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Author Topic: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?  (Read 10447 times)

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Offline lindy

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #30 on: July 22, 2009, 11:34:17 AM »
Fuller was one of two exceptions that I was on the verge of mentioning in my first post. The other was Bo Carter, who kept recording throughout the Depression and who remained harmonically interesting, if repetitious at times due to the number of songs he recorded. (I understand that his record sales were comparable to Fuller's.)

And regarding the move of country blues players to pop and jazz, I again think that the recording "biz" played a part in that. It may have been that a lot of country blues players who had really interesting things to say musically got their two sides of fame, wanted more, and figured that the way to get invited back into the studio was to play just like the most popular players of the time. The lacquer giveth, the lacquer taketh away in terms of encouraging continued harmonic complexity within the country blues genre. There was lots of creative stuff going on in other forms, and there's always the question of where one ends and the other begins. I don't want to go there.

I've also given some thought to your post, O'Muck, in which you mention, "What emerges is an image of the future grey and featureless in its aspect, hopeless feeling, repetitive and maybe endless." I think that pretty much describes the black experience in America, especially in rural America, from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression. Good times, bad times, Gilded Age, the recessions or depressions that occurred periodically in the last part of the 19th century--those things affected everyone, but when you were poor and black in the areas where the country blues emerged, it didn't matter nearly as much as it did for white Americans. Life was pretty bleak, but some harmonically rich music came out of those environments and experiences.

Lindy

« Last Edit: July 22, 2009, 12:26:52 PM by lindy »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #31 on: July 22, 2009, 12:39:52 PM »
Can be explained by geographic distance (NC) from the main musical trends in Blues.....maybe?
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Offline Johnm

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #32 on: July 22, 2009, 01:11:56 PM »
I think you've got something there, O'Muck.  Fuller was essentially a busker who made records, whereas the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple was more of a producer's studio-created music.  Fuller was a throwback in a lot of ways--his harmonic language was simpler than Blake's or Papa Charlie Jackson's, to say nothing of Bobby Leecan or Rev. Davis.  Blind Boy Fuller used more than I-IV-V, but in no way was he harmonically innovative. 
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Offline dj

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #33 on: July 22, 2009, 05:08:54 PM »
Quote
Fuller was essentially a busker who made records, whereas the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple...

Don't forget that Tampa Red recorded a lot of pop and swing with his Chicago Five until Bluebird told him it wanted only blues.  And Bumble Bee Slim was so frustrated being locked into the piano and guitar blues mold that he gave up his recording career and moved to California.  We know from surviving notebooks that Memphis Minnie and Little Son Joe included pop and swing into their live sets.  And I've always wondered about Leroy Carr - he was one of the most adventurous "blues" singers, including pop songs, hybrid pop/blues, and hokum into his recorded repertoire until his career was temporarily halted by the Depression in 1932.  When he resumed recording in 1934, he waxed nothing but blues.  Was that at the behest of his record company?

As for Fuller, he recorded on the East Coast under the direction of J.B. Long, who wasn't a record company employee.  Had he fallen into the clutches of Lester Melrose, we might today have an entirely different picture of him.

By necessity, we're forced to make inferences on what musicians played based on their surviving recordings.  But those recordings don't necessarily tell the whole story.  The recordings may have been an agent of change rather than reflecting changes that were already taking place outside the recording studio.       

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #34 on: July 22, 2009, 05:33:22 PM »
Quote
've also given some thought to your post, O'Muck, in which you mention, "What emerges is an image of the future grey and featureless in its aspect, hopeless feeling, repetitive and maybe endless." I think that pretty much describes the black experience in America, especially in rural America, from the end of the Civil War through the Great Depression. Good times, bad times, Gilded Age, the recessions or depressions that occurred periodically in the last part of the 19th century--those things affected everyone, but when you were poor and black in the areas where the country blues emerged, it didn't matter nearly as much as it did for white Americans. Life was pretty bleak, but some harmonically rich music came out of those environments and experiences.

I almost modified my original statement with such a proviso regarding the general tenor of African American experience in the period under discussion and excised it at the last minute because despite testimony by rural Blacks that the depression barely made a dent in the overall level of poverty, its not credible to me that it didn't have some worsening effect. Additionally, Black string bands routinely played for White functions and even though they themselves were not the economic beneficiaries of the roaring twenties, they would have had to have been familiar with some of its Raggy, upbeat repertoire in order to please their audience, dontcha think? Then again economic hardship is not necessarily an indicator of artistic impoverishment. A very complex web we're stuck to here I'm thinkin'.
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Offline lindy

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #35 on: July 22, 2009, 06:48:50 PM »
I agree with your comment about string bands, but I think that's a pretty small sample of the blues genre. Mississippi John Hurt is part of another specialized population of blues musicians who played for hoedowns, I have no idea how many others made some pocket change playing with other black musicians or white musicians in front of people doing dosey-does. Those same musicians may have been well-versed in rags, for the simple reason that the greater the number of musical niches they could cover, the greater the chances they could make some money from their music. Think Howard Armstrong playing Italian love songs on his mandolin.

Which brings up another aspect of this complex web, which my long-suffering Weenie brethren have heard me go on and on about before: the blues as dance music, with players in jooks playing the same riffs over and over and over with subtle variation, a very African approach to dance groove music making. I'm amazed at the thought of some of our heroes playing for hours on end at a country dance, in many cases as the only musician. (Mance Lipscomb was really good at that, I've heard.) I know that it's possible to have harmonically complex melodies on top of basic rhythmic grooves--Duke Ellington was the best at it, in my mind--but I also suspect that the preference for simple riffs on top of basic rhythmic grooves for dancing had something to do with reducing harmonic complexity in the blues, country and otherwise. Simple entertainment in small rural towns during hard times. I think the laziness that Uncle Bud mentioned about modern electric blues bands is tied to the desire of customers to go to a club and get on a dance floor, and the desire of the bands to get invited back to the club.

Do you like repetition and harmonic simplicity? Go to a zydeco club where one of the new generation bands has a gig. Which brings me to the only zydeco joke I know. Keith Frank had to hire a new guitar player for his band. At the audition he asks the first player, "Can you hold an Em7th chord?" The guitarist says, "Sure, no sweat, just like this." To which Keith says, "Yeah, but can you hold it for 45 minutes?"

Lindy




 

« Last Edit: July 22, 2009, 09:29:35 PM by lindy »

allenlowe

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #36 on: July 27, 2009, 04:27:44 AM »
"the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple was more of a producer's studio-created music."

how do we really know this as an absolute truth?

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #37 on: July 27, 2009, 11:23:59 AM »
"the small ensemble stuff coming out of Chicago from hitmakers in that period like Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, Bumblebee Slim, and Johnnie Temple was more of a producer's studio-created music."

how do we really know this as an absolute truth?
Bumble Bee Slim wasn't a happy bunny that's for sure. In 1962 he was complaining that "My contracts called for 40 tunes a year and they wouldn't give me the accompaniment I wanted". Each time I go to the studio I have a piano player and a guitar player. Piano and guitar, piano and guitar, you hear one number, you hear them all".

allenlowe

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #38 on: July 27, 2009, 11:45:17 AM »
there is no doubt that Lester Melrose put his stamp on those sessions, as Ralph Peer did on his sessions; but that does not mean that all those who recorded felt the same way - or that the configuration was necessarily different than that used in clubs. You may well be right, but I always feel that it's important to be cautious when making statements like that because we only have spotty, anecdotal evidence. As a matter of fact, there is a live recording of Lonnie Johnson from around that time, in which he is performing with - piano and guitar. So it may have been as much a matter of repertoire - but without set lists we don't know for sure. What did Tampa Red feel? Or Tommy McLennan? or Memphis Slim? Little Brother Montgomery (who has said that he felt limited by what the producers wanted)? They all recorded for Bluebird as well -

Offline dj

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #39 on: July 27, 2009, 02:00:20 PM »
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I always feel that it's important to be cautious when making statements like that because we only have spotty, anecdotal evidence

I couldn't agree more, both about the fact that it's important to be cautious when making statements about the past and about the fact that we only have spotty anecdotal evidence.

Nevertheless, the evidence we have, while spotty, is compelling, including, besides Bumble Bee Slim's statement:

Roosevelt Scott stating that he "played polka, Italian music, German music... we'd play blues, too..."
The request list and keys of songs list from Memphis Minnie and Little Son Joe reproduced in Paul Garon's Woman With Guitar
The oft-quoted fact that the McCoy brothers played Italian songs for Chicago's gangsters
Lonnie Johnson's recordings from the Boulevard Lounge in 1941.  Yes they were either two guitars and bass or piano (which Johnson played) guitar and bass, but of four extant songs, only one is a blues
Tampa Red's Chicago Five recordings
The McCoy brothers' work with the Harlem Hamfats

The list above is hardly exhaustive, one could certainly add to it with a bit of digging.  And it is admittedly spotty.  But If we're careful with what we say, I think we're justified in drawing a conclusion, and that conclusion is that of the musicians who made race records in Chicago in the second half of the 1930s and who were at least partly based in Chicago, a fairly large percentage were familiar with and at least occasionally played styles other than blues.

We'll never know what these musicians preferred to play and listen to, though at least in the case of Lonnie Johnson there's enough evidence to feel fairly certain it wasn't blues.  But it's fair to say that a significant number of them could and did play more than just the blues.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #40 on: July 27, 2009, 04:01:54 PM »
I guess a few of the respondents on this thread are tied up this week, but, aren't we getting away from the topic a bit, which I thought was Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues, not whether the repertoire of recorded country blues artists included material outside of CB?

Certainly the observation that players well away from the Chicago studio scene, even those in groups like the Shieks, managed to maintain more complexity, innovative or not, tends to lead towards some sort of consideration that the studios had some effect on the music. I'm sorry I'm not as familiar with the discography as the rest of you, but, are there examples of players recorded alone and later recorded with a studio combo backing? Or how about someone like Tampa Red? Was he recorded earlier with groups that might have been "his" band  that could be compared to later recordings with the studio band?

When you think that, say, the Shieks, for instance, were a group that rehearsed and played together and could work out complex harmonic or rhythmic arrangements, but that a player matched with a studio combo just for a session might have to resort to the lowest common denominator or lose the session, this seems to make sense.

And what do we know of the "club" scene in Chicago post depression but pre war (and pretty much pre electrification)? Was there already a "star" system of headliners who would pick up back up players for each gig, as seems to be the situation even today. This too would seem to tend toward the LCD of harmonic and rhythmic complexity. Or were there groups that actually arranged and rehearsed together, but were not recorded. I guess the Hamfats would qualify but seem to have progressed somewhat beyond blues, or certainly country blues.

Hope I'm not missing the direction everyone is going here.

Wax
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Offline dj

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #41 on: July 27, 2009, 04:42:06 PM »
Wax,

I think your post is appropriate, thanks.  I'd considered adding some additional statement to my post, but didn't mostly out of laziness. 

The point of my post is that it certainly wasn't laziness or unfamiliarity with other styles that was driving the simplification of the harmonic structure of the blues during this period, as it can be demonstrated that at least a significant minority of players was familiar with and could play in other styles.

 

allenlowe

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #42 on: July 28, 2009, 08:46:26 AM »
"But it's fair to say that a significant number of them could and did play more than just the blues"

that's not really what I was objecting to - I was objecting to the statement that this was purely a producer's music, forced on the musicians - I think the truth is more complex - sorry to continue ot -

Offline dj

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Re: Harmonic Complexity/Content in Country Blues--Where Did It Go?
« Reply #43 on: July 28, 2009, 09:15:56 AM »
Quote
that's not really what I was objecting to - I was objecting to the statement that this was purely a producer's music, forced on the musicians - I think the truth is more complex

Then we're in agreement.  Sorry for the misunderstanding.

 


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