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Author Topic: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?  (Read 6006 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« on: November 03, 2007, 04:12:06 PM »
Hi all,
This is in response to the "A World Unknown" thread and a discussion that started on the Ed Bell lyrics thread.  I've realized recently that when two different people listen to the same blues lyric, they often interpret the sense of a line completely different from each other, despite agreeing on what the words are and being in agreement as to what those words, each individually, mean.  Of course, the issue becomes greatly complicated when a consensus on what the words are has not been reached, as in several places in "Down The Dirt Road Blues". 
Just to get the ball rolling, I find that unless we're talking about blues lyrics that are obvious personal narratives, like Patton's "High Sheriff Blues", "Tom Rushen Blues", Papa Charlie Jackson's "Self Experience", Teddy Darby's "Heart Trouble Blues" and "The Girl I Left Behind" and Sleepy John Estes songs too numerous to mention, my assumption is that the blues singer is standing in for his audience, and describing what will be perceived as a universally shared experience (thanks, Stuart), stylized though it may be, in the singing; in other words, the audience's experience, rather than his/her own personal experience.  The fact that the vast majority of blues lyrics derive from a commonly shared pool would seem to confirm this interpretation.  Even with blues singers whose lyrics are most often of their own creation, like Clifford Gibson, J. T. Smith, and Willie "61" Blackwell, I don't interpret the content of their lyrics as being more true of the singers' personal lives--I just think they are more creative than their fellows who always draw from the common pool.
I think the assumption that blues lyrics are always personal puts the lyrics and singer on a footing with modern-day singer/songwriters, where the assumption generally is that the singer is always the subject of the song.  Is this the sense you get from most blues singers?  I think that blues lyrics have the resonance they do precisely because they are most often not personal, but universal.  The singer is there to deliver the truth of the audience's lives.  Generally, the least personal aspect of a blues singer's music is the lyrics that are being sung--the personality is expressed not in the content of the words, but in HOW they are sung, how they are accompanied, the singer's tone, and how he/she makes and shapes the notes and phrases.
A lot of blues lyrics are posturing, exaggerating for humorous effect and putting a bold face on things, saying "I won't be ruled".  But if they live long enough, most blues singers I have met fervently want to avoid trouble, not seek it out.  Does this make them hypocrites?  I'd say it makes them real, in that they can differentiate between a song and their own lives.
All best,
Johnm     
« Last Edit: November 05, 2007, 03:44:13 PM by Johnm »

Offline Rivers

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #1 on: November 03, 2007, 08:18:26 PM »
I hear real world experience mixed with second-hand ideas, layered with the right musical tones, abstracted up into a song.

Some things are hard even for the most imaginative people to imagine. It's hard to imagine yourself out of the environment you grew up in and/or in which you've lived. You can read or hear about a world - I really hesitate to say it - 'unknown' ;), and insert that into your song and that will trigger other people's imagination.

What deters most songwriters is a knee jerk self-imposed need to be honest. The best songwriter's transcend this pretty early on in their careers. As long as you can imagine it, there is no need to have lived it.

As a simple example there's Barbecue Bob's "gonna buy me a gun, airplane and a submarine, gonna kill everybody that ever treated me mean", or the Titanic songs. Or Geeshie Wiley's masterpiece. And 99% of everything ever written by Dylan. Maybe it's the true test of a natural songwriter.

From an analytical, historical point of view I guess I'm listening for direct environmental references like locations, people and objects, then semi-universal ideas about human experience (not a lot of use in most cases!), and topical items from, say, newspapers. Within this mix I'm alert for  slang references which point to something else.

My experience is the most interesting parts of a lyric are the ones that nobody can figure out. The temptation to dumb it down should be the very last resort in my opinion.

BTW my radar is telling me the Ed Bell's 'mother-in-law' thing is yet another 'nudge nudge wink wink' reference that was in common usage at that time. Hard to prove this either way (since nothing is likely to have been written down about the subject) but we should probably kick it around anyway. Here's another reference to add weight to it, Peetie Wheatstraw's reference to himself as "the devil's son-in-law".
« Last Edit: November 03, 2007, 08:24:22 PM by Rivers »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #2 on: November 03, 2007, 08:56:02 PM »
BTW my radar is telling me the Ed Bell's 'mother-in-law' thing is yet another 'nudge nudge wink wink' reference that was in common usage at that time. Hard to prove this either way (since nothing is likely to have been written down about the subject) but we should probably kick it around anyway. Here's another reference to add weight to it, Peetie Wheatstraw's reference to himself as "the devil's son-in-law".

Could just be a mother-in-law joke. Don't know how long those have been around but they seem pretty universal.

Offline Rivers

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #3 on: November 03, 2007, 09:08:17 PM »
Just another post to say "great topic John, long overdue", and yes Andrew I agree, it could well just be the old mother-in-law joke. The analytical part of me though requires my delving into the entire history of mother-in-law jokes.

It's like I've been bitten so many times with making assumptions about country blues I can no longer just assume anything. Furthermore I know I'll learn something unexpected in the process. And, incidentally become a world, or at least 'internet', authority in mother-in-law jokes in the process.  ;)

Offline Stuart

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #4 on: November 03, 2007, 09:44:51 PM »
The analytical part of me though requires my delving into the entire history of mother-in-law jokes.

Mother-in-law jokes started with the first marriage, so you got your work cut out for you.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #5 on: November 04, 2007, 01:26:47 AM »
Well, I don't really think the singer is necessarily speaking personally, but I do think they may have given some thought to the "story" they are singing and[/or] the "character" who is singing it, at least in the more linear songs. That is, I don't think a singer would choose to sing a line purely because it rhymed with no thought whatsoever to the meaning. I just think it could be a period joke, "Well, if I die doing [such-and-such] send my body to my mother-in-law, 'cause she sure wants to see me dead," that anyone hearing the first part would get.

I don't think blues singers sing only from their own experience, but I think many of them are very empathetic story tellers.

Further, I would agree, some songs seem to be directly from the artist's experience: some create little stories, or vignettes, perhaps, which may depict an imaginary occurrence and either the events precipitating it or it's aftermath: some seem to be loosely connected verses around a specific theme: and some maybe have two verses on a theme or vignette and then three or four more with seemingly little connection at all. In all cases, I would also agree that it is the singer's sense of universality or audience empathy that drives them, perhaps unconsciously, to sing this song and to choose these lyrics.

What is interesting to me, tho', obviously not to everyone here, is to speculate as to what "sense" the singer may have been trying to create with his or her choice of verses. Is there something in the singers mind from verse 3 that makes verse 4 fall into place? Sometimes, with some imagination, it seems there is, or may be. Other times it seems right out of the blue. Sometimes looking at the sense of the verse before or after may give a "stock blues lyric" an entirely different twist, as could the changing of just one word. Was this the singer's choice or serendipity? I lean more toward awareness and choice.

As a singer of these songs myself, I think it enriches my singing to investigate all the ideas my imagination presents to me and to dismiss the meaning of the words as rhythmic syllables or handy rhymes seems a short cut to a less interesting performance. But that's just me and my actors training. And it's not important that the audience "get" the meaning I put into the words for my self, but by making the words rich for me, it enlivens them and inspires the audience to find their own sense to the song.

I hope this makes some sense as I'm rather exhausted.

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #6 on: November 04, 2007, 09:58:13 AM »
What is interesting to me, tho', obviously not to everyone here, is to speculate as to what "sense" the singer may have been trying to create with his or her choice of verses. Is there something in the singers mind from verse 3 that makes verse 4 fall into place? Sometimes, with some imagination, it seems there is, or may be. Other times it seems right out of the blue. Sometimes looking at the sense of the verse before or after may give a "stock blues lyric" an entirely different twist, as could the changing of just one word. Was this the singer's choice or serendipity? I lean more toward awareness and choice.

As a singer of these songs myself, I think it enriches my singing to investigate all the ideas my imagination presents to me and to dismiss the meaning of the words as rhythmic syllables or handy rhymes seems a short cut to a less interesting performance. But that's just me and my actors training. And it's not important that the audience "get" the meaning I put into the words for my self, but by making the words rich for me, it enlivens them and inspires the audience to find their own sense to the song.

This seems to me to be a very modern approach like the singer-songwriter style JohnM refers to, or as you note, like an actor. It means the song is approached somewhat like a carefully produced literary construct, a sonnet or soliloquy. Or as if that old acting aphorism, "what's my motivation?" is guiding the composition. That's fine -- whatever works for you and all that -- but requiring meaning of everything can sometimes result in imposing meaning that isn't there, especially when dealing with popular music. I'm sure there's a good amount of blues that will oblige anyone in this method. Much of the later prewar blues seem to me to have this self-conscious composed quality to the lyrics, when it's not simply trotting out tired blues verses. The idea also reminds me a little of the description of Skip James being deliberately different from the usual blues singer in that he was consciously trying to create Art, with a capital A (at least in this characterization, which I may be remembering from the Calt book).

I think this approach could also lead to dealing with the song as a more or less unchanging whole. There are lots that probably are. But looking at the three versions of Lemon's Matchbox Blues, transcribed by Banjochris here, it seems clear that that is not going to be the case all the time. Matchbox is surely a blues masterpiece, certainly qualifying as a work of art as a performance, yet here it is in three very different versions lyrically. What does that say about character or voice? How is the sense affected by Lemon's use of different verses, or his reordering of recurring verses in the different versions? He could be refining a work of art with each subsequent version, or he could be working from a pool of verses he would use as they occurred to him during a given performance of the song. My money would be on the latter.

I also don't think that emphasizing the rhymes, rhythm and propulsive quality of the language chosen for certain lyrics means one is dismissing all meaning and results in a short cut to a lesser performance. Sometimes song lyrics are just like that. When someone sings

Hey mama mama papa papa ?deed double do love you doggone it
Somebody?s talking to you mama papa ?deed double do love you
What you cryin' 'bout, baby, papa don't care what you do.

the meaning could be summed up as "don't cry, I love you", which is a lovely sentiment but hardly interesting. And the meaning doesn't hold a candle to the excitement this child-like playing with language and rhythm generates in the delivery of the verse within the song (Long Lonesome Blues). As a listener, I'm not excited by the meaning here but by the delivery. For me, it's still an interesting creative act, just accomplished in a different way.

If you're looking for ideas about what "sense" a singer may be creating by following verse 3 about X with verse 4 about Y -- especially in songs where the verses may seem only loosely connected -- you might want to look at David Evans' Big Road Blues again. You may recall he's got theories regarding contrast, concepts in opposition, certain words in one verse leading to the use of another verse etc. I find some of it a stretch, though it seems useful with some material. 



Offline waxwing

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #7 on: November 04, 2007, 12:33:40 PM »
I agree, Andrew, those songs that don't seem to have any notion from one verse to the next, one of the categories I mentioned above, don't seem to have any notion from one verse to the next. Other songs seem purely linear with each verse clearly following from the previous. I'm sure you could cite many more examples of each than I. I'm sure you could cite many alternate takes where the lyrics were identical every time, too. Where we are probably running into trouble here is that there are those songs that fall into the middle. With a little stretch, as you call it, one might be able to descern a little sense to the transition. Someone else might prefer to lump it with the rest of the 'makes no sense, just sounds good' group without giving it a thought. To each his own. I merely bare my own thoughts here. For some reason, in several instances, that produces ridicule, albeit goodnatured.

Personally, "Don't cry, I love you, no matter what you do." is a very interesting sentiment, with a strong universality. I think the child-like rhythmic play accentuates the meaning of trying to get someone to stop crying in a very personal way and and I don't see the rhythm as a competitive element to the meaning of the words. I couldn't really gauge that I have more involvement in one without the other while actually listening to the music. Just my opinion. I actually think if you didn't really inderstand the words it would make it very difficult to sing the line correctly, which, I believe, the singer does every time. I don't have the recording on hand to check.

All for now.
John C.
« Last Edit: November 04, 2007, 12:44:15 PM by waxwing »
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
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Offline CF

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #8 on: November 05, 2007, 04:30:13 PM »
I admit that I am not someone who pays too much conscious attention to most lyrics at all . . . & I play hundreds of songs . . . & have written almost as many (& they all have lyrics) . . . but I really feel that lyrics by their very nature work at a subliminal level & are almost 'music' themselves & I think blues lyrics especially are subject to the groove & melody of the song. Not to say that they are not important or meaningful, they are, but in a way that, say, poetry or prose are commonly not. The moment music is involved I think we're talking about a different level of communication that, maybe, all art aspires to but music attains almost instantly because of its non-palpable qualities. This tempers my appreciation & relationship with lyrics. I would say that I remember them almost as sounds & elements of the melody & groove as much as I do their narrative structure/reasoning & imagery.
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Offline dj

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #9 on: November 06, 2007, 04:27:50 AM »
I pretty much agree with what's been said here.  Sometimes lyrics are intensely personal, but sometimes they're just a song that's in someone's repertoire because it's requested, or because the singer needed a song about gambling or cars or whatever to fit a hole in his repertoire, or because a recording director offered the singer the equivalent of a week's pay to come up with another blues.

I think there are at least two categories of meaning that haven't been discussed yet:

1.  Local place names always have meaning.  I'm not talking about "China" or "the Rocky Mountains", but places known to the singer.  Peetie Wheatstraw wouldn't have sung about Cake Alley if he'd lived in Dallas or Atlanta, and if Lemon Jefferson had lived in upstate New York instead of in Texas, he would have sung "I walked from Auburn, walked to Seneca Falls".  These local place names reveal a lot about where singers were from, where they performed, how extensively they traveled, and where there audience lived. 

2.  A singer's work, taken as a whole, can have autobiographical meaning that is not immediately apparent from any single song the singer performed.  If we knew as much about Leroy Carr as we know about Blind Blake (i.e. essentially nothing), we could still infer from his collected works that he was probably an alcoholic.  Similarly with Bill Gaither - given his body of lyrics, we could infer that he had lost a woman he loved intensely and consequently mistrusted women even if we didn't have some biographical confirmation of the fact.  For most of the pre-war blues singers, I can't discern any biographical theme from the corpus of their lyrics, but I'm willing to bet that I could find a few more like the examples I cite above if I paid enough attention to lyrics.         

Offline Rivers

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #10 on: November 06, 2007, 05:33:12 AM »
I realize I also listen for the state of mind on which the lyrics are hanging. There are the real oddballs like Funny Papa Smith where sometimes I swear he must have been on some kind of local hallucinogen to come up with his lyrics. I'm thinking of Seven Sisters in particular but generally the mood is pretty spaced out.

The individuals' sense of humor woven through the lyrics also catches my ear. Furry Lewis is king of course, he just couldn't resist the funny line. The more hellishly dire the situation the better, Kassie Jones, John Henry, Judge Harsh. Other inveterate jokers include Tommy McClennan, Big Bill, Bessie Smith, Mance Lipscomb, Rev. Gary Davis, Memphis Slim, all the hokum singers and Patton, though his humor is pretty subtle and grey. I'm sure I'll think of others.

'Humor in country blues' would make a great topic in its own right. I think I'll start it.

Offline dj

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #11 on: November 06, 2007, 06:32:31 AM »
Listening to a CD in the car on the way to work this morning, it struck me that there's another way in which pre-war lyrics have meaning, though it was certainly unintentional to the singers at the time.  They serve as a historical document of how life was lived, a window into a lost world.  The song that made me think of this is Leroy Carr's "Florida Bound Blues".  Leroy is gong to Florida, and in the second verse he tells the red cap to load his trunk on the steamboat for the voyage.  This lyric probably dates from the time Carr spent in St. Louis around 1933.  If you'd asked me before I heard this song how someone would get to Florida in 1934, I would have said "they'd hop on a train".  Probably by this time most people would have done that, but apparently traveling down the Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast on a steamboat was still an option then, too. 
       

Offline CF

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #12 on: November 06, 2007, 09:53:15 AM »
I'd like to say further that I do have a high value on lyrics but that I am often not immediately drawn to most & usually have to make an effort to step back & listen to them . . . especially with a lot of blues which uses traditional floating verses. The deeper I get into this music the more I'm learning the sources of many songs that initially wowed me. Probably my appreciation is undergoing a change & a development. Instances like learning that Willie Brown got some of the more 'philosophical' verses in 'Future Blues', for instance, from an earlier popular Ma Rainey record has no doubt affected the way I listen to blues now, perhaps I'm a little jaded that way . . . but certainly examples like dj's above prove that there is an element to the blues lyric that is often extra-musical & are very interesting to anyone curious about the time & place & lives of these artists. The trick is to know what is narrative, biographical & personal & what is archetypal or symbolic & not confuse the two. I find both to be highly compelling for different reasons.
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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #13 on: November 09, 2007, 03:41:34 AM »
Listening to a CD in the car on the way to work this morning, it struck me that there's another way in which pre-war lyrics have meaning, though it was certainly unintentional to the singers at the time.  They serve as a historical document of how life was lived, a window into a lost world.  The song that made me think of this is Leroy Carr's "Florida Bound Blues".  Leroy is gong to Florida, and in the second verse he tells the red cap to load his trunk on the steamboat for the voyage.  This lyric probably dates from the time Carr spent in St. Louis around 1933.  If you'd asked me before I heard this song how someone would get to Florida in 1934, I would have said "they'd hop on a train".  Probably by this time most people would have done that, but apparently traveling down the Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast on a steamboat was still an option then, too. 

That's exactly what I was going to say.
A lot has already been contributed here, so I can't do much more than repeat what's already been said that I believe is true.

Not all blues lyrics are personal narratives, but not all are designed for commercial appeal either.

Offline MTJ3

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Re: Blues Lyrics--What Do You Hear?
« Reply #14 on: November 11, 2007, 09:48:43 AM »
The song that made me think of this is Leroy Carr's "Florida Bound Blues".  Leroy is gong to Florida, and in the second verse he tells the red cap to load his trunk on the steamboat for the voyage.  This lyric probably dates from the time Carr spent in St. Louis around 1933.      

Without getting into the middle of this discussion, I would point out that "Florida Bound Blues" is a cover by Carr and Blackwell of the Bessie Smith song.  Bessie Smith recorded "Florida Bound Blues" for Columbia on November 17, 1925, in New York City.  Clarence Williams has composer credit for it on her recording.  The lyrics to Bessie's recording are as follows:

Goodbye, North.  Hello, South (2x)
It's so cold up here that the words freeze in your mouth

I'm going to Florida where I can have my fun.  (2x)
Where I can lay out in the green grass and look up at the sun.

Hey, hey, red cap, help me with this load.
Red cap porter, help me with this load.
[Spoken:]  Help us out.
Hold that steamboat, Mr. Captain, let me get on board.

I got a letter from my daddy.  He bought me a sweet piece of land.
I got a letter from my daddy.  He bought me a small piece of ground.
You can't blame me for leaving, Lord, I mean I'm Florida bound.

My papa told me, my mama told me too.  (2x)
Don't let them bell bottom britches make a fool out of you.

Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell recorded "Florida Bound Blues" for Vocalion on August 14, 1934, in New York City.  The lyrics to their version of the song are as follows:

I'm going back to Florida where I can have my fun.  (2x)
Lay down in the green grass, look up at the morning sun.

Say, Mr. Red Cap Porter, help me with my load.  (2x)
Have your steamboat captain to let me get on board.

I got a letter from my daddy.  He bought me a piece of ground. (2x)
You can't blame me for leaving, Lord, I'm Florida bound.

If your home's in Florida, what in the world are you doing here? (2x)
I'll be with you in another year.

My mama told me, and daddy told me too.  (2x)
Don't let them bell bottom pants, make a fool out of you.





 


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