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Author Topic: Thriving On A Riff  (Read 3904 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Thriving On A Riff
« on: November 04, 2006, 09:59:25 PM »
Hi all,
I have been thinking a long time about how the ways various Country Blues players like Charlie Patton, Lemon Jefferson and many others diverged from the "12-bars of 4 beats apiece" phrasing norm, and how that varying of the phrasing has been construed, sometimes by present-day pundits and sometimes by the players' own contemporaries, as "breaking time".  Charlie Patton was accused of this as was Lemon.  It has been difficult for me to reconcile the surety of execution I hear in Charlie Patton's and Lemon Jefferson's playing with the concept of breaking time.  I can hear the intent in what they're doing and they don't sound disoriented to me, and yet, they are not, in fact, often adhering to conventional 12-bar phrasing.  Are they breaking time, or if they are not, what is it they ARE doing?
If you take a look at "Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues", Charlie Patton's second tune recorded and the first in his long string of songs in his Spanish-tuning archetype, the different verses phrase out as so.  Measures are four beats unless otherwise indicated.

VERSE 1:
   |      I      |      I      |      I+2 beats|
   |     IV      |    IV      |      I      |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |    V7      |     IV     |      I       |      I      |

VERSE 2:
   |      I       |      I      |      I + 1 beat   |
   |      IV     |     IV      |      I       |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     V7      |    IV      |      I        |       I       |

VERSE 3:
   |      I        |      I      |      I      |      I      |
   |     IV       |      IV     |      I      |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     V7       |      V7    |     I       |      I      |

VERSE 4:
   |      I        |      I       |      I      |      I      |
   |      IV      |      IV      |     I       |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |      V7      |      IV     |      I       |      I      |

VERSE 5:
   |      I        |      I       |      I       |      I      |      I      |
   |     IV       |      IV      |      I       |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     V7       |     IV      |      I        |      I      |

VERSE6:
   |      I       |      I        |      I        |      I       |
   |     IV      |      IV       |      I        |     I        |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     V7      |      IV       |      I        |      I       |

As you compare how Charlie accompanies the verses, a couple of point stand out:
   *  He takes a while to hit his stride.  Verses one and two (two especially) diverge the most from his phrasing on the rest of the verses.  Note, however, that Charlie never varies the phrase length on the concluding 4-bar phrase of each verse.
   * Charlie is long every time on the instrumental response section of the second vocal phrase (beginning at the fourth bar and extending through the end of that line), and with the exception of the second verse, he is always long the same way, with an extra bar and two additional "breath-catcher" beats.  Why?  Because he is thriving on a riff.  In every instance in that place in the form, were he to eliminate the fourth bar of the line, he would come out square, according to his mode of phrasing.  Were he to do so, though, he would not have played his lick enough to satisfy himself--he wanted to hear it more, every time.  Conclusion:  The form has not changed, it's just that for the time being, he is not playing the form, he is playing a lick, and he's going to play it until he's heard it enough.  The form is not going anywhere until he re-enters and starts singing again.
   * With players who have this kind of ability to step inside and outside of a form in the course of a rendition, how helpful or valid is it to gauge the player's ability to keep time by the extent to which he chooses to conform to a phrasing standard he didn't choose for himself?  Put another way, there is no form, except what ended up being played, or alternatively, the form does not change, but the player's choice to play to the form or not may change at any point.

If we look at another performance, Furry Lewis's "Dry Land Blues", we see the following variations in the basic eight-bar phrasing of the song.  Without any phrasing alterations, the song phrases out as so:

   |      I      |      V7     |      IV     |      IV     |
   |      I      |      V7      |      I      |      I       |
In Furry's performance the phrasing holds consistent through seventh bar.  The question is how long of an instrumental response is he going to want at the end of the form?  Here's how his different passes through the form play out:

   FIRST PASS:  9 bars
   SECOND PASS:  9 bars
   THIRD PASS:  9 bars
   FOURTH PASS:  8 bars
   FIFTH PASS:  8 bars
   SIXTH PASS:  10 bars
   SEVENTH PASS:  10 bars
   EIGHTH PASS:  8 bars
   NINTH PASS:  10 bars
   TENTH PASS:  11 bars
   ELEVENTH PASS: 8 bars
   TWELFTH PASS:   In this pass, he goes from the seventh bar back to the third bar and repeats through the form from there, stopping at the eighth bar
   THIRTEENTH BAR:  8 bars
   FOURTEENTH PASS:  8 bars
In every pass that exceed nine bars in length, Furry gets stuck on a pet lick and will not go on to the next verse until he has played it enough to satisfy himself.  He's thriving on a riff.

In Garfield Akers' "Cottonfields, Part 1", he and Joe Callicott phrase out the first three verses so:

VERSE 1: 
   |      I      |      I      |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     IV     |      IV     |      I      |      I      |      I      |
   |     V      |      V7    |      I       |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |

VERSE 2:
   |      I      |      I      |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     IV      |      IV    |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     V       |      V7    |     I       |      I            |

VERSE 3:
   |      I      |      I      |      I      |      I + 2 beats  |
   |     IV      |     IV     |      I      |      I      |
   |     V7     |      V7    |      I      |      I      |      I      |      I      |

You get the idea.  Akers and Callicott, despite having one of the tightest duet sounds ever recorded in the Country Blues, vary their phrasing more than either Charlie Patton or Furry Lewis.  And if you have the sound of this performance in your head, you know that the notion of speaking of them "breaking time" is laughable.  What they were doing instrumentally, though, had so much power and so much barely contained ferocity, that they just had to give it its due occasionally, and if that meant playing four bars of the I chord at the end of the verse, so be it.

With musicians like Lemon Jefferson and Big Joe Williams, you begin to feel that our analytical tools are not refined enough to parse out what they are doing.  Part of the problem lies in using counting as a basis for formal analysis.  We might be better off and more accurate if we described what we currently call as 12 -bar blues as:

     Singing--instrumental response
     Singing--instrumental response
     Singing--instrumental response

More and more, I'm coming to feel that this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of analyzing Blues phrasing.  What are we left with?
   *  I think, as exemplified in the playing of Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Joe Williams, and many other great Country Blues players, the choice and ability to diverge from conventional phrasing and then return to it and pick up the thread is the sign of a particularly secure sense of time and phrasing.  You have to be secure with a form, even cocky, in order to be able to put it on hold temporarily while you play your current favorite lick for a while, knowing that the form is not going anywhere until you punch back in and get things under way again.
   *  I don't believe that this ability of these players is something that can be learned by assiduously aping their renditions, because that gets at what they played, but not their process.  Their playing was obviously in the moment, they were not repeating something they had composed or learned from someone else.  I think the only way present-day players can begin to achieve these sorts of qualities in their own playing is to practice building reflexes, going long with a lick occasionally, taking the chance that you may end up flat on your face, and stop worrying about whether a song is a jam-buster or other people are going to be able to play along.

All best,
Johnm   

« Last Edit: November 05, 2006, 08:46:00 PM by Johnm »

Offline Dr. G

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #1 on: November 05, 2006, 07:14:48 AM »
A thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating analysis, John, that brings a few thoughts to my mind....

1. To what degree are Patton, Jefferson, et al, in "thriving on riffs" (great expression, by the way!) consciously (or unconsciously) "deviating" from what they cognitively -- or viscerally -- "know" to be the "correct", or "default", or "matrix", timing, or form, of the piece...and to what degree are they simply "winging it", or creating it, spontaneously -- thus rendering the notion of any "default form" purely artifactual?

2. Could it be that the power of their "crooked" (stringband lingo, as you know), or "regularly irregular" (medicalspeak) performances  stands out not because the artists take "controlled excursions" away from a formal -- if more implicit than explicit -- "itinerary"... and in so doing, demonstrate their "mastery" of some universal (western) standard of form and timing...but rather that they appeal to us because their approaches are simply fresh and flexible and unexpected enough to keep us from getting complacent (i.e., bored) -- and yet not so outlandishly free-form that they leave us feeling adrift?

3. If this were indeed the case, is "free-form" music (Stockhausen, et al) and -- by analogy -- unrhyming, or unmetered, "poetry", any less "valid" than the "recognizable pattern"-type?

4. What is it that defines the "validity" of art, anyway? What about "found art" vs. the consciously-created type? "Conceptual art" vs. the type that hangs in the Louvre?

5. Could it be that what we actually are appreciating in Patton, Jefferson, et al, might more aptly be characterized [by those who would label such things] as "primitive" art -- that we critics perceive as paradoxically "sophisticated" because it appears to take (gives the illusion of taking?) controlled liberties with certain classical artistic standards without rejecting them utterly?

6. Notwithstanding the "answers" (as if there were any, really) to the above rhetorical questions and hypotheticals, is it not an unarguable conclusion that we "folk musicians" tend to find live performance -- with all its "blemishes", blips, and deviations (intended or not) from rigid, metered standards -- soooo much more compelling than anything anchored to the "Denver boot" of a metronome or MIDI machine, sheet music, or any other branch of the virtual "Artistic Police"?

7. Your final trenchant observation -- and the take-home message (admonition, advice, etc.) of your treatise, as far as I am concerned -- bears repeating:

"I think the only way present-day players can begin to achieve these sorts of qualities in their own playing is to practice building reflexes, going long with a lick occasionally, taking the chance that you may end up flat on your face, and stop worrying about whether a song is a jam-buster or other people are going to be able to play along."

Amen to that.

Thanks for making me think this morning.

Dr. G

Offline Cleoma

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #2 on: November 05, 2006, 09:30:02 AM »
Great thread, John! 

I have played a fair amount of dance music, including a ton of Louisiana Cajun-Creole music with older generation players, and many of them did this same "thriving on a riff" thing. Boozoo Chavis is a prime example. Many musicians will also throw in extra beats or remove beats, usually this happens at the end of a phrase.  When the song or tune is harmonically simple (i.e. not a lot of chord changes which is the rule rather than the exception with the oldtime Louisiana French music and also with many of the country blues songs we're discussing) then it becomes fairly easy to play along once you are locked in rhythmically with the leader, and you also have to accept and acknowledge that there IS a leader, and really listen to and watch that person.  Often there are little clues, either musical ones, or body language, that let you know that something different is about to happen.  But, not always!  For me, learning to play music this way has been a real eye-opener, and forced me to step back from my preconceived notions of correctness. It used to drive me crazy to not know what was coming next, but I think that learning to deal with it has helped me get to a much more relaxed place musically.  This is definitely one example of a musical lesson that was also a life lesson.

In the "thriving on a riff" type of blues that John describes (which to me seems to cover an awful lot of of early country blues recordings) I hear the same type of thing happening.  The musicians are not breaking "time", they are breaking "form" and sometimes "meter".  Sometimes it helps me to count these songs in 1, that way the downbeat can be wherever.

When I think of these types of songs in the context of people dancing, they make a lot more sense.  After all, you don't really know what's going to happen on the dance floor, and it can be really fun to interact with dancers and the mood of the room by repeating something over and over.  Of course, if they're in an open tuning, they could just be whanging away with the right hand while smoking a cigarette or taking a drink with the left. Or vice versa in the case of someone like Robert Belfour... I think John's idea of just hanging on the riff until they are ready for the next thing is right on.

Suzy T.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #3 on: November 05, 2006, 10:38:46 AM »
"Lightnin' changes when Lightnin' WANTS to change."

I guess Lightnin' carried this idea forward from solo playing into the electric combo era, but not without some notoriety. Clearly in the few songs of his that I am familiar with he hangs on a few riffs, generally always at the same places in the form, as with the examples you have given, John M. I try to let myself dwell on his pre-turnaround lick to varying degrees in Goin' Down Slow, depending on the feel of each verse.

Dr. G's digressions have pointed out to me a strong parralel to acting as I practiced it for many years. When one is trying to breathe life into someone else's words it pays to spend a lot of time creating an organic form thru much experimentation and personal analysis in the safety of rehearsal. If the form is organic and honest, it can then be recreated in a very honest manner before an audience, playing out as if it is just happening. Working with other actors, much like players in a band, it pays to try to stay within the form. Try saying the line "Shut up! They'll hear you!" after an actor who normally shouts the previous line decides that tonight they want to deliver it with quiet intensity. -G- But, it was always good to find places where you had the freedom to let go and really throw yourself into the emotion of the moment, come what may. Often these will come at key moments for the character, when one has the stage focus and other actors are prepared for "responsible improvisation" as we called it. Not changing the lines, but letting the delivery come as it may.

From your examples above, it seems like these moments of hanging on a riff come at the end of a phrase, just before a change, almost as if it where a given aspect of the form to do so. Surely the members of Lightnin's combos could anticipate this, much as the musicians who backed Texas Alexander soon acclimated to his "form" of repeating the last line of the previous verse after a shortenede solo.

Thanks for bringing this up, John M. I have been listening to Patton constantly of late, particularly Screamin' and Hollerin" the Blues among others. After I finish recording the CD I think it is time that I tackled some Patton and the idea of hanging on a riff will certainly be on my mind.

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline Johnm

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #4 on: November 05, 2006, 12:34:02 PM »
Hi all,
Thanks very much for your posts, Dr. G, Suzy and John C.  It is neat to see the idea "run with" a bit.  First of all, I can't take credit for coining the phrase "Thriving On A Riff".  It's actually the title of a Charlie Parker tune, but it seemed so appropriate to this musical phenomenon we're talking about that I borrowed it. 
A couple of thoughts with regard to points brought up in the posts:
   * Yes, Dr. G, I would say, just on the basis of listening to their recordings, that Charlie Patton, Lemon Jefferson, and other musicians who stepped outside the conventional form to riff were aware that they were doing so.  I say this because not all Charlie Patton and Lemon Jefferson songs were played with the "thriving on a riff" characteristics, and also because the assumption that people were not aware of what they were doing has always struck me as offensive.  Charlie is perfectly straight in his accompanist capacity backing Son Sims, and also included in his repertoire set pieces, like his version of "Frankie and Albert", where his phrasing is consistent from beginning to end.  Similarly, Lemon's hymns and a good number of his blues, like "Prison Cell Blues" and "Wartime Blues" follow regular repeated phrasing formulas.  The fact that both Patton and Jefferson played tunes that adhered to more conventional phrasing models makes me think that they thought of the freer approach as something that was appropriate for some songs and situations and less so for others.
   * It is a bit chancy speaking to issues of process of music-making, because we have no access to the people who made the music at this time, apart from their recordings, but I think it was then as it is now:  people have different processes of understanding and making music, and even the same person does not necessarily employ the same process in the making of music at all times.  Based solely on listening and analysis of their recordings, I would say that Tommy Johnson, Robert Wilkins and Bukka White, in his pre-War recordings, were compositional in the extent that they diverged from conventional phrasing models; that is to say, for a given song, whatever the divergence from standard form may have been, it was repeated consistently throughout the course of the performance, and did not vary from verse to verse.  You can check out a number of examples of this on the "Vocal Phrasing:  The Long And The Short Of It" thread.  Charlie Patton, Lemon Jefferson, Big Joe Williams seem more truly improvisational in the ways they vary phrasing and riff.
   * Suzy, I think your comments with regard to pulse are dead on the money.  In dance situations, a regular pulse counts for a great deal more than metric consistency, and your professional life as a musician has provided so many opportunities to see that over and over again.  As for crooked fiddle tunes and the extent that they end up being problematic for dancers, I think two factors are most to blame:  callers who are not creative enough to deal with irregularities in form and square dance groups and organizations that have become accustomed to dancing to recorded music (so much easier to control than actual living musicians).
   * John C., your bringing up of Texas Alexander with regard to Lightnin' Hopkins is something I've been meaning to post about for a while.  Lightnin' backed Texas Alexander quite a lot, though I don't think any of their music every made it onto record.  I think a lot of Lightnin's later adamancy about "Lightnin' changes when LIGHTNIN' wants to change" may have come from backing Alexander, because in that role, you constantly had to change when TEXAS ALEXANDER wants to change.  I have a feeling that the experience of backing Alexander made Lightnin' feel like, in the making of his own music, he would call the shots with regard to phrasing and chord changes from there on out, no matter what anyone else wanted or expected.
This is such interesting stuff, and as far as what goes into the making of music with these qualities, I think Suzy hit the nail right on the head.  You have to listen like crazy, and not only listen, but watch like a hawk.  It definitely makes life more exciting!
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: November 05, 2006, 08:52:50 PM by Johnm »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #5 on: November 05, 2006, 12:55:09 PM »
Another example I'd bring up is Blind Willie McTell, who solo playing often doesn't conform to, um, straight forms, despite the fact that he's probably more of a "form" player than Patton or Lemon. He will go with the riff and extend the phrase as he feels like it. But put him together with Curly Weaver and his playing is much more regular.

JohnM has mentioned how Patton was also straighter in his role as accompanist to Son Sims. I think he's also straighter when backing or playing duets with Bertha Lee. "Oh Death" comes to mind, or "Troubled 'Bout My Mother".

Offline Dr. G

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #6 on: November 05, 2006, 10:47:57 PM »
A few more thoughts stimulated by Johnm's latest...

1. Surely all the CB greats knew "what they were doing", if for no other evidence than the mere fact of their being able consistently to produce compelling performances. (It simply defies logic to believe that anyone who DIDN'T know what he was doing could produce compelling performances with any kind of regularity.)

2. I remain unconvinced that knowing "what they were doing", however, means that the CB greats necessarily adhered to a notion of a "universal blues standard" -- e.g., 4 beats to a bar; 8, 12, or 16 bars to a repetition, etc. -- and that every deviation therefrom was a "conscious" one. My own sense is that these were often "intuitively", or "viscerally"-driven improvisations...more a function of "feeling" the music, than of "thinking" it.

3. Psychological research has cogently posited that there are (at least) eleven different types of "intelligences". Nowhere is it asserted, or assumed, that "intuitive" or "feeling" sorts of intelligences are less worthy, or valid, than "cognitive" ones

3. The fact of an artist's playing some numbers -- especially hymns or other "standards", or when acccompanying other performers -- in a "conventional" way, but being more free-form, or improvisational, when soloing, doesn't tell me much about what's going on in his mind. It seems like a logical outcome of reiterating something you've learned (in the case of a hymn or "standard"), or going along to get along (in the case of playing with others).

A violin soloist [I was one, of sorts, once] can take enormous liberties when performing his solo in the middle of an orchestral piece -- and can, e.g., hold a "pig's eye" for as many beats as he wants. Yet the same violinist must utterly go with the "conventional flow" during the rest of the orchestral piece, or he's gonna be S.O.L.

Does his improvisational freedom during his solo necessarily mean that the violinist is "thinking" his interlude through, or even "knows what he's doing" at the time, in any conscious or "cognitive" sort of way? I'm not so sure. Perhaps he is "feeling" his way through...and has thrown off the constrictions of "form" and "meter" for the time being.

4. Johnm's original recommendation that musicians should "build up reflexes" I think is very apt...and it reminds me of the study of Karate, ballet, and similar athletic and artistic pursuits. In Karate, you practice the "katas", or "forms" until they become utterly reflexive; yet when you actually spar, or compete, you improvise...you spar by feel, not by thought process (and if you simply string together a series of "katas", or "forms", you're useless). And whoever (except an "insider") would think that all that grace in "Swan Lake" is predicated on ballerinas' having devoted years to repetition at the bar, practicing rigidly stereotyped postions and movements?

5. I am caused to think of the proverbial old banjo player who was asked if he knew how to read notes. He (proverbially) replied: "Hell, there ain't no notes to a banjo -- you just PLAY it!"

6. And finally...at least for now...I am reminded of Artie Shaw's wonderful crack (on the Ken Burns PBS Jazz series) about making "mistakes" when playing. Shaw said (and implied) something on the order of [NB: VERY loose paraphrase here]: "Glenn Miller never made mistakes.... How can you respect a musician like that? If you're not making mistakes, you're not playing at your limits...and if you're not playing at your limits, you're cheating your audience!"

Thanks all, for a great day of reflection on these brain-stretching topics...I better stagger off to bed before I do any more damage....

 

Offline Johnm

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #7 on: November 06, 2006, 04:59:36 PM »
Hi Dr. G,
I am in complete agreement with you about different ways of knowing things and there not being some kind of hierarchy as to the "best" way to know things.  There are plenty of great musicians who are very close to having nothing to say about how they do what they do.  Does that mean what they do is unintentional or some kind of happy accident?  I don't think so--no accident is that happy.  I suspect I'm a little sensitive about the idea that great non-verbal musicians don't know what they are doing.  I once read Wynton Marsalis in an interview absolutely go off on an interviewer who he thought was suggesting that Louis Armstrong "did not know what he was doing".  I believe, I guess, that the making of the music is infinitely more important than the naming/analysis of the music that has been made.  I'm really not qualified to speak to the different ways of understanding the making of music, so I can only speak to the results--the music that has been made and try to hear and understand that.  Admittedly a subsidiary role.
All best,
Johnm   
 
« Last Edit: November 06, 2006, 08:23:11 PM by Johnm »

Offline dj

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #8 on: November 07, 2006, 03:51:04 AM »
I love Cleoma's post on this topic.  To my mind, she's hit the nail right on the head.  Music is created to be played in certain situations.  If a musician is playing at a dance and people are up dancing, and if they come and get the same musician to play at another dance the next week, it's obvious that that musician knows what he/she is doing and is doing it successfully.

One minor quibble:

Quote
The musicians are not breaking "time", they are breaking "form"


While not enough is known about the early history of the blues to make a definitive statement, I strongly suspect that the "form" that's being broken has been imposed after the fact, and that the local audiences listening to Patton, Lemon, or Ed Bell would have understood as an adherence to accepted form what a modern listener looking for 12 bar blues would see as "breaking form".

Offline blueshome

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #9 on: November 07, 2006, 08:19:42 AM »
jmm Thanks for such an interesting thread.

I think that the guys mentioned were professional entertainers, mostly playing for dancing, a career sustained for nearly 30 years by C.Patton, and almost 60 years by Big Joe. If they didn't know what they were doing, in respect of what their audiences and performance environments dictated, I cannot believe they would have stayed in business very long as pro's. It clearly worked for them and their audiences.

Given the performance environment as we understand it from descriptions by old musicians, the main requirement was to keep a sustained beat for dancing and to maintain this for several hours a night. As a solo musician, or member of a small group I feel sure that playing with the form (or rather creating their own form) was necessary to keep the momentum of the performance going for so long and to introduce a little variation in things.  The recordings we have are just reflecting what the artist was totally familiar with playing on a regular basis.

I'm sure this must occur in other types of non-formal dance music in other cultures - perhaps someone with more knowledge in that area would like to comment.

Offline Johnm

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #10 on: November 07, 2006, 10:11:24 PM »
Hi all,
Thanks for the different thoughts expressed here.  I thought of a song that has a passage of exactly the type I've been thinking about with this thread and checked it out again just now.  It is Robert Petway's great version of "Catfish".  After the third verse, he really gets into the concluding signature lick and even enjoins himself to "play it a long time", which he proceeds to do.  It's a very strong moment in a powerful rendition.
All best,
Johnm

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #11 on: January 22, 2008, 03:10:35 PM »
Hi all,
I've been noticing lately more and more instances in country blues recordings of players "thriving on a riff", going long in the instrumental portions of a song's form to state fully an instrumental lick or idea that merits examination at length.  Two cases where I've noticed this lately:
   * Bo Carter's song, "My Baby" is all set up to be a 16-bar blues of a raggy variety, but Bo introduces a descending lick, walking down the D string chromatically, in the 15th bar of the form.  Two more repetitions of the idea, which ends up being a two-bar phrase, get him up to 20 bars.  He then goes into an extended series of runs, winding up with a 24-bar form.  One could argue that this example doesn't satisfy the "variable length" aspect found in most instances of thriving on a riff, but Bo basically changed the form to accommodate the instrumental idea he wanted to express, and then continued to do it the same way for the the duration of the song.  The impetus to lengthen the 16-bar form came from the riff.
   * Perhaps Ralph Willis's "Just A Note" provides a less controlled example of thriving on a riff.  "Just A Note", a terrific 12-bar blues that Willis played out of E position in standard tuning, is variably long at the end of the second four-bar phrase and at the end of the form.  So it is that Ralph Willis sometimes plays a 12-bar form with 12 bars, each of four beats, and sometimes he plays a eighth or twelfth bar of 5 or six beats.  The way he varies these lengths in response to the lick he wishes to express is perfectly natural, does not interrupt the flow in any way, and is something that is all but absent from the playing of present-day practitioners of this music.  If you enjoy East Coast blues-playing, you owe it to yourself to check out "Just A Note".
All best,
Johnm   

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #12 on: September 04, 2009, 04:26:57 PM »
Hi all,
I've had occasion recently to spend a lot of time learning and partially transcribing Blind Willie McTell's "Drive Away Blues", one of the really outstanding blues played out of E position in standard tuning.  Like some other "chock-full-of-music" tunes, like Furry Lewis' "Mistreatin' Mama Blues" and Buddy Moss' "Unkind Woman", it contains enough ideas and musical material for three or four normally constructed songs, and could probably only really be done justice by a transcription from the beginning to the end of the rendition, since there is so little literal repetition. 
I bring the song up in this context because it is a sterling example of a song in which the player makes thriving on a riff part of his structure.  Willie McTell uses a sort of worrying chromatic descending line from the open B string down the third, second and first frets of the third string progressively, but keeps turning over and varying that motive in a host of inventive and exciting ways.  He does an unusual vocal repetition of his opening line in the second half of his second four-bar phrase (after having sung the line in the normal place, in the opening of the second four-bar phrase), and concludes practically every verse with exciting riffing of various lengths.  Hearing a performance like this, in which the player has the freedom to access a virtually limitless array of riffs in such a free-form, metrically irregular fashion, provides a reminder of what can be lost by turning Country Blues from a soloist's music to an ensemble music.  Group performances in the style that have such an exciting, in-the-moment, loosey-goosey quality are exceedingly rare; rare, but not unheard of, as can be heard in several of the early John Estes group pieces with Jab Jones and Yank Rachell.  Seek out "Drive Away Blues" if it is unfamiliar to you, for it is a sensational performance and a prime example of thriving on a riff.
All best,
Johnm     

Offline Stuart

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #13 on: September 04, 2009, 07:14:34 PM »
Good call, John.

I have "Drive Away Blues" on both the JSP set "The Classic Years 1927-1940" and on Document's "Blind Willie McTell: Statesboro Blues: The Early Years 1927-1935." I guess that I can't get enough of Blind Willie McTell.

It's also available at the Juneberry 78s site.

http://juneberry78s.com/sounds/index.htm

Michael Taft's Pre-War Blues Lyrics Concordance includes this one:

http://www.dylan61.se/MTBluesM_R/Michael%20Taft,%20Blues%20Anthology%20with%20Index%20by%20Artist%20M-R.htm#_Toc71651309

It needs some refinement, but will save some typing.

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Re: Thriving On A Riff
« Reply #14 on: January 23, 2014, 11:01:28 PM »
Hi all,
I had occasion the last couple of days to work on Leadbelly's version of "T B Blues" in order to teach it.  Leadbelly played it out of A position in standard tuning (sounding just flat of F), and in working through the tune I found it was a perfect example of the "thriving on a riff" concept. 
Leadbelly tends to play the first four bars of his verse accompaniments as three measures of four beats each, with the fourth measure including a 2-beat "breath catcher" added on.  It's in the instrumental responses to the second and third vocal phrases, after the IV chord in the second phrase and the V chord in the third phrase that he really thrives on a riff and goes long.  Basically, he has two main 1-bar signature licks in A and a concluding 1 bar phrase where he ends up on the "long A" chord really hammering home that A up at the fifth fret of the first string.  What Leadbelly does most often is either play the first of his signature licks twice consecutively before going to his concluding phrase, or alternatively he runs the two signature licks together before playing the concluding phrase.  In either instance, he ends up with a form that looks like this:

   |    I    |    I    |    I    |    I + 2 beats |

   |   IV   |   IV   |    I    |    I    |    I    |

   |    V    |    V   |    I    |    I    |    I    |

So he ends up with a 14-bar form, in which the fourth bar is a bar of six beats.  Does this end up being jarring or confusing in the hearing of the song?  Absolutely not, even if or especially if you are conscious of blues forms as they are normally played.  Part of this is due to how strongly Leadbelly played and maintained time, but even more than that, the coherence of what he's playing is easily perceived in the clarity with which he develops his ideas.  He has ideas which he keeps returning to and referring back to and it doesn't take that long to recognize an idea as a familiar structural component of the tune.

I would love to hear a present-day blues group play blues together lengthening the form when they hit upon an idea they felt like repeating, finishing an instrumental lick and then adding on two extra beats to accommodate the vocal pick-ups to the next phrase, varying phrase lengths as felt good and appropriate in the moment.  Lest this seem an impossible or unattainable goal, all that's really required to do this is listening and paying attention--that, and having a leader, as Suzy noted earlier in this thread.

All best,
Johnm

 


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