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Ernest (for some reason he always called Scruggs Ernest), you're a fine banjo player, but you ain't a bit funny - Uncle Dave Macon to Earl Scruggs, from Rutherford County Historical Society Publication No. 35 by Charles Wolfe

Author Topic: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material  (Read 13931 times)

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Offline Johnm

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The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« on: May 25, 2005, 11:25:52 PM »
Hi all,
I have been thinking about pre-Blues material for a long time (years and years) and figured out a long time ago that I particularly like it.  I suppose the question comes up then, what makes a song pre-Blues, as opposed to Blues?  I think two chordal/harmonic characteristics most strongly define pre-Blues songs:
   * Absence of the "blue" IV chord.  Blues have a dominant 7 chord with a flat 7 note relative to the IV chord of the scale.  Pre-Blues material has either a straight major triad for the IV chord or a telescoped major 7 chord off of the IV note of the scale.
   * Absence of the "blue" I chord.  Blues most often have a dominant 7 chord (major triad with a flat 7) off of the I chord of the scale.  Pre-Blues material has a straight major triad off of I, or, as with the IV chord, a telescoped major 7 chord.
What separates Blues chordally from the various western musics that preceded it, is that it has dominant 7 chords off of I, IV and V.  Neither the major scale nor any of the Greek modes conforms to this chordal configuration.  As a result, Blues has both a structure and a sound that does not have commonly known precedents prior to its appearance.
Blues is most often described by persons living at the time as having first made an appearance in the first decade of the 20th century.  I can remember Sam Chatmon saying that he could recall the first Blues he ever heard, and when it happened (around 1908).  What is really interesting is that pre-Blues material, which must have had origins prior to that, was still being recorded by musicians in the 1960s and '70s.  What would be examples of Pre-Blues songs recorded either in the first wave of Country Blues recording or in later years?
   * Henry Thomas--"Run, Mollie, Run", "Bob McKinney", "Shanty Blues"
   * Blind Lemon Jefferson--"Beggin' Back", "Prison Cell Blues"
   * Robert Wilkins--"Police Sergeant Blues", "Alabama Blues"
   * Sam Collins"--"Lonesome Road Blues", "My Road Is Rough And Rocky"
   * Ed Bell--"She's a Fool Gal"
   * Jim Jackson--"Old Dog Blue"
   * Charley Jordan--"Keep It Clean"
   * Bo Carter--"Pussy Cat Blues", "Twist It, Babe"
   * Mance Lipscomb--"Willie, Poor Boy", "Sugar Babe"
   * Shirley Griffith--"Take Me Back To Mama"
   * John Jackson--"Boat's Up The River", "Going Down In Georgia On A Horn"
   * John Hurt--"Boys You're Welcome", "Don't Want Me, Baby"
One of the interesting things about Pre-blues material is that as you listen, you encounter hybrid material, or perhaps more correctly, transitional material, that has some Pre-Blues qualities and some Blues qualities.  A couple of songs come to mind that would fall into this category:
   * Henry Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues"--The lyrics and phrasing adhere to the 12-bar structure of the Blues, but Henry Thomas's melodic vocabulary for the song is strongly pre-Blues, a major pentatonic scale with no flat 7 for either the I or the IV chord.
   * Mance Lipscomb's "Sugar Babe"--This song, though having an 8-bar structure, does not conform to any of the commonly encountered 8-bar blues structures, and does not have flat 7 notes in the melody either over the I or the IV chord.  However, when Mance solos, he plays flat 7 notes over both the I and IV chords.  Conclusion:  The song, as sung, has pronounced pre-Blues characteristics.  As soloed on, however, "Sugar Babe" would more aptly be termed a Blues.
One of the most interesting things about Pre-Blues material is that it seems to coincide with an historical period in which there was even more than usual cross-over between African-American and white American music. This comes through loud and clear if you listen consecutively to the recordings of Henry Thomas and those of the early Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon. 
You may want to seek out some of the Pre-Blues material if you have not been conscious of it before.  It is great stuff, quite often with beautiful melodies that don't even require chords to make their impact felt.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Slack

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #1 on: May 26, 2005, 06:59:49 AM »
Terrific Johnm.  I asked you one time the difference between Blues and Pre-Blues (the terms were confusing to me and now I know why!) -- and you gave me one or two sentences alluding to structure.... so I'm really glad you put your thoughts down in a more detailed way, makes much more sense  - thanks!

Cheers,
slack

Offline outfidel

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #2 on: May 26, 2005, 08:51:52 AM »
John,

Great post on a fascinating topic! Your comments highlight for me some of the reasons why I find "pre-blues" more satisfying to play & listen to than "blues" (fyi I also prefer old-time mountain music to bluegrass, perhaps for the same reasons).

I only wish "pre-blues" had a better name -- seems like it's better to define something by what it is, rather than what it's not. I believe this music was called "folk music", until folk music became synonymous with political/protest music.

Thanks,
Michael
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Offline thumbstyle

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #3 on: May 27, 2005, 08:48:14 PM »
Fascinating as usual, John, thanks for the insight.

Can you explain what you mean by a "telescoped major 7"? Are you referring to how the maj 7th chord is voiced on the guitar, or are you implying that it's the sung melody that steps on the major 7 (relative to I or IV) scale note? I'm guessing the latter.

Thanks,
Dave

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #4 on: May 28, 2005, 12:13:02 AM »
Hi Dave,
You're right, the second meaning is what I intended--a melody note that is a major 7 relative to the root of the I or IV chord it falls over, but which is not acknowledged in the guitar chording, which is playing straight major chords.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: June 04, 2005, 10:29:16 AM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #5 on: June 04, 2005, 10:54:30 AM »
Hi all,
An example of a song that seems transitional between pre-Blues and Blues is Wiley Barner's rendition of "My Gal Mistreats Me", which has been mentioned earlier on the "How Did That Get Recorded?" thread.? On it, Wiley Barner's piano accompanist opens with a solo on the full form, hitting flat seven notes in his statement of the melody.? When Barner comes in singing, he persistently lands on the major seven note of the scale, and it sounds really odd in the Blues context that the pianist has set up in his intro.? If you would like to hear the sound, the song is on the Juke.? The major seven notes in the singing of the first verse are indicated by capital letters.
? ? Take your PICture, make it in the FRAME,
? ?When you're gone, I see you just the same
? ? When you're gone, see you just the same
? ? Lord, when you're gone, see you just the same
Instances of this kind of clash created by someone singing a major seven note on a Blues are so rare that I remember this cut really standing out to me when I first heard it years ago.?
An equivalent instance in Old-Time music occurs on Buell Kazee's rendition of "John Hardy", which some of you have probably heard on Yazoo's "Before The Blues" series.? The melody of "John Hardy" is most commonly played as Leadbelly played it on the thread that Norfolk Slim started recently.? Assuming the song is in the key of G, the melody and chords in the first line would go as follows:
? ?John Hardy was a desperate little man
? ? ?G? ? ?C E? ? F? ?E? ?D? ? ?D? ?B A? G--melody notes
? ?| G? ?|? ? ? ? ? ?C? ? ? |? ? ? ? ? ?G? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?|--chords
In Buell Kazee's version, though, he substitutes the major 7 note of the scale, F#, for the F note normally sung in the melody when he states the melody in his opening banjo intro, and sometimes in his singing.? Buell was one of the few early Appalachian singers who was recorded in Old-Time music who had vocal training, and his singing does have a sweet, "trained" sound and sort of elocutionary enunciation.? Without being able to talk to him about it, I suspect that flat seven in the melody that gives "John Hardy" it's bluesy sound just didn't sound right to him.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: June 04, 2005, 12:56:34 PM by Johnm »

crawley

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2005, 11:16:53 PM »
i don't the music theory angle here (or anywhere,) but i do love the old songster stuff. seems to me it's alot more dance oriented. check out paul oliver's book, "sonsters and saints." it's all about this here matter. lotsa pictures too.
crawley

Offline frankie

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #7 on: August 31, 2005, 05:37:27 AM »
Curly Headed Woman by Burnett & Rutherford is interesting in this context.  One of the things that I find curious about the way they play it is the lack of blue notes in the accompaniment.  Burnett picks the banjo in a simple accompaniment pattern.  I'm not totally sure how the banjo is tuned (could be G or C - CGBD), but the fifth string is tuned to A.  Since the song is played out of F, that makes the fifth string ring as the major 3rd of the tonic chord.  When the song moves to the IV chord (Bflat), instead of avoiding the 5th string, Burnett seems to lean in, just slightly more insistenly, creating a wonderful example of the "telescoped major 7 chord" John mentioned in his initial post.

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #8 on: August 31, 2005, 12:59:34 PM »
I will have to dig up that "Curly Headed Woman", Frank.  It sounds like a perfect example of the telescoped major seventh.  It seems that most often when the telescoped major seventh happens over a I or IV chord, instrumentally, it could fairly be described as a "found" interval, one that the instrument gives the player.
Several examples exactly analogous to the Burnett & Rutherford one you cited can be found in Henry Thomas's tunes that he played out of C position, like "Run, Mollie, Run" and "Bob McKinney".  In those songs, when he goes to the IV chord, F, he rocks his ring and second fingers back, respectively from the third fret of the fifth string and the second fret of the fourth string, to the third fret of the fourth string and the second fret of the third string, with the index holding its ground at the first fret of the second string.  He leaves the first string open when he goes to the IV chord, and this results in a IV major 7 chord, FACE, ascending from the fourth string to the first.  It is really pretty, and because it is diatonic, the ear doesn't have to do a lot of adjusting to accept it--it just sounds right.  Similarly, he often leaves the first string open when he goes to the V chord, G.  In this way, his open first string acts as a drone, much as the fifth string does on a banjo.  It is a great sound, and has the additional benefit of being easy to execute.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #9 on: September 13, 2005, 12:15:27 PM »
i don't the music theory angle here (or anywhere,) but i do love the old songster stuff. seems to me it's alot more dance oriented. check out paul oliver's book, "sonsters and saints." it's all about this here matter. lotsa pictures too.
crawley

Musicology is beyond me too but Oliver's book, although published 21 years ago, is very good at comparing the recordings of "songsters" like Stokes or Henry Thomas with either early texts or songs collected in the early 1900s by Dorothy Scarborough, Newman Ivey White or Odum and Johnson (to name but four).? The book certainly lives up to its sub title of "Vocal Traditions On Race Records". The two double LPs that accompanied its publication also helped!? :)

Offline Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #10 on: December 18, 2005, 02:00:10 PM »
Hi all,
A really interesting case of a song using a non-Blues pentatonic scale of the type discussed over on the Henry Thomas thread is Dock Boggs's recording of "Wild Bill Jones".  You can find it on "Dock Boggs:  His Folkways Years 1963-1968", Smithsonian Folkways SF-40108.
Dock's version of "Wild Bill Jones" (of which there are many) has the lonesome, bluesy sound of so much of his music.  He plays the song in the key of G, using a G tuning on the banjo.  The song's melody uses the notes of the G major pentatonic scale, G-A-B-D-E, but is given an eerie sort of cast by ranging from D to D and giving a lot of weight to the VI note, E.  It works as follows
     
   I was out a-walking around one night,
  D  E    G G    E   D  E   G     G     E
   When I met with old Wild Bill Jones
      G   A  B    D   BA GA   G     E
   He was walking he was talking with the girl   I    loved,
    D   E     G   G  A   G     E  E    D    E   G  AG    E
   And I bid him for to leave her alone
     G  A B    D   B  A  GA   G  D E

I think it was this type of melody, as well as the way Dock sings it, that led to the term "the high, lonesome sound".  One of the interesting things about the melody is how, when played without the vocal or chordal accompaniment, it sounds as though it could have come from so many places: Ireland, Virginia, Mali, Bali, China. 
All best,
Johnm

Offline waxwing

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #11 on: December 18, 2005, 03:26:39 PM »
Gre just played the melody on her recorder and you are so right that it sounds like it could come from anywhere. With each line ending on E it really seems that the melody is in the E minor pentatonic scale, being the relative minor of G.

Gre want's to hear the Doc Boggs version. Woohoo, trip to Down Home Music in El Cerrito coming up. Gotta get that Buddy Boy Hawkins cd, too.

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 Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #12 on: January 30, 2006, 11:46:33 AM »
Hi all,
One of the ways in which Pre-Blues material has survived is as banjo tunes moved over to the guitar.  There are a number of examples of such performances right up into the 1980s and later.  Most often such performances employ a banjo tuning moved over to the guitar, either Spanish or Vastapol, but other tunings can be used as well.  Similarly, a thumb lead is often employed in the right hand by players doing these songs, though they sometimes do use more of a downward frailing or rapping motion.  Here are a few examples of such performances, who did them and the tunings they employed.
   * "Reuben" by John Jackson, in Vastapol (Arhoolie)
   * "Run--Run/Mama Your Son Done Gone" by Elizabeth Cotten, in Spanish
   * "Reuben" by Elizabeth Cotten, in Vastapol (Smithsonian Folkways)
   * "Old Dog Blue" by Furry Lewis, in Spanish (Arcola)
   * "Rabbit On A Log"  J.W. Warren, in Vastapol (Fat Possum)
The earliest recording of "Reuben" on guitar that I'm aware of was done by Emry Arthur, a Kentuckian transplated to Indiana, I believe, who recorded it in the late '20s in Vastapol tuned to C.  Algia Mae Hinton has recorded "Reuben" (which she calls "Out of Jail") on the banjo.  "Mama Your Son Done Gone" was recorded on the banjo by Doc Watson's father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, as "Omie Let Your Bang Hang Down".

Probably my favorite recording in this style is Jim Jackson's version of "Old Dog Blue" which a number of you probably know from Harry Smith's "Anthology Of American Folk Music".  I had long thought that Jim Jackson played the song out of G position, standard tuning, but closer listening revealed a "ghosting" low root G that Jim is lightly brushing below his thumb leads on the D string.  The left hand work is so minimalistic on "Old Dog Blue", that the only fretting Jim does is of the fourth and third strings at the second fret and of a high G note on the first string.  Because of the awkwardness of holding down the fifth fret first string G that you would have in Spanish while fretting the second fret of the fourth and third strings, I think it is most likely that Jim Jackson employ either the so-called G6 tuning:  DGDGBE, or possibly a less frequently encountered tuning of his own devising:  EGDGBE.  Since he never sounds the 6th string, it is a moot point (and unknowable) whether he tuned it to D or left it at E. 
Jim Jackson does employ a thumb lead in the bass for "Old Dog Blue", and the song has a beautiful, trance-like quality.  There are no chord changes or harmonic information as it is normally thought of, just the open strings and the high G drone humming away against the melody.  The sung melody is very minimalistic, and except for where he calls "Here, Ring!" is pretty much just three notes.  Likewise, there are not really verses.  Jim starts singing at the beginning of the performance and does not stop until the end of it.  The only song I have heard that has a similar feel to it is Peg Leg Howell's song "Please, Ma'am". 
I really love these lyrics.  They have a kind of epic scope, and like a lot of pre-Blues material introduce seemingly unrelated lines at points along the way.  It is really great that something so musically fascinating but inward and ruminative was recorded.

   I'm goin' back where I come fr'
   I'm goin' back where I come fr'
   I'm going back to Giles County
   My wife died and left me a bounty
   With them pretty girls ganged around me
   That's the reason why I'm goin' to Giles County
   Had a old dog and 'is name was Blue
   You know Blue was mighty true
   You know Blue was a good old dog
   Blue treed a possum in a hollow log
   You know from that he's a good old dog
   Blue treed a possum out on a limb
   Blue looked at me and I looked at him
   Grabbed that possum, put him in a sack
   Took me and Blue 'til I get back
   Here, Ring!  Here Ring, here!
   Here, Ring!  Here Ring, here!
   Who been here since I been gone?  Little bitty girl with the red dress on
   Who been here since I been gone?  Little bitty girl with the red dress on
   Old Blue's feets was big and round
   Old Blue's feets was big and round
   Never 'lowed a possum to tetch [sic] the ground
   Me and Blue went out on a hunt
   Blue treed a possum in a hollow stump
   You know, Blue was a good old dog
   Blue treed a possum in a hollow log
   You know from that he's a good old dog
   When old Blue died and I dug his grave
   I dug his grave with a silver spade
   I let him down with a golden chain
   And every link I called his name
   Go on Blue, you good dog, you
   Go on Blue, you good dog, you
   Blue laid down and died like a man
   Blue laid down and died like a man
   Now he's treein' possums in the Promised Land
   I'm gonna tell you this to let you know
   Old Blue's gone where the good dogs go
   When I hear old Blue bark
   When I hear old Blue bark
   Blue treed a possum in Norah's [sic] Ark
   Blue treed a possum in Norah's [sic] Ark

All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: January 31, 2006, 10:38:21 AM by Johnm »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #13 on: January 30, 2006, 12:41:43 PM »
I really love these lyrics.  They have a kind of epic scope, and like a lot of pre-Blues material introduce seemingly unrelated lines at points along the way.  It is really great that something so musically fascinating but inward and ruminative was recorded.
Paul Oliver discusses the origins of this song in Songsters & Saints and apparently the earliest reportage of it was in 1906 when informant W P Cassedy from Mississippi recounted the song (as Come On Blue) to E C Perrow. What follows is a 1915 version heard in Northern Mississippi which is in Newman Ivey White's "American Negro Folk Songs" (Harvard UP, 1928 p.208):

My old blue dog
'll make a 'possum walk a log,
Make a 'possum clim' a tree,
Then set down and bark for me.
G'on! Blue, you rascal you,
Ketch another 'possum for me and you.

He'll make a 'possum walk a lim',
Then set down and laugh at him;
I'd get the 'possum and carry him home,
Blue'd get nothing but the bones.
G'on! Blue, you rascal you,
Ketch another 'possum for me and you.

My old blue dog is dead and gone,
Left this nigger here to moan;
I went to the barn one sunny day,
There my good old blue dog lay.
Blue! Blue! Blue! Blue!
You rascal you,
I wish it was me instead of you.

I buried him in a beautiful shade,
Dug his grave with a silver spade;
Let him down on a golden chain;
At every link I'd call his name:
Blue! Blue! Blue! Blue! You rascal you,
I wish it was me instead of you.

Going to Heaven some Sunday morn,
Going to tell you what I'll do:
Get St. Peter's golden horn,
Then go out and blow for Blue;
Blue! Blue! Blue! Blue! You rascal you,
Ketch another 'possum for me and you.

Offline Stuart

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #14 on: January 30, 2006, 12:56:34 PM »
John:

Thanks for the lyrics to "Old Dog Blue." It's one of my favorites as well. To go a little bit afield, a modification of a bumper sticker I once saw seems to be in order here:

"My Old Dog Blue Is Smarter Than Your Honor Student!"

Bunker Hill:

Thanks for the tip on Paul Oliver's quote and the lyrics re: man's best friend.
« Last Edit: January 30, 2006, 01:01:37 PM by Stuart »

 


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