That is the swung eighth feel.  If you can visualize it (sorry I can't do the attachment), you can see that it does not divide the beat equally, as in a straight eighth feel, but rather has the note that falls on the beat get two thirds of the triplet, via the tied second note of the triplet, with the + of the beat falling on the third note of the triplet.  That uneven distribution of the beat is what results in the swung eighth feel.
I realize that for those of you who aren't conversant with rhythmic notation this isn't all that much help.  I am away from my record collection now, but I believe that if you have access to "Memphis Minnie-jitis Blues", Minnie plays a fill after that the first vocal phrase that starts on the + of the second measure and then goes into the third and fourth meaures a la:

   | 1 + 2 + 3 + triplet | 1 + triplet 3 + 4 + |

All of the places where the beat is simply divided into "1 + 2 + " etc., are perfect demonstrations of the swung eighth feel.  Where the triplets occur, Minnie is playing every subdivision of the beat implied by the underlying triple feel.  I hope this example works better for those of you who requested an example in a song context.  I'll try and think of another example in the context of a song that everyone might be more likely to have or to have heard.  Whoops, just thought of a song with a swung eighth feel throughout:  Rev. Davis's "Death Don't Have No Mercy".  If you can hear the time of that song in your head, you can tell that it is utterly different from the time of Henry Thomas, John Hurt or Frank Stokes.
All best,
Johnm
       

Offline Johnm

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #12 on: January 03, 2008, 11:52:47 PM »
Hi all,
One musician whose treatment of musical time was as distinctive as his treatment of blues harmony and his vocal sound was Skip James.  If you listen to Skip's original recording of "Devil Got My Woman", you can hear him messing with the subdivisions of the pulse and altering his accenting as he goes in a way that very few of his contemporaries ever approached.  "Devil Got My Woman" is played with a 12/8 meter, 4 beats per measure with each beat having an underlying triplet feel.  As the beat is split, it breaks into the broken triplet, or the swung eighth feel mentioned earlier in this thread.
At the conclusion of Skip's first vocal phrase, though, he plays a fill in which he goes for a deeper subdivision of the pulse, a la:

   |  1 + 2a+a 3 + 4a+a | 1 + 2a+a 3 + 4 +|

Where Skip splits the second and fourth beats of the measure into four notes (in a vocalized version, 2 uh and uh), he is eliminating the swung eighth feel, and going for a staight up and down feel where the beat is divided into four sixteenth notes rather than the triplet characteristic of the 12/8 meter.  This movement back and fourth between the swung eighth feel that predominates throughout most of the song and the odd sound created by the elimination of the swinging subdivision of the beat contributes every bit as much to the unsettled, ominous feeling of the music as does Skip's eerie vocal tone and his unusual treatment of Blues harmony.  This is especially imaginative playing.  If you haven't listened to it for a while, check it out--Skip's time is very complex and nuanced, and he is absolutely getting what he's going for, too.
All best,
Johnm     

Offline RobBob

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #13 on: January 04, 2008, 05:47:49 AM »
About 40 years ago I to to watch Skip James play. It was a hot muggy day at a festival and his words and guitar filled the thick air.

I was most familiar with his Vanguard recordings since I was not too long out of high school and from a small town where perhaps three people knew who he was.  His timing was incredible.  He would set up a pulse and then swing the heck out of it but pulling back or easing up on the beats.  His music was like a high wire act balanced on a wire of his own making.

RobBob

Offline Pan

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Re: Eighth Notes--To Swing or Not to Swing?
« Reply #14 on: January 04, 2008, 06:03:30 AM »
Here's a picture representing the swung eighth notes in standard notation.

In slower tempos the music is often written in 12/8 to avoid writing triplets constantly.

Beware, that often, for simpicitys' sake,the music is written as just standard straight eight notes, even if it is ment to be played with swung eighth notes. There really is no telling, unless you can hear the original music. Watch for words "swing", "shuffle" or a "quarter note+eighth note triplet = two eighth notes" sign in the beginning of the page.

Cheers

Pan
« Last Edit: January 14, 2008, 07:24:32 AM by Pan »

 


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