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Author Topic: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From  (Read 5599 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« on: November 06, 2005, 08:35:04 AM »
This looks as if it might be of interest here:
http://www.upress.state.ms.us/catalog/fall2005/nobody_knows.html

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #1 on: November 06, 2005, 09:10:26 AM »
It sure does look interesting. Here's the full description from the above link.

Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History
Edited by Robert Springer
With essays by: Randall Cherry, John Cowley, David Evans, Tom Freeland and Chris Smith, Luigi Monge, Paul Oliver, Robert Springer, Guido van Rijn

A vibrant and varied look at African American songs and the history behind the lyrics

Musicians and music scholars rightly focus on the sounds of the blues and the colorful life stories of blues performers. Equally important and, until now, inadequately studied are the lyrics. The international contributors to Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From explore this aspect of the blues and establish the significance of African American popular song as a neglected form of oral history.

"High Water Everywhere: Blues and Gospel Commentary on the 1927 Mississippi River Flood," by David Evans, is the definitive study of songs about one of the greatest natural disasters in the history of the United States. In "Death by Fire: African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire," Luigi Monge analyzes a continuum of songs about exclusively African American tragedy. "Lookin' for the Bully: An Enquiry into a Song and Its Story," by Paul Oliver traces the origins and the many avatars of the Bully song. In "That Dry Creek Eaton Clan: A North Mississippi Murder Ballad of the 1930s," Tom Freeland and Chris Smith study a ballad recorded in 1939 by a black convict at Parchman prison farm. "Coolidge's Blues: African American Blues from the Roaring Twenties" is Guido van Rijn's survey of blues of that decade. Robert Springer's "On the Electronic Trail of Blues Formulas" presents a number of conclusions about the spread of patterns in blues narratives. In "West Indies Blues: An Historical Overview 1920s-1950s," John Cowley turns his attention to West Indian songs produced on the American mainland. Finally, in "Ethel Waters: 'Long, Lean, Lanky Mama,'" Randall Cherry reappraises the early career of this blues and vaudeville singer.

Robert Springer is a professor of English at the University of Metz in Longeville les Metz, France. Among other works, he is the author of Authentic Blues: Its History and Its Themes and the editor of The Lyrics in African American Popular Music.

January, 248 pages (approx.), 6 x 9 inches, index
ISBN 1-57806-797-9, cloth

Offline MTJ3

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #2 on: November 07, 2005, 08:33:16 AM »
I wonder if the title is derived from the lyrics of the 1930 Carr-Blackwell song, "Papa's On The House Top," the pertinent portion of which is "The blues they come/The blues they come/Nobody knows where the blues come from."  I can't think of any other songs in which that line appears.

An interesting and fairly quick read along the same lines is Cecil Brown's Stagolee Shot Billy.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #3 on: August 10, 2007, 12:33:44 PM »
Since mentioning this book elsewhere, I've had a couple of PM's asking for more information. To kill several birds with one stone I'm resurrecting this topic and adding the book's preface which speaks far better than I concerning its merit:

Although the aesthetic appeal of African American popular music has always been its main drawing card, the lyrical content of the songs, sometimes overlooked, is at least equally to be credited for its staying power.

Two seminal works, both by Paul Oliver, can be said to have launched the study of songs and lyrics in this domain: Blues Fell This Morning: The Meaning of the Blues (London: Cassell, I960; reprint: Cambridge University Press, I990) and Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge University Press, I984), which complemented each other, covering the broad spectrum of African American popular music, secular and religious, blues and non-blues, as found on commercial recordings over a time span of four decades from the 1920s to the 1950s.

The treasure being by no means exhausted, I felt the need to organize two conferences on "The Lyrics in African American Popular Music" at the University of Metz, France, in 2000 and 2002. The former led to the publication of selected papers in The Lyrics in African American Popular Music (Bern: Peter Lang, 2001). The latter took place on September 27 and 28, 200l, and gathered scholars and experts, in and outside the academic world, who, almost without exception, may be seen as disciples of Paul Oliver, himself an indispensable participant in the proceedings.

Eight papers, resulting from years of thorough research, make up this volume. In all, the focus rests on the historical dimensions of the lyrics with the intention of setting the record straight or creating a record where none existed. In several, the examination of the subtext has proved enlightening, helping to establish the significance of African American popular song as a neglected form of oral history.

With "High Water Everywhere: Blues and Gospel Commentary on the I927 Mississippi River Flood," David Evans delivers the definitive study of the repertoire of songs about the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States. The black population having been hardest hit by the flood, this historical event "served to give focus to many of the essential personal concerns found in blues and gospel song texts in general." More particularly, Evans amply demonstrates the presence as a subtext of the application of the rigid Jim Crow system to the rescue and relief effort. This vast corpus of songs is an important supplement to the news reports and official documents of the flood and, as such, constitutes history from the point of view of the otherwise voiceless.

Similarly, in "Death by Fire: African American Popular Music on the Natchez Rhythm Club Fire," Luigi Monge makes a detailed textual analysis of songs about another, this time exclusively, African American tragedy, the Natchez Rhythm Club fire of I940. This accident, of minor social importance at the national level, started a continuum of songs which, together, convey a historical message and are constitutive of a popular consciousness among black Americans. The author suggests that consideration of a diachronic context here, and more generally for thematic songs, may overcome the limitations of mere synchronic analysis.

In "Lookin' for the Bully: An Enquiry into a Song and Its Story," Paul Oliver, as ever stimulated by historical enigmas, retraces the origins in early black popular music and the many avatars of the "Bully song." He thus sheds more light on the generally obscure "pre-blues" period, assesses the song's durable career in the blues idiom, and suggests answers to relevant questions regarding the emotions audiences must have felt when listening to it.

In "That Dry Creek Eaton Clan: A North Mississippi Murder Ballad of the 1930s," Tom Freeland and Chris Smith choose a little-known ballad recorded in 1939 by John Lomax from a black convict at Parchman prison farm which describes and comments on a white murder and its aftermath. The question they address is how the ballad could have reached an African American singer and also remained so close to the Eatons' version of the story. The article ends with an enlightening discussion of what makes a song African American and of the target audiences of black performers.

"Coolidge's Blues: African American Blues from the Roaring Twenties" is a survey by Guido van Rijn of the blues of that decade. It delineates in effect the working-class African American point of view, leaving one with an impression in contrast with the general buoyancy of the decade as described in history books. The blues corpus of the period also reveals dreams of moving north to escape Jim Crow, often followed by disappointment after a brush with the difficulties of urban life.

My own contribution, "On the Electronic Trail of Blues Formulas," presents a number of early conclusions concerning the dissemination of blues formulas on commercial recordings, a study now made easier thanks to electronic searches. Though the database used awaits further additions, it is already possible at this stage to underline the influence of classic blues singers on their country blues counterparts but also to offer evidence of cross influences even among the reputedly most seminal blues artists.

In "West Indies Blues: An Historical Overview 1920s-1950s?Blues and Music from the English-speaking West Indies," John Cowley gives us a complete depiction of West Indian songs produced on the American mainland from the 1920s to the 1950s. With the cultural connections between the Caribbean and black America as a backdrop, the examination of aspects of cultural adjustment as well as musical and cultural interchange, informed as it is by lyric analysis, makes this a direly needed article on a treasure of black popular music which had until now received insufficient attention.

Closing the book with "Ethel Waters: 'Long, Lean, Lanky Mama,'" Randall Cherry reappraises the early career of an often maligned blues and vaudeville singer. The Ethel Waters of the 19205 indeed deserves to be rehabilitated and given pride of place in the history of the genre right next to Bessie Smith, her main rival at the time. The recorded songs studied here reveal her sensibility, her sophistication, and her multifaceted stage persona in "a perfect marriage of lyrics and performer."

Together, this collection presents African American popular music as a self contained cultural domain and as a form of oral history which continues to be a permanent source of enlightenment as it serves to shine a light on several dark corners of official history. Another common thread is the characterization of the music as a close blending of folklore and commercial facets. Lastly, in its own way, it is a celebration of the tremendous vitality of oral tradition among African Americans, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century.

May the proceedings of our conference provide readers with an opportunity to tap into the often unsuspected wealth of African American musical texts, learn from the studies of their origins and dissemination, penetrate the historical significance of the songs, and form their own opinions about the interpretations proposed here. Though blues singer and pianist Leroy Carr once claimed that "nobody knows where the blues come from" (in "Papa's on the House Top," recorded for Vocalion in 1930), the contributors to this book, with passion and determination, have done their utmost to trace some of the roots and developments of this and other related genres. (Robert Springer University of Metz, France December 2004)



Offline Mr.OMuck

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« Last Edit: February 05, 2009, 06:17:04 AM by Slack »
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: 'Nobody Knows Where The Blues Comes From"
« Reply #5 on: February 04, 2009, 09:35:44 PM »
Hi O'Muck - I've currently got this book in rotation with one or two others. It's a collection of academic essays that are the proceedings of a conference held at the University of Metz in France in 2002 under the banner of "The Lyrics of African American Popular Music". I have not read much of it yet, nor have I read anything in order, not that order seems to matter. It's just the book starts off with a humongous essay by David Evans on the 1927 Mississippi flood, so I went first for shorter pieces by Paul Oliver ("Lookin' for the Bully", which I believe I cited in the Razor Ball section of the McTell lyrics thread) and Robert Springer ("On the Electronic Trail of Blues Formulas"), which traces several blues lyric formulas, including the Match Box verse I went on about recently, through various incarnations. The Oliver essay is excellent, as expected, and the Springer piece is right up my alley these days, though not gripping reading since it is composed mostly of lyric excerpts and comparisons. There is another enormous essay on West Indies Blues by John Cowley, an essay called That Dry Creek Eaton Clan dealing with a lesser known murder ballad by Tom Freeland and Chris Smith, and one called "Coolidge's Blues: African American Blues Songs on Prohibition, Migration, Unemployment and Jim Crow" by Guido Van Rijn, among others. All look very interesting, though I'll confess a few of the writers have tired me out before.

As the conference and book title promise, the essays examine their subjects through numerous lyrical examples, quoted at length (a good thing!)
« Last Edit: February 05, 2009, 06:17:34 AM by Slack »

Offline Stuart

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Re: 'Nobody Knows Where The Blues Comes From"
« Reply #6 on: February 05, 2009, 08:32:59 AM »
Hi Mr. O:

As Andrew has given a clear and thorough description, I'll just add that I checked it out of the library while back, just to peruse it as I didn't have the time to go cover to cover. My impressions were that it is well worth reading when time permits as it appears to contain a lot of interesting info on various topics. If the public library has a copy, check it out for yourself--its a cheap date.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #7 on: February 05, 2009, 12:37:48 PM »
Howdy folks. Since we had an older thread with some good information about this book, I've merged the two.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #8 on: February 06, 2009, 12:19:02 AM »
Howdy folks. Since we had an older thread with some good information about this book, I've merged the two.
Gulp, and I started it back in 2005. The little grey cells ain't what they were! I've duly removed my message of yesterday which now seems pointless.
« Last Edit: February 06, 2009, 12:20:38 AM by Bunker Hill »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #9 on: February 06, 2009, 06:40:10 AM »
I didn't remember it either!  :D Think of it as an opportunity to discover things anew.  :P

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #10 on: February 10, 2009, 10:56:17 AM »
One thing I will say as I continue to delve into this book is that, unless one is writing literary material, there's really no excuse for single paragraphs going on for entire pages of fairly small type, and in one case over 2 pages. I don't know whether this is just lazy writing or editing, or both. But it makes interesting research harder to read.
« Last Edit: February 10, 2009, 11:01:58 AM by uncle bud »

Offline dj

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #11 on: February 10, 2009, 11:19:53 AM »
Quote
there's really no excuse for single paragraphs going on for entire pages of fairly small type

I have the same complaint about Ramblin' On My Mind: New Perspectives On The Blues, edited by David Evans.  I just don't understand people who write for publication who spend years learning to do research and researching and absolutely no time learning how to write readable prose.  You may have done the most interesting and important research ever, but it's pretty worthless if your audience stops reading after the second page because your prose is so impenetrable.

I say this as someone who has absolutely no idea how to write interesting prose.         

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #12 on: February 10, 2009, 03:13:29 PM »
Its a disease and requirement of Academe. The denser and more impenetrable the better. You also have to site other scholars ad naseum. This all results in something no one outside academe would ever be inclined to read, and therefore provides a bit of protective cover for the author, and helps maintain the mystique of exclusivity surrounding the ivory tower.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline lindy

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #13 on: February 10, 2009, 04:03:26 PM »
Lindy's my name, academic editing is my game, I help foreign researchers get published in English-language journals to beef up their CVs.

Once I met an anthropology professor from an American university who was famous for doing things such as starting his manuscripts with 200-word quotes in German without any translation or effort to explain them in his text. A couple of his students and I used the "fog factor" to calculate the density of his text. The fog factor takes the number of sentences in a paragraph, number of words with multiple syllables in the same paragraph, then you say "hocus-pocus" and multiply something by .4, and the result is supposed to be the number of years of education you need to understand the writing. Most daily newspapers have fog factors between 6 and 8. This guy's text had a fog factor of 32, equal to 2-1/2 Ph.Dees. When I asked him about it he told me, "Writing for clarity is a bourgeois restriction on my creativity."

I am not making this up!

Lindy
« Last Edit: February 10, 2009, 06:42:50 PM by lindy »

Offline Stuart

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #14 on: February 10, 2009, 04:21:33 PM »
...You also have to site other scholars...

Mr. O:

There are a few scholars (as well as several non-scholars) who I'd like to site--if I could only find the appropriate "site!" ;)

There was an entertaining article written years ago--"Dancing With Professors" that you would enjoy--maybe it's available on the web somewhere.

EDIT--Found It: http://trc.ucdavis.edu/bajaffee/nem150/Course%20Content/dancing.htm

I'm not sure which sections UB is referring to, but it is important to note that some writers are not native speakers of English. Another problem is that often so much time, energy and concentration goes into the research part of an article that stylistic concerns end up taking a back seat. It can be a case of "been on the job too long" which results in all perspective being lost. In addition, many academic presses have no hands on editorial staff, and even proofreading is a DYI project. Some require camera ready copy as well as a subvention, so what does that tell you? I'll agree that some of this stuff is incomprehensible. The inside joke is that the only people who really understand it are those who don't understand it.

Nevertheless, I've learned to read through and around the stylistic awkwardness and just try to focus on any useful info that such writings may contain. However, I'm still of the opinion that one always benefits from good crit, so bring on that blue pencil!
« Last Edit: February 10, 2009, 04:43:59 PM by Stuart »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #15 on: February 10, 2009, 04:52:45 PM »
I've certainly had to read all sorts of academic abominations in my education and career, many examples of which make most blues scholars look like paragons of clarity. I'm not saying the essays in this collection fall into Lindy's "fog factor" scheme at all -- love the bourgeois quote, Lindy. In their content, the essays are in fact quite clear, if occasionally sterile, and for the most part avoid the obscure jargon one can get in other disciplines. Citations of other works without even minimal summary is an annoyance (as if we all have access to the world's blues library), but I'm talking more about basic editorial courtesies, like paragraphing.

Perhaps Stuart is right. But isn't an academic press with no editorial staff then simply a vanity press?  :P

I hope my whining doesn't turn anyone off the book, as so far I'm enjoying it. The subject matter is certainly fascinating, even if the presentation is sometimes lacking.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #16 on: February 10, 2009, 05:50:23 PM »
But isn't an academic press with no editorial staff then simply a vanity press?  :P

I probably overstated or misstated the case somewhat. Many of the academic presses are quite good with a lot of hands on editorial engagement, but with a few others it is a case of accepting an author's manuscript, and then telling the author what has to be done on his or her part to get it into print (and I'm not talking about corrections or revisions). In other words, between the time that the ms is accepted and the submission of camera ready copy, everything is the responsibility of the author. None of the editorial engagement that is normally done by the staff of a quality press is provided or available.

Vanity press? Probably not--just not the way things ought to be done, IMHO.

Offline dj

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #17 on: February 10, 2009, 06:28:40 PM »
Quote
I hope my whining doesn't turn anyone off the book

It hasn't turned me off.  I've just put it on my "imminent" list.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #18 on: February 10, 2009, 06:49:51 PM »
But isn't an academic press with no editorial staff then simply a vanity press?  :P

I probably overstated or misstated the case somewhat. Many of the academic presses are quite good with a lot of hands on editorial engagement, but with a few others it is a case of accepting an author's manuscript, and then telling the author what has to be done on his or her part to get it into print (and I'm not talking about corrections or revisions). In other words, between the time that the ms is accepted and the submission of camera ready copy, everything is the responsibility of the author. None of the editorial engagement that is normally done by the staff of a quality press is provided or available.

Vanity press? Probably not--just not the way things ought to be done, IMHO.

Yes, I was being somewhat facetious. Thanks for the link to the Dancing with Professors article. Very amusing! Probably the best analogy comes towards the end:

Quote
A carpenter, let us say, makes a door for a cabinet. If the door does not hang straight, the carpenter does not say, "I will not change that door; it is an expression of my individuality; who cares if it will not close?" Instead, the carpenter removes the door and works it until it fits. That attitude, applied to writing, could be our salvation.

Eerily similar to Lindy's experience.

There are so many factors that go into the creation of bad academic writing. The "publish or perish" problem being uppermost, but one can blame all sorts of influences. I have a wildly speculative pet theory that much writing in the humanities has been hobbled by the dominant (or is it domineering?) influence of bad translations of equally bad writing from academics like Derrida or Foucault. Heidegger bears his fair portion of the blame as well. Assuming that someone can write simply because he can speak and read is like assuming he can cook because he eats.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #19 on: February 10, 2009, 07:57:09 PM »
Lindy's my name, academic editing is my game, I help foreign researchers get published in English-language journals to beef up their CVs.

Once I met an anthropology professor from an American university who was famous for doing things such as starting his manuscripts with 200-word quotes in German without any translation or effort to explain them in his text. A couple of his students and I used the "fog factor" to calculate the density of his text. The fog factor takes the number of sentences in a paragraph, number of words with multiple syllables in the same paragraph, then you say "hocus-pocus" and multiply something by .4, and the result is supposed to be the number of years of education you need to understand the writing. Most daily newspapers have fog factors between 6 and 8. This guy's text had a fog factor of 32, equal to 2-1/2 Ph.Dees. When I asked him about it he told me, "Writing for clarity is a bourgeois restriction on my creativity."

TOO FUNNY!

I am not making this up!

Lindy
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

http://www.youtube.com/user/MuckOVision

Offline oddenda

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #20 on: February 11, 2009, 01:03:15 AM »
In my younger days I was on the faculty of a college... in biology, as a matter of fact. It was determined that various fields of study developed vocabularies that made their work impenetrable to those outside the field. It was a conscious act to block peoples' understanding of the simplicity of what was being written/said, and make them seem brighter than they actually were! When I taught, I remembered what it was like to be a student and tried not to subject my students to this "vocabularic" cloak of invisibility. In fact, since most came from high school experiences of not understanding biology as a normal way of life, my putting things in "real" language was appreciated... even got a few interested in the field. Plain speaking, uber alles, please.

Peter B.

Offline Stuart

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #21 on: February 11, 2009, 08:30:20 AM »
...Plain speaking, uber alles, please...

Amen to that, Peter!

When I taught at Rutgers, I would hand out the course outline and info sheet on the first day of class. I always included a line that said, "...clear writing presupposes clear thinking..." and would tell the students that I expected their papers to be the result of rigorous thinking, not wishful thinking. Naturally, there were always a few dissenters, but that's okay as the university is supposed to be the free marketplace of ideas.

Some subject areas, by their very nature, require a lot of background knowledge and specialized terminology. Still, if someone has control of the material and a clear understanding of it, giving a clear description and explanation should not be something that is beyond the realm of possibility. Refusing to acknowledge one's shortcomings and weaknesses re: speaking and writing clearly, together with refusing to make the required effort to correct and improve, is just another manifestation of intellectual laziness, IMHO.

Offline dj

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #22 on: March 25, 2009, 05:08:12 AM »
I've just finished Nobody Knows Where The Blues Come from, and I have to say it's by far the best book of its type (a collection of academic papers) that I've read.  The writing is generally at least decent - far better, for example, than a lot of the writing in Ramblin' On My Mind - and the fact that the first five essays focus on how blues lyricists handled actual events gives the book a cohesive feel not usually found in such collections.

Offline Chezztone

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #23 on: March 25, 2009, 01:12:36 PM »
Yes, some interesting and illuminative stuff in Nobody Knows... But a couple big howlers, too. The experts don't seem to get that it's "worry you off my mind" (not "wear you off"), and they don't get the joke of "Matchbox Blues"' key verse, either.

Offline dj

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Re: Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From
« Reply #24 on: March 25, 2009, 01:40:05 PM »
True.  But of course, one must take any lyric transcription with a grain of salt until it's been vetted by the collected wisdom of Weeniedom.  Sometimes even after that!   ;D

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