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Author Topic: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It  (Read 18694 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« on: January 19, 2005, 03:33:16 PM »
Hi all,
I got to thinking recently how sometimes when you listen to a recording, the singer will make the vocal entrance after the first line sooner or later than you thought he/she would.   Generally, when the vocal entrance seems early, the phrase that precedes it is spoken of as being "short".  Similarly, if the second vocal entrance seems late, the phrase that precedes it is considered "long".  The same terminology is used in describing "crooked" Old Time fiddle tunes. 

I first noticed, when working on the Robert Wilkins instructional video, that in a number of his songs Wilkins was long, but in a consistent and predictable way.  Basically, it worked so:  In measures that contained vocal pick-up notes, Robert Wilkins would tack on two additional beats to accommodate the vocal pick-ups, rather than simply using the last two beats of the four-beat measure for the pick-ups.  Here is his "Jailhouse Blues":



Working that way, his phrasing for "Jailhouse Blues" worked out as follows:  (NOTE:  Unless otherwise indicated, you can assume bars are of four beats.  To keep the form from scrolling, when there is a bar without lyrics, I will shorten the space alloted for it visually.  It is not actually shorter, it just saves space.)
Oh look like I can see trouble in the air          Oh look li-
            |                |      I           | I |I--4+ 2 beats|
-ike I can see trouble in the air           But ain't on-
|      IV         |       IV         |I  |I--4 + 2 beats|
only here, friends, it's trouble everywhere         Now I wish-
 |      Vmin7             |    Vmin7        | I  |I--4 + 2 beats|

Robert Wilkins used the very same phrasing scheme for "Rolling Stone", his debut recording.  When you hear him do these songs, there is never a feeling of him messing up the time, partially because his pulse is so strong and regular.  And if you play and sing these songs, and really spend some time with them, it would never occur to you to do them any other way, I think.

The same approach to treatment of vocal pick-ups can be found in blues where the vocal phrasing sounds short.  One of the greatest examples is St. Louis pianist Walter Davis's version of "Sloppy Drunk Again", on which he is joined by Henry Townsend and Big Joe Williams on guitars.  Here it is:



"Sloppy Drunk Again" works out as follows:
 My gal's done quit me found somebody else            My
     |       I                |           I         | I--4 + 2 beats|
gal's done quit me found somebody else            And
|        I              |          I           | I--4 + 2 beats|
Now I'm tired of sleeping by myself               I
|      I             |        I         | I--4 + 2 beats|

In the case of "Sloppy Drunk Again", Walter Davis and his band have chosen to omit the second fill measure at the end of each four-bar phrase, while retaining the two beats needed for the vocal pick-ups.  This song is a one-chorder, by the way, and listening to it has often made me feel like chord changes can be over-rated.  But until you get used to it (or even after) the vocal entrances may seem like they are two beats early.

I recently purchased a Document CD which compiles all of Bukka White's pre-rediscovery recordings, and found that he was very partial to the Walter Davis "short" phrasing scheme employed in "Sloppy Drunk Again".  Here is "High Fever Blues":



Bukka's "High Fever Blues" works out as follows:
                                                           I'm taken

down with a fever and it won't let me sleep  I'm taken do-
  |        I           |       I                 | I--4 + 2 beats   |
-own with a fever and it won't let me sleep It was about thre-
  |       IV          |       IV               | I--4  + 2 beats       |
-ee o'clock  before heat would let me be         I wish
  |    V7    |            V7                  |I--4 + 2 beats|

Bukka maintains the phrasing throughout the song, and he is so partial to the "short" treatment of vocal phrasing that he uses it to varying degrees on every tune he recorded in the two-day sessions recorded in Chicago with Washboard Sam in 1940.
I think the whole issue of short and long phrasing is interesting because it illustrates the extent to which the blues, at least in its earlier stages, was driven rhythmically not by meter, but by pulse and phrase length.  When you put meter/bar structure in the driver's seat, as they are in a lot of present-day blues, you end up with a situation where the form plays the player rather than the player determining the form. 
All best,
Johnm

 
« Last Edit: October 04, 2018, 08:55:27 AM by Johnm »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #1 on: January 19, 2005, 04:24:13 PM »
Another great topic, John. How did I know when I saw the title you were gonna talk about Robert Wilkins? This is something that I have been trying to be more aware of lately, finding my own singing being a little too "square" at times. I'm kinda going back to writing out the vocal over tab so I can take it real slow and "get it right" before I let go and try to get the flow. I think by taking baby steps at first I can eventually get the feel more readily later when working on new material. What you say about pulse and phrase length is very helpful in looking at this issue. Anyway, back to Jailhouse Blues, one of Gre's favs, again!
Boy, I have to listen to more Walter Davis, too. His vocal quality really gets to me and his rhythmic sense is particulaly interesting. Thanks.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
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Offline Johnm

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #2 on: January 19, 2005, 04:37:00 PM »
Thanks for the good word, John.  I have to admit, I find this stuff incredibly interesting.  The fact that "Jailhouse" is one of Gre's favorites speaks very well of her taste, I think!  One of the really magical things you realize about a lot of these musicians when you start to examine these issues is how independent their vocal phrasing was of whatever time-keeping was going on in their instrumental accompaniments.  It makes for a tremendously dynamic sound.  I think of Roosevelt Graves and his brother doing "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Standing On Jesus", and Roosevelt's accompaniment and the complexity of how it all mixes and its perfection, and it just cracks me up, it is so great.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #3 on: January 19, 2005, 07:29:06 PM »
This is something that I have been trying to be more aware of lately, finding my own singing being a little too "square" at times. I'm kinda going back to writing out the vocal over tab so I can take it real slow and "get it right" before I let go and try to get the flow. I think by taking baby steps at first I can eventually get the feel more readily later when working on new material.

Hey JohnC,
If I may be slightly impertinent for a moment. If you're looking to be looser, why not avoid the exacting transcription of vocal and tab and go for singing along with record over and over? You don't think about the guitar and get used to playing with the vocal a bit. Then go to the guitar and see what happens.

Anothe excellent thread, JohnM. The example that always comes to mind re. "short" phrasing from your own teaching at PT is Joe Callicott's Frankie. It really makes the tune that much better, IMO. And he's not always short either: even better.



Offline Johnm

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #4 on: January 19, 2005, 11:11:19 PM »
I agree with you, Andrew.  With regard to this issue, consistency of whatever phrasing scheme is not necessarily the star we should all be shooting for--I think being able to truly be in the moment and change phrasing as impulse and fancy dictate without a train wreck resulting is the real prize.
All best,
Johnm 

Offline waxwing

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #5 on: January 20, 2005, 12:49:09 AM »
I guess I find that, for me, thinking of the guitar and the vocal as two seperate entities and believing that I can just put them together hasn't really worked in most instances. Those phrasings I seem easily capable of are, as I said, too square, driven by the guitar. I need to learn them together somehow, slowly feeling how they interact. I hope, in the long run, after experiencing many variations thru this, perhaps meticulous, process, that I will develop the ability to synthesize the interplay more spontaneously. It is my experience that after I am extremely familiar with a song, I am able to be more spontaneous with the vocal over the guitar, but this is after having played and sung a song dozens and dozens of times. I am incredibly envious of someone who can quickly learn a guitar part, sing along with the record a few times, and then put the two together in a spontaneous way, that is, none the less, true to the original, not a slap dash version.
I am currently struggling to put together the arrangement of Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 version of Avalon Blues, which I transcribed recently, with his, to me, very difficult vocal inflection. Of course, this song also employs the two pickup beats at the beginning of each sung line. The timing and even the subtle melody seem immensely difficult over the guitar. My attempts so far seem monotonic and too "on the beat". Very frustrating, and boring. And those guitar breaks are no snap, either. I'll get there, tho', and eventually I'll be able to loosen up with it. I have no illusons about getting it up to the young MJH's speed tho'.<G>
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline dj

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #6 on: January 20, 2005, 04:01:22 AM »
Quote
I think the whole issue of short and long phrasing is interesting because it illustrates the extent to which the blues, at least in its earlier stages, was driven rhythmically not by meter, but by pulse and phrase length.
Amen to that!  Because country blues is usually heard in a concert setting today, we tend to forget that the pre-war players made their money playing for dances, and if they were to be at all successful, they had to accomodate the needs of the dancers and not of some academic theorist.  I have no idea what kind of dances were done at jukes and piccolos around the South in the 20s and 30s, but I'm sure if I did it would shed a lot more light on both instrumental and vocal phrasing. 

One of my peeves for years has been that when Frank Zappa, for example, throws in a few extra beats at the end of a line, he's hailed as a genius, but when Booker White did it, the comment was always "He doesn't have a good sense of time".     

Offline a2tom

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #7 on: January 20, 2005, 04:21:58 AM »
ah!  a thread that speaks to my soul, or lack thereof!  I don't have much to add, except a hearty "amen".

trying to avoid square on-the-beat lyrics and train wrecks here in a2,
tom

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #8 on: January 20, 2005, 08:39:36 AM »
I guess I find that, for me, thinking of the guitar and the vocal as two seperate entities and believing that I can just put them together hasn't really worked in most instances. Those phrasings I seem easily capable of are, as I said, too square, driven by the guitar. I need to learn them together somehow, slowly feeling how they interact. I hope, in the long run, after experiencing many variations thru this, perhaps meticulous, process, that I will develop the ability to synthesize the interplay more spontaneously. It is my experience that after I am extremely familiar with a song, I am able to be more spontaneous with the vocal over the guitar, but this is after having played and sung a song dozens and dozens of times.

Hi Wax - yes, I know what you mean. In part, I guess it depends on the tune as well. In cases where the guitar part is an intricate picking pattern(s) or has fills that overlap with the vocal, it may work better at first to use your approach. Perhaps choosing a tune where this is not the case as an exercise might be good. I'm thinking for example of some of the 60s Joe Callicott material (like his version of Frankie mentioned above) where the guitar underneath the vocal is a lot of boom-chick stuff and what makes the tune is the vocal, the phrasing variations etc. Or a tune that's a very familiar form and progression, an 8 bar blues using I V IV like Slidin' Delta or Crow Jane. You've taken on some fairly adventurous material like Broke Down Engine, Scrapper Blackwell etc., that may not lend itself as easily to a different looser approach as early in the game as something like a common 8 bar form.

Quote
I am currently struggling to put together the arrangement of Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 version of Avalon Blues, which I transcribed recently, with his, to me, very difficult vocal inflection. Of course, this song also employs the two pickup beats at the beginning of each sung line. The timing and even the subtle melody seem immensely difficult over the guitar. My attempts so far seem monotonic and too "on the beat". Very frustrating, and boring. And those guitar breaks are no snap, either. I'll get there, tho', and eventually I'll be able to loosen up with it. I have no illusons about getting it up to the young MJH's speed tho'.<G>

Avalon is great, I had started work on this one a while ago and have meant to pick it up again. Maybe we can compare notes later.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #9 on: January 20, 2005, 08:55:01 AM »
Hi John C.
I think I may have over-stated the value of inconsistency.  In some instances, you want a rock-solid, consistent approach to phrasing; it certainly works beautifully in the Robert Wilkins numbers.  In others, a more free-form approach may work really well (thinking of Robert Belfour or some Lil' Son Jackson). 
I know that I never really feel strong with a tune until I am playing and singing it together, and unless I get the music prior to the lyrics I try to do them together always.  Certainly "Avalon" is really tricky to sing and play simultaneously.  I think this is partly because of the pared-back nature of the melody.  It is more like a chant than song melody as we normally think of it.  Moreover, its link-up with the accompaniment varies a great deal from verse to verse--some of those lines like "When I left Avalon, throwing kisses and waving at me" you really have to hustle to fit in!  What a great song, though.  I look forward to hearing you do it at Port Townsend.
All best,
Johnm 

Offline waxwing

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #10 on: January 20, 2005, 11:25:06 AM »
Well, Andrew, I do occasionally work on less challenging numbers and do have an easier time of it. Been putting together McTell's Searchin' the Desert for the Blues lately and that certainly flows pretty well, with rhytthmic variations following the lyrics easily. Anybody think I can get Farren to sing the female asides? (listen to them before answering)<G>
I often ask myself why I always seem to be attracted to the more difficult songs in any artist's oeuvre, but I guess I need the challenge to keep my focus up for polishing it to performance. But sometimes less demanding tunes can offer a greater opportunity for emotional investment, like George Carter's Risin' River Blues, and that will draw me along. Ah, well. Sometimes I think I am driven to learn the more difficult material before arthritis forces me to lower my sights.
Johnm, it may take me 'til August to feel really comfortable with Avalon, but I'll be there with it. John Hurt really had the most deceptively simple sounding style, yet so hard to really get a grasp of. Having learned later versions of Avalon Blues to some extent, I have always been drawn to the earlier version. It is so fresh and his variance in the number of signature licks between lines really implies the newness of it. He seems to be stalling to remember the next line which he just wrote, eh? Thanks for the "chant" description, I realize I was sort of coming to that view, but hadn't really voiced it to myself. But each line has such a little sort of warble to it (don't know any other way to describe it - a warbling chant - yeah, that works). And the breaks really have a fresh improvisational feel to them, breaking with the form somewhat. It's just really exciting and exhibits his youthful prowess. Hope I can do it justice.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #11 on: January 20, 2005, 11:40:42 AM »
Yeah, I wasn't saying give up the hard stuff, especially since the ones I've heard you're certainly doing a nice job on, just toss in some easy stuff to work more on the vocal phrasing aspects you mentioned had sometimes given you trouble. And many of the rest of us too, I should add. I'm not trying to single you out ;D, just using your experience to bounce ideas around for people including myself to try, since I think we've all got issues to deal with in this important aspect of the music. Since you've got a powerful voice it might be fun to have the singing take priority once in awhile.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #12 on: January 20, 2005, 11:54:44 AM »
Bounce away, UB. I really do wonder about my struggles and motivations and don't mind, even appreciate, being able to air them here, among friends. Thanks for the kind words, too. Every little bit helps.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline orvillej

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #13 on: January 20, 2005, 01:28:33 PM »
i find this to be a pretty interesting topic myself. for my own playing, i am always thinking about how i'm phrasing the vocal over the guitar part. the main activity in my mind boils down to "am i going to pull against the time or try to flow with it?". if i decide to go against it my first act is to avoid downbeats. next is to hold notes across bar lines. i will simplify my guitar part if necessary to keep from messing up the flow of the guitar because without it keeping solid time my syncopation morphs into the dreaded trainwreck. all of these decisions occur with each line of the song as it goes by.
learning how prior artists accomplish this stuff is an interesting exercise, especilly when you discover a consistantcy in what seems to the untrained ear to be inconsistant, as in the case of rwilkins as johnM pointed out. it gives one much more respect for the artistry of these great players and gives the lie to those who characterize country blues as a sort of accidental porch-picking. many of these players were serious artists with a lot of intention in their playing and this type of analysis shows that. thanx for the ideas fellers.

Offline onewent

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Re: Vocal Phrasing--The Long And The Short of It
« Reply #14 on: January 20, 2005, 04:38:25 PM »
...greetings all ... very, very interesting discussion, thanks johnm for the idea and thanks all for posting personal observations ... I don't have much to add except that this 'phrasing' thing seems to be different from the 'blues voice' thing, and I'd never really overtly thought about it except when I notice my phrasing in certain songs is different from the 'originals' & and even after working on it, still struggle...I think waxwing said it, by saying something about singing 'squarely' above the guitar part and I think I tend to do that ... in other words, I can play some fairly intricate guitar part and sing along w/o much thought, but as soon as I try to tweak the phrasing -- train wreck? ::)?...case in point:? Blind Lemon's Piney Woods Money Mama, Lemon sings this line:? 'She's been tryin' two years to get me, to be her so-on in law'?w/ a pause after the 'me' and stretching the word 'son' ... well, after listening to Lemon and playing that song hundreds of times, I still struggle to stretch that word 'son' ... the only song in which I'm not able to sing the words is Pure Religion ... I've been playing the guitar part about 6 months, but can't get much of the vocal worked in...anyway, great topic...
regards, tomw
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 05:55:48 AM by Johnm »

 


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