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Author Topic: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material  (Read 14238 times)

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Online Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #15 on: February 07, 2006, 03:43:49 PM »
Hi all,
After thinking about recorded performances of people playing "banjo on guitar", I went back and listened to Emry Arthur's recording of "Reuben Oh Reuben".  I liked it even more than I had remembered liking it; it is really a striking rendition.  He played "Reuben" in Vastapol tuned to C.  "Reuben" is always played in Vastapol or its banjo version, when played on the banjo; the tuning might just as well be called "Reuben" tuning.  
Emry Arther gives "Reuben Oh Reuben" an eerie cast by playing and singing it in the Lydian Mode.  The Lydian Mode is built off of the fourth note of the major scale.  Thus a C Lydian melody would be built off of a "parent" major scale of G major, like so (distances between scale tones are indicated, as well):
          1    1   1/2   1     1     1    1/2      
       /    \/   \/     \/   \ /   \ /   \/     \        
      G    A    B      C    D    E    F#    G--G major

         1    1     1     1/2    1    1    1/2
       /   \/    \/     \/     \ /   \/   \/     \
      C    D    E      F#    G    A    B     C--C Lydian

By comparing the scales, you can see that the only structural difference between the two is the placement of the fourth note in the scale.  In the Lydian Mode, it is a whole step above the third note of the scale, resulting in the #4 note that gives the mode its characteristic sound.  Considering the structural difference is so small, the difference in sound is striking.  As used by Emry Arther in "Reuben Oh Reuben", that #4 note makes all the difference in the sound.  Here are his lyrics, with his melody indicated above his first verse.

   CHORUS:  Rube, oh Rube, oh Rube
   It's Rube, oh Rube, oh Rube
   Reuben, where you been so long?

    C     G    G  E    G     C     G    F# E     C
   I've been to the East, I've been to the West
    C     G    G  F#  E   F#   E     C
   I've been all around this old World

   I've been to the river and I've been baptized
   I'm ready for my hole in the ground

   Poor Reuben had a wreck, he broke his fireman's neck
   He can't get no letter from his home

   CHORUS

   REPEAT VERSE 1

   REPEAT VERSE 2

   Honey, if you just say so, I'll railroad no more
   I'll side-track my engine and come home

   The longest day that I ever seen
   Was the day that I left my home

   My Mama told me and Papa did too
   That I must never roam

I think Arthur's tagline on verse two captures something emblematic about a lot of Old-Time lyrics--that toughness and lack of self-pity.  If you'd like to hear this, it can be found on Yazoo 2014, "The Music Of Kentucky, vol. 2".  Also included on the disc is Emry Arthur's version of "Man Of Constant Sorrow", one of the earliest recordings of that song, if not the earliest, on which he is joined, I think, by Dock Boggs on banjo.  It is great stuff.

Edited 5/5/11 by Johnm to correct lyric
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: May 05, 2011, 10:43:54 AM by Johnm »

Online Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #16 on: February 08, 2006, 05:46:07 PM »
Hi all,
While I was listening to Emry Arthur do "Reuben Oh Reuben", I scouted out his other songs on "The Music of Kentucky, vol.2" on Yazoo, and found another song of his that fits this thread beautifully.  I don't actually know if anyone is interested in this stuff but me, but I'm going to throw it at the wall and see if any of it sticks.
The song is entitled "She Lied To Me", and Emry played it in Spanish, tuned quite low, to E.  That alone gives the song an eerie sound, but taken in combination with the melody and Emry's singing, the effect is spine-tingling.  Unlike "Reuben", for which Emry employed a thumb lead, he sounds to be playing the melody with the back of a fingernail, more in a frailed style, on She Lied To Me", though as in "Reuben", the accompaniment tracks the sung melody very closely. 
The melody of "She Lied To Me" is so distinctive and unusual that it took me a while to figure out how it is oriented.  It employs the notes of a D Major pentatonic scale--
D-E-F#-A-B-D, but the span of the scale places it so:  B-D-E-F#-A-B.  (Arthur sort of ghosts a G note near the end of each melodic phrase, too.) The key center is E, so if you want to convert the notes into a pentatonic scale starting and ending on DO, it works out to be E-F#-A-B-D-E, or in a structural sense, I-II-IV-V-flatVII-I.  Try that scale out on your instrument to get a notion of the character of the song.  It is really eerie, and I can not think of another song that employs that scale. 
Here are the lyrics to "She Lied To Me".  I will indicate where the melody goes up in between notes with the symbol /, if the melody goes down in pitch, I will use \.  The two halfs of each verse employ exactly the same melody, and there are no chord changes.
    E /  B   B\A\F#E D\B/   D   /   E       F#     A    B   F#/G\    E
   Oh once I had a happy home, good clothes and money to spend
   Until my girl went back on me then all my troubles begin

   She said she loved some other man and would not marry me
   Now, since she's turned me down for him I'm lonesome as can be

   I never loved no one but her, for her I would have died
   But now she loves another man, she has laid me aside

   She said I was the only one that she could ever love
   But she has lied and done me wrong as sure as God's above

   I never can forget the time when she said we must part
   She said her love for me was gone, it almost broke my heart

   She always said she loved me more than anyone in the World
   But since this stranger came along he stole my darling girl

   Oh, Mary, don't go, don't go, come back and see me once more

In a way, the lyrics are not very bluesy, especially with all the talk of love.  The sense of disappointment in love it expresses seems to come right out of a certain vein of 19th century parlor songs, though it is much older than that, and can be found in a lot of ancient Irish and English Folksongs.  The lyrical stance, though, of having no power in a relationship, does have counterparts in Blues lyrics, especially, those of Robert Wilkins like "I Do Blues", "That's No Way To Get Along", and "Jailhouse Blues".  Most Blues have an element of exuberance or defiance, but "She Lied To Me" is just down there, lonesome.  The lonesomeness of the sound is accentuated by Emry Arthur's flat affect as he sings it.  There is no emoting or acting--he trusts the words and the way he sings them to put the feeling across and it does.  Once again, a very strong performance from Emry Arthur.
All best,
Johnm

Offline frankie

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #17 on: February 08, 2006, 09:07:09 PM »
I-II-IV-V-flatVII-I

The term that gets applied (somewhat inappropriately) to songs that use this kind of gapped scale in old-time circles is 'modal'.  One thing that bugs me about this name is that the scale in question isn't modal at all, at least in the sense of the modes of the major scale.  The sound is totally unmistakable - sometime fiddle tunes will have one or another strain that uses a scale like this - the high part to Salt River or Cookhouse Joe, for example... there are others, I'm sure.  Shady Grove essentially uses this scale, doesn't it?  One thing I've always found peculiar about it is how it manages to completely avoid the 3rd degree of the scale.  Something about that is just unsettling in some way.

This is one of my favorite songs from Emry Arthur - thanks!

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #18 on: February 09, 2006, 09:44:20 AM »
Way to hear, Frank!  "Shady Grove" does use the same pentatonic scale as "She Lied To Me".  I suppose you could think of it as a sort of "Dorian pentatonic" or "II pentatonic" scale since it starts on the II note of the major scale, and makes its way upward and downward from there,  omitting only the IV and VII note of the parent scale, or III and VI of the Dorian scale.
All best,
Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #19 on: March 02, 2006, 06:02:21 PM »
Hi all,
I have been listening to a performance recently that seems transitional between pre-Blues and Blues as they would normally be identified:  Jim Jackson's "Wild About My Lovin'".  This song caught on with the generation of listeners who came to this music in the 1960s largely through Geoff Muldaur's rendition of it on the first Jim Kweskin Jug Band album, and Geoff really sang it well, as he does just about everything. 
Jim Jackson's original version of "Wild About My Lovin'" is both simpler and stranger than the Kweskin Jug Band version.  The song is phrased as a 12-bar chorus blues, but Jim is notably inconsistent in his verse accompaniments.  In the song's six verses, he only goes to the IV chord for the fifth and sixth bars in the second and third verses; in the other verses, he stays on the I chord through the bars normally reserved for the IV chord.  As for the V chord, Jim Jackson plays it only for the second half of the ninth bar in the first verse, plays it to accompany the ninth bar in the second verse, omits it in the third verse, and plays it in the ninth bar for verses four through six.  The variety with which Jim Jackson backs the song would seem to indicate that he didn't have a hard and fast notion of the chordal form at all, and varied it as he saw fit.  When you're playing solo, this is not so much of a problem, but it drives bass players crazy.
Jim Jackson backed the song in G position, standard tuning (though perhaps tuned low) and accompanies it with a 4/2 pulse, striking bass notes on the four beats and strumming on the upbeats.  He worries a 3-note motif that was also made much of by Jim Baxter: it's on the fourth string, walking from the second fret to the first fret to the open string.  Relative to the key in which they are played, these notes are VI-flatVI-V.  When you phrase any 3-note motif in a meter divisible by four, it flips over and over on itself.  Here is a transcription of Jim's bass line for his fourth verse.  Unless otherwise indicated, the notes are played on the fourth string.

   |1-0-2-1|0-2-1-0|2-1-0-2|1-0-2-0|

   |2-1-0-2|1-0-3(6th)-2(5th)|3(6th)-2(5th)-0-2(5th)|3(6th)-2(5th)-0-2|

   |0-0-0-0(all 5th)|0-2-0-2|3(6th)-2(5th)-0-2(5th)|3(6th)-2(5th)-0-2|

To test the sound of this if it is unfamiliar, just hold down the 3rd fret of the first string for your strumming on the off-beats in all the measures except the ninth.  In the ninth measure play a D chord in the left hand for your strumming.
Listening to the sound of this accompaniment, I think it's fair to say the Blues had not fully arrived in Jim Jackson's neck of the woods.  It is really odd to start the accompaniment for a vocal hitting the flat VI note of the scale on the downbeat of the form, but listen to it a couple of times and it sounds like it was meant to be.  It has an odd sort of circular perseveration and its own kind of loosey-goosey charm.  It's a striking sound, and I don't recall hearing anything like it in Blues-related music in recent years.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: March 02, 2006, 09:17:11 PM by Johnm »

Online Johnm

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #20 on: March 23, 2006, 10:18:24 PM »
Hi all,
One pre-blues tune that has enjoyed a lot of popularity in both the African-American and Old Time traditions is "Railroad Bill".  The earliest recording of it that I have heard was done by Will Bennett, who recorded two sides in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1929.  Bennett's version, while played in C in standard tuning like every other version of the song, lacks the spiffy finger-picking that is to be found on virtually every other recorded version.  Bennett plays a simple cut-time version of the song, and sounds to be simply strumming downward with his thumb.  That having been said, Bennett's playing provides a perfect accompaniment for his terrific singing.  He plays the song with the following chord progression/bar structure.

   |      C       |        C        |         C          |        C        |

   |      C       |        C        |         F          |         F        |

   |      C       |        G7      |         C          |         C        |

The lyrics phrase verses over the first 8 bars of the form with the refrain entering at the tail end of the eighth bar, a la

   Railroad Bill, ought to be killed
   Never worked and he never will,
   REFRAIN:  I'm gon' ride my Railroad Bill

According to David Evans' liner notes to the old OJL anthology, "Let's Go Riding",
   "Railroad Bill was a nickname for Morris Slater, a Negro train robber who operated in Alabama and Florida from 1894 to 1897.  In his career he killed a deputy and a sheriff before being shot down himself on March 7, 1897, while eating cheese and crackers at a grocery store at Atmore, Alabama."
Will Bennett's version of "Railroad Bill" is currently available on the Document CD "Sinners And Saints", DOCD-5106, and I don't believe it has ever been equalled vocally.
A version of "Railroad Bill" that evidently influenced a lot of people in the New York Folk Music scene was recorded by the great Old Time player Hobart Smith in 1946.  Like just about everything Smith recorded at that time of his life, this rendition of "Railroad Bill" was played really fast, really hard and really strong.  This version is available on the Rounder CD "Hobart Smith--Blue Ridge Legacy", Rounder CD 11661-1799-2, and includes many of the verses that are most commonly heard sung to the song.  Two other versions of the song by Smith (one played on banjo) are included on the recently released Smithsonian Folkways CD, "Hobart Smith--In Sacred Trust", SFW CD 40141.  The notes to this CD inform us that Smith learned the song from Bob Campbell, an albino African-American from Saltville, Virginia's Smoky Row, of whom Smith recalled,
   "His eyes would just dance in his head when he played that "Railroad Bill".  And of all my traveling since, of all the colored people I've heard play it, of all the men I ever heard play it, I've never heard a man could beat Bob Campbell playing "Railroad Bill".  Ah, he was wonderful.  Ain't no question about that."
Whether he got it from Bob Campbell or not, Hobart Smith's versions of "Railroad Bill" introduces a chordal innovation not found in Will Bennett's version.  Occasionally, Smith substitutes an E7 chord for the C chord in the fifth and sixth bars.  The resolution of the E7 to the F chord can similarly be found in Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train".
The next version of "Railroad Bill" to catch people's ears was recorded by Etta Baker in 1956, and appeared on the old Tradition LP, "Instrumental Music Of The Southern Appalachians".  This version, done instrumentally, has an epic quality, and is chock full of fresh ideas and nifty personal touches.  Etta Baker came up with a segue passage that occurs several times in the course of the rendition, employing a "mystery" chord, that occasioned a lot of discussion.  The mystery chord is substituted for the C chord in the first four bars of the form, resolving into the E7 chord in the fifth and sixth bars and then the form is completed as it is normally played.  Etta's mystery chord is a rootless F7 chord, fingered:   x-3-x-2-4-0.  She alternates between the fifth and third string with her thumb while moving back and forth between the fourth fret of the second string (Eflat) and the open first string (E).  When she resolves to E7 in the fifth bar, she simply moves the position down one fret, intact, winding up with E7 played as x-2-x-1-3-0.  She keeps the same right hand pattern going, alternating between the fifth and third strings while moving between the third fret of the second string (D) and the open first string (E) in the treble.  The sound of the rootless F7 is so striking in this context, and the resolution to the E7 is so satisfying; it's one of the great moments in finger-picked guitar.
I believe this early recording by Etta Baker has recently been made available on CD again, and she also recorded an excellent version of "Railroad Bill" for her Rounder CD, "Etta Baker--One Dime Blues", Rounder CD 2112. 
A particularly strong version of "Railroad Bill" that is not nearly as well-known as it should be was recorded by the late Delaware Bluesman Frank Hovington, and can be found on his Flyright CD, "Frank Hovington--Gone With The Wind", Fly CD 66.  Something about "Railroad Bill" seems to inspire players to come up with their own special touches, and Frank Hovington does some great things that I haven't heard anyone else do on the song.  He introduces at a couple of points in his rendition a whole different lyric strain and melody that is like an interpolation from another song.  He sings:

   If I lose, let me lose, I don't care
   If I lose, let me lose, I don't care
   Lose eight dollars while trying to win one dime
   We can afford some hard luck sometime

Charlie Poole sang essentially the same lyric in his song, "If I Lose", but his melody was different than Frank Hovington's.  Frank Hovington's version of "Railroad Bill" is on the Weenie Juke, and you might want to check it out if you've not heard it before.
John Jackson also recorded a beautiful version of "Railroad Bill" on his Alligator CD, "Front Porch Blues", ALCD 4867.  John's version clocks in at 4:02 and is notable for the great number of verses he sang that did not appear on any other recorded versions.  John sometimes concludes the form in this rendition with an instrumental tag that is reminiscent of the Carter Family's "Cannonball Blues", which Maybelle may have learned from A.P.'s song finder and blues source, Leslie Riddle.
If you are interested in playing "Railroad Bill", there are certainly a number of excellent versions to get ideas from, both in terms of lyrics and accompaniment, and it's particularly appealing to have a song that appears to have a built-in expectation that the player will come up with a few original wrinkles of his or her own.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #21 on: March 24, 2006, 12:46:50 AM »
According to David Evans' liner notes to the old OJL anthology, "Let's Go Riding",
   "Railroad Bill was a nickname for Morris Slater, a Negro train robber who operated in Alabama and Florida from 1894 to 1897.  In his career he killed a deputy and a sheriff before being shot down himself on March 7, 1897, while eating cheese and crackers at a grocery store at Atmore, Alabama."
Will Bennett's version of "Railroad Bill" is currently available on the Document CD "Sinners And Saints", DOCD-5106, and I don't believe it has ever been equalled vocally.
I love that song, and that entire OJL compilation as a matter of fact!

Norm Cohen in "Long Steel Rail; The Railroad in American Folk Song" (Illinois UP 1981) devotes a chapter to the songs about Railroad Bill and reproduces conflicting "eye witness" reports of the shooting. Cohen lists the first recorded version as by Riley Pucket on Sept 11, 1924.

I have a yellowing photocopy of a Paul Oliver three page article on "Railroad Bill from Music Mirror (Dec 1956), if it strikes me as worth posting as a new topic I may attempt to scan and do so.

Offline Cambio

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #22 on: March 24, 2006, 05:42:42 AM »
Frank Hutchison also recorded the song in 1929.  His version would be similiar to the Hobart Smith version in which he goes from the C to E in the fifth and sixth bars.  Hutchison's version can be found on Documents Old Time Music From West Virginia.  This CD also features the recordings of Dick Justice.  Both Justice and Hutchison were fountians of lots of pre-blues material in addition to being great white blues players .
« Last Edit: March 24, 2006, 05:56:41 AM by Cambio »

Offline frankie

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #23 on: March 24, 2006, 05:54:54 AM »
In L&N Rag by Alex Hood and the Railroad Boys, the same E to F movement is also used (actually, F to E and back to F) - I think it must have developed partially out of pop music of the day...  doesn't Darktown Strutter's Ball have some motion like that in it?

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #24 on: March 24, 2006, 11:30:52 PM »
Hi all,
I agree with you about the Origin Jazz album, "Let's Go Riding", Bunker Hill.  It's a tremendous collection, and has one of the greatest covers of any blues re-issue CD, a wonderful photo of a paddlewheeler. 
Your mention of Frank Hutchison was a good one, Todd.  I had completely forgotten that he recorded "Railroad Bill", and when I went back and listened to his version I found it to be a really interesting one.  Frank Hutchison had such a wonky sense of phrasing, yet it sounds natural when he does it.  He does an interesting tag on some of his verses, walking the C chord he resolves to at the end of the form up two frets to a D7 and then going to G for a very brief modulation from which he returns almost immediately to C.  A tune that employs this move in much the same way is Elizabeth Cotten's instrumental "Wilson Rag", though in "Wilson Rag", you stay in G much longer than in Frank Hutchison's version of "Railroad Bill". 

After thinking about it, I believe one reason that so many of the people who played "Railroad Bill" put interesting little instrumental tags at the end of the form or added new material to the basic form of the song is because if the song is performed without any such additions, the vocal never lets up and dominates the accompaniment on what is designed to be an instrumental showpiece.  It's analogous to the way that many musicians when playing 8-bar blues--Ishmon Bracey playing "Woman, Woman", Furry Lewis playing "Dryland", John Hurt playing "Sliding Delta" and others--extended the form to allow for some instrumental fireworks at the end of the form before starting the next verse.  Since in the 8-bar blues mentioned the vocal, as in "Railroad Bill", never lets up in the course of the form, the only way to get the vocal to pause for a moment so the guitar can shine is to lengthen the form.  And the ways that the various musicians who have played "Railroad Bill" have chosen to lengthen the form provides insight into their musical personalities and imagination.
I don't think I have heard "L & N Rag", Frank.  Where can it be found?  Another C song that has the E7--F move is the Trad Jazz classic, "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor", or as John Hurt played it, "Ain't No Tellin'".
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: March 25, 2006, 09:32:16 AM by Johnm »

Offline Stefan Wirz

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #25 on: March 25, 2006, 12:04:03 AM »
since man is an eye-animal (from my OJL discography:

Offline Cambio

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #26 on: March 25, 2006, 05:45:24 AM »
I've been on a Frank Huchison bender for a couple of months now.  He's really seems under rated and largely ignored.  His style is particularly peculiar and he's a very diverse player, fingerpicking, playing lapstyle and strumming in accompaniment to his harmonica rack playing.  He's a fantastic singer and has a really interesting repertoire.
Back to what you were saying about different player's treatment of Railroad Bill, I guess that is one of the reasons why I really enjoy pre-blues material, there are so many different treatments of the "standards".  It's almost the same way that different jazz players put their mark on a tune by playing it in their own unique style.  You can look at songs like Cassie Jones, Stagger Lee, Take Me Back, Pallet, and each player makes it his or her own.  I think Lemon's Beggin Back is the perfect example of this as is Frank Hutchison's Stagger Lee.  They both follow the basic guidelines of the song or story, but they are both unique creations of the player.

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #27 on: March 25, 2006, 07:42:15 AM »
I haven't heard much Frank Hutchison stuff........but what I have heard is great.....the  tune 'The Last Scene Of The Titanic' sounds so much like stuff Woody Guthrie and Dylan would do later...the wonderful scene contrasts etc.

Offline frankie

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #28 on: May 23, 2006, 08:34:06 PM »
I don't think I have heard "L & N Rag", Frank.  Where can it be found?

It's on Yazoo's The Music of Kentucky, Volume 1.

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Re: The Persistence of Pre-Blues Material
« Reply #29 on: May 23, 2006, 09:29:17 PM »
Thanks, Frank, for the place to find "L & N Rag".  Turns out I have that CD but didn't register the title.  Doh.
All best,
Johnm

 


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