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Author Topic: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?  (Read 10451 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #15 on: December 18, 2005, 11:53:09 AM »
Hi all,
Thanks for the catch, John C.!? I sure enough had the open 6th string in Jesse Thomas's A7 voicing mis-labeled as a root, when it is in fact the 5th, as you observed.? It's nice to know someone is paying that much attention.
Your observation about the significance of tritones in blues harmony is dead on the money.? One of the interesting things about tritones in a circle-of-fifths progression is that they move down chromatically and invert with each successive chord.? So if you think of a typical raggy progression like I-VI7-II7-V7-I, in the key of C, in which each chord, beginning with the VI chord is the V of the chord that follows it, you get the following chordal positions, which I venture to say, a lot of you have played:
 
 C:? ?0-3-2-0-1-0
 A7:? 0-0-2-2-2-3
 D7:? 2-0-0-2-1-2
 G7:? 3-2-0-0-0-1
 C:? 0-3-2-0-1-0

In this progression, starting with the A7 chord, the tritones are moving down the second and first strings, so that in the A7, D7, and G7 chords, the chord voices played on the second and first strings are, respectively:

? ?A7:? 3rd-7th
? ?D7:? 7th-3rd
? ?G7:? 3rd-7th

Note that when the G7 tritone resolves to C, it contracts.? This is because it is voiced 3rd-7th, and in that configuration it resolves to the I chord by moving up a half-step from B to C, and down a half-step from F to E.? The tritone always wants to achieve the closest resolution possible.?
If you imagine a V7-I resolution in which the tritone in the V7 chord is voiced 7th-3rd, like in a D7 to G resolution as shown below, you get a different resolution movement.

? D7:? 2-0-0-2-1-2
? G:? 3-2-0-0-0-3

In this case, to achieve the closest resolution, the tritone expands, with the lower note, C, resolving down a half-step into B, and the higher note, F#, resolving up by a half-step into G.? From looking at these examples, you can see that in a V7-I resolution, if the tritone in the V7 chord is voiced 3rd-7th, from low to high, it wants to contract when it resolves.? If, on the other hand, the tritone is voiced 7th-3rd, from low to high, it wants to expand when it resolves.? It is pretty cool stuff, and is transferrable to any instrument you might want to play blues on that can play more than one note at a time
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: December 23, 2005, 12:42:58 AM by Johnm »

Charles Freeborn

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #16 on: December 18, 2005, 12:25:07 PM »
I think Cambio's take is probably worth a good look. Those of us that play (or try to play) these kinds of music tend to look at it from a technical / musical viewpoint, when perhaps we should take a step back and look at it from a cultural one. The players were playing what the people wanted to hear/ dance/re-produce, etc. to. The musicians were then (as now) bringing their own form(s) of expression to the gig, but first and foremost they needed to get paid.
I also find it interesting how forum discussions (don't get me wrong, I think it's important to study technique) on particular players, such as Blind Blake, will endlessly obsess over the minutiae of  technique while ignoring the cultural, and in the case of Blake musical influences (he played with Louis Armstrong for instance) that shaped his musical voice.
-C

Offline Johnm

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #17 on: December 18, 2005, 01:26:25 PM »
Hi Charles,
Welcome to Weenie Campbell!? I agree that obsessing over technique can be a bit arid, particularly when discussing how long-dead musicians executed a particular move.? Without a means of observing how the playing was in fact performed, it is all conjecture in any case, made more or less plausible by the person making the claim's ability to reproduce the sound in question successfully.
I would differentiate between technique and music, though.? Technique is an imponderable in most cases when dealing with the earliest generation of country blues musicians.? Music that resulted from those techniques though, is an entity that at this point has a conceptual and aural substance that is an historical fact and a life of its own out in the world.? And the fact is that books and discussions of the cultural background that gave rise to the blues, biographies of the players, etc., are significantly more easy to come by than are analyses of the music.? Discussion of the actual music of the blues has a very long way to go before it catches up with everything that has been written about the culture of the blues and the people who made the music.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: December 19, 2005, 10:25:06 AM by Johnm »

Offline Buzz

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #18 on: December 18, 2005, 01:46:46 PM »
I have been reading and following this thread, lurking! 8)

John, I hear what you are saying about the "need" for the ongoing exigesis/dissection/discussion of the   technique and musicality of this music we listen to,  especially since there is so much written about the culture and times of origin. I agree with that, I think.

I'm fascinated, at my level as an on-going student of this country blues music, by the seemingly endless minor and major differences in technique, chord voicings, single string runs, etc. that keep popping up, and that seem so new to me. There is a wealth of technical pearls learned and practiced by these original men and women that have yet to be identified and described, and then to be heard and tried, then slowly and repeatedly played,  learned and incorporated by me...

Anyway, the discussions seem appropriate and ever inspiring to me.
Buzz
Do good, be nice, eat well, smile, treat the ladies well, and ignore all news reports--which  can't be believed anyway,

Buzz

Offline waxwing

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #19 on: December 18, 2005, 03:13:05 PM »
Hey, Charles. Yes, it is good to see you here. Welcome.

Discussion of music is very helpful to me. Having come to the blues at age 50, five years ago, I don't really have a lifetime left to devote to ingraining the music into my ear only by listening. Sure, it's just the I, IV, and V chord, and really I guess I could just strum the first position chords and sing the blues all I want, but somehow the tremendous complexity that was brought to the music by the many, many players, each with their own interesting style, so much inspired by the finger playing of their ancestors on simple strtinged instruments, is what fuels my passion to perform and hopefully inspire others with the music. Through the guidance of teachers like John M, and your good friend Woody, I have made remarkable progress from my perspective, both in playing, and in "hearing" the music, and seeing the musical connections between different players' approaches to the simple I, IV, V form (or even the Rag circle of 5ths) allows me to grow and assimilate styles even more quickly.

Of course, having heard your playing, Charles, I know you share some of this passion, even if it is in a slightly different direction from my own.

As to culture, it's hard for me to draw a cultural parallel between what drove the early blues musicians and what drives me. Of course, the earliest country players may have had quite a different audience from the later, more professional players, who were recorded much more heavily, but certainly they both wanted to engage their audiences varying tastes. So few people have any awareness of country blues today. I find, when I perform, that even people who have never heard this style of music performed are often quite taken by it and anxious to find out where they can hear more.

This is very encouraging, both for me as a performer, but also for the country blues scene in general. However, I think it is important today, culturally to have a more varied style than the early performers did. If I were to only perform the music of say, Blind Blake, I don't think the audience would be as involved as they are when I emulate the styles of several players, Delta Piedmont, St Louis styles, or what have you. Nor if I were to attempt to shorten my own individuation process by just borrowing the songs of these players and ignoring their styles, creating "my own" style from scratch.

Elijah Wald, in his popular book, Escaping the Delta, makes a statement something to the effect that today a "country blues" player is judged by how good an actor one is. He seems to be saying this in a derrogatory way, refering to putting on the "country bumkin" image of the pop press which he spends much of the book debunking. But, having been an actor for much of my life, I took this in an entirely different way. If, by creating the "character" of the style of each individual artist that I emulate, to whatever detail I desire, I felt I could understand the cultural background that brought that artist's style about, totally on a subliminal level, of course. By putting myself into all of these various "characters", yet, over time, allowing each to affect the others, thru my instrument (particularly my voice, but certainly also my hands), I think that my own style will grow from these cultural antecedents. I was particularly encouraged in this regard by John M's post after PT mentioning the differences between Dave Bro's and my emerging styles (thanks again, John for that feedback). I hadn't really felt that, if I had a style, it was that discernable yet, until I read John's post.

In the spirit of some of the recent posts on the Back Porch, I would also like to register how much this forum has meant to me in my own personal musical growth. Thanks, all! And thanks, Charles, for sparking this little epiphany. It's good for me to express my sense of my own journey, to others, from time to time.

All for now.
John C.
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Offline Johnm

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #20 on: July 18, 2009, 10:47:22 PM »
Hi all,
It's been a long time since this thread was posted to, but I've had occasion to transcribe Curley Weaver's recording of "Some Rainy Day" from the early '50s recently and found one aspect of his performance that made it relevant to this discussion.  The performance (which can be found on the JSP "Atlanta Blues" set) has Curley backing himself out of G position in standard tuning, and one of the most distinctive aspects of his sound is his heavy emphasis of the 6th behind his I chord, G.  He opens the song playing in G and fingering the sixth (E) located at the second fret of the fourth string under his G chord.  Throughout the song, he plays runs on the interior four strings while picking the open first string, and concludes the performance with a strum of the top four strings open, a G6 chord in this context.

I'm hard put to think of another Country Blues recording with such a heavy emphasis on the sixth of the I chord.  The closest I can come is the music of Jimmy Lee Williams, who loved to sing or hum a VI note against a III note he was playing with a slide.  In the case of "Some Rainy Day", it sounds as though Curley Weaver was infatuated with the sound of the sixth chord, the I chord of choice for Swing Era guitarists, and chose to incorporate it into his sound, at least for that song.
All best,
Johnm

 

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #21 on: July 21, 2009, 06:38:39 AM »
I've thought a great deal about this subject since John Miller's original post, and have a few thoughts.
We all recognize the year 1929 as the beginning of the Great Depression, and even though the word depression was used to describe a rapidly contracting economy, with concomitant loss of jobs and income,we know too well that the effects on people caught in such circumstances can be profoundly depressing in the psychological sense.
Homes are lost, marriages collapse, family members drift off in search of work elsewhere. Social destabilization becomes the norm. What emerges is an image of the future grey and featureless in its aspect, hopeless feeling, repetitive and maybe endless. A rut, a groove a monochromatic, monotonic world which insists on a joyless march of survival unrelieved by even small letups in its monotony. Contrast that to the preceding period of hysterical economic extravagance.  A mirror image, a society endlessly able to generate novelty, accelerated change in fashions, and in the arts. High spirits and a sense of an unlimited future of progress and good times prevailed.
I contend that the phenomenon you describe, the development of chordaly complex, fast tempoed, joyfull music often with novelty lyric content was a product of the hyper optimistic twenties, and that the reductionistic impulses that became predominant post '29 were an instinctive response to the overall sense of a world with reduced possibilities. Simplistic perhaps but it does seem to fit the circumstances.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2009, 06:48:18 AM by Mr.OMuck »
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Offline lindy

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #22 on: July 21, 2009, 09:24:06 AM »

I've got a couple of problems with that analysis, mostly concerning the increasing complexity that occurred in other art forms around that time. Jazz kept evolving in complexity in the 1930s (Duke! Prez!) before the commercial interests found that big swing bands that played high-tempo, joyful, and harmonically simple/repetitive riffs were where the money was. Classical music moved toward more diversity and complexity, visual artists on both sides of the pond were experimenting with all kinds of rich ideas during the period.

Methinks economics had a lot to do with why country blues didn't go down the same path toward more complexity. Before The Depression, talent scouts were willing to record a few sides from a large number of unknown players who showed up at their hotel rooms, since they could afford to, and perhaps they would find a really big $tar in the bunch that they did record. Those players had all kinds of rich musical ideas to share, we're all thankful that we have access to the tips of those creative icebergs. And as we all know, when the money dried up the companies were only willing to record a small number of tried-and-true money-makers, and those artists were not as harmonically complex. (There's a whole bunch of exceptions to talk about, but they were exceptions.)

A competing simplistic analysis to move the conversation forward. Fire at will.

Lindy

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #23 on: July 21, 2009, 12:22:01 PM »
Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemp  1913
Picasso's Mademoiselles d' Avignon 1907
Matisse's piano lesson 1916
Joyces Ulysses, 1918

If "other art forms" got more interesting and complex after that I must have missed it.

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline lindy

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #24 on: July 21, 2009, 01:17:15 PM »


I surrender my sword to you, good sir, but aren't those the trailblazers who made it possible for other modernists to continue evolving in the 20s and 30s? Perhaps I need a better time line than my Reader's Digest copy.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #25 on: July 21, 2009, 05:50:35 PM »
Hi all,
You make an interesting case for the more monochromatic chordal vocabulary employed by Country Blues players in the '30s and later mirroring the drabness of the feel of the Depression Era, O'Muck, as do you alternatively in your semi-rebuttal, Lindy.  I'm interested in explanations of these types because they wouldn't occur to me in a million years.  There's certainly no obvious purely musical explanation for the change.  I've been thinking about the issue again and have a couple of different ideas to put on the plate.
You could say that it was just a result of a change of fashion in a Popular Music style, but that's begging the question, and perhaps confusing cause and effect.  One thing that occurs to me is that, to the extent that the more chordally complex raggy blues of the '20s mirrored the harmonic vocabulary of much of the Pop Music of the day, it was still a pretty simple vocabulary, with lots of circle of fifth progressions, like I-VI7-II7-V7, or III7-VI7-II7-V7.  To the extent that the vocabulary ventured outside of the I-IV-V orbit, it tended to work with dominant 7th chords and the occasional diminished 7th chord, at least as it manifested in blues players.

The chordal vocabulary of Pop Music continued to expand and evolve into the '30s, though, to include lots of minor 7th chords and minor7flat5 chords as the decade wore on, and these additions to the vocabulary were not easily incorporated into the raggy blues vocabulary of the previous decade.  Moreover, the raggy sound had become passe.  So to the extent that Blues players continued to play the blues, they jettisoned the raggy sounds of the past and focused on the I-IV7-V7 harmonic core of the music.  

Some musicians were sophisticated and adaptable enough to continue to play both I-IV-V blues and the harmonically expanded Pop Music of the Era.  People like Martin, Bogan and Armstrong, the Mississippi Sheiks and Bo Carter could work both sides of the fence, though they were generally recorded doing the more bluesy material.

Musicians who valued harmonic innovation enough to be put off by a steady diet of I-IV-V, probably exited the blues scene and opted instead for Pop Music or Jazz, where Blues harmony continued to evolve (and still continues to evolve).  A topic that I think would be fascinating to study but that, to my knowledge, has never been really examined, is what factors determined whether musically inclined youngsters of the same background and from the same locale in the early decades of the 20th century ended up playing Blues or Jazz.
All best,
Johnm        
« Last Edit: July 21, 2009, 10:21:50 PM by Johnm »

Offline phhawk

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #26 on: July 22, 2009, 12:01:00 AM »
Although external and environmental influences undoubtedly shape the content of any blues piece, I think the move from more harmonically complex pieces to simpler forms may be something as simple as the development and evolution of portable amplifiers and electric guitars, which seem to parallel this development. As Marshall Mcluhan says, "the medium is the message". Those that embraced the new technology seemed to rise in popularity while those that didn't were gradually (or not so gradually) pushed aside.

With the new technology, came new demands for new forms that more closely complemented the properties of the new technologies.

Does this mean that we will all eventually be turned into robots? Probably!       

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #27 on: July 22, 2009, 06:32:22 AM »
Quote
Musicians who valued harmonic innovation enough to be put off by a steady diet of I-IV-V, probably exited the blues scene and opted instead for Pop Music or Jazz, where Blues harmony continued to evolve (and still continues to evolve).

Probably true and documentable.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #28 on: July 22, 2009, 06:53:19 AM »
I do think the business of music and its tendency to force homogeneity is in large part to blame, as has been mentioned. But I wonder if musical laziness had something to do with it as well. Some of the monotony of modern and contemporary blues seems rooted in apathy to me, a going-through-the-motions attitude where you put in your time for a few bucks and that's about it.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #29 on: July 22, 2009, 09:42:03 AM »
Hi all,
Thanks for bringing other thoughts to the discussion, folks.  I thought of a big "oops" exception to my assertion in my most recent post that the raggy sounds of the '20s were jettisoned by '30s blues musicians:  Blind Boy Fuller, who did about a zillion 16-bar blues (18 with the tag) that had I-VI-II-V A parts.  And Fuller was hugely popular, too.  Oh well, I guess he must have been the exception to the trend.  Yeah, that's it.
All best,
Johnm

 


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