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Arrest me for murder and I ain't harmed a man. Arrest me for forgery, I can't even sign my name - Furry Lewis, Judge Boushay Blues

Author Topic: What Is a Breakdown?  (Read 1518 times)

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Offline uncle bud

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What Is a Breakdown?
« on: February 06, 2008, 06:55:58 PM »
I've never really understood the musical term "breakdown", as in Blind Arthur's Breakdown, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, whatever. Does it have an actual musical definition, or is it just "fast" and "dance song"?

Offline CF

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Re: What Is a Breakdown?
« Reply #1 on: February 06, 2008, 06:58:08 PM »
Those are almost the exact words I'd use to describe a breakdown andrew . . . . something maybe a bit raggy & danceable . . .
Stand By If You Wanna Hear It Again . . .

Cooljack

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Re: What Is a Breakdown?
« Reply #2 on: February 06, 2008, 11:22:14 PM »
I've always assumed that a breakdown was when the playing sped up and the vocals ceased if present atall. Not to be confused with a metal breakdown which is characterised by pauses in music rather than speeding up. I would also guess as said above that it is pretty much a dancy bit of music/ music playing.

Offline waxwing

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Re: What Is a Breakdown?
« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2008, 12:10:18 AM »
From wikipedia:
Quote
The Bluegrass Breakdown
In bluegrass music, a break is a short instrumental solo played between sections of a song and is conventionally a variation on the song's melody. A breakdown is an instrumental form that features a series of breaks, each played by a different instrument. Examples of the form are "Bluegrass Breakdown" by Bill Monroe as well as "Earl's Breakdown" and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", both of which were written by Earl Scruggs.

Seems likely.-G-

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Offline frankie

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Re: What Is a Breakdown?
« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2008, 03:56:35 AM »
I remember this came up more than once in rec.music.country.old-time newsgroup.  Seems like the earliest definitions were of a particular dance figure (quadrille), and probably got extended to the tunes that were played to accompany those dances - most likely, fast tunes.  It seems to me that the designation of songs as a"breakdown" in recorded music from the 78rpm era can be erratic - most often, they are fast or flashy in some way.

Here's an interesting quote from those discussions, from Joe Wilson - the quote was cobbled together from a conversation with John Cephas and other blues musicians:

Quote
Okay, I'll be the first country boy to venture out on your limb --
actually, out on your twig.  I don't recall ever hearing a definition of
"breakdown" in my native Blue Ridge.  My buddy John Cephas, country
bluesman from Caroline County, Virginia, says it comes from house dances,
that some dancing became so energetic that the puncheon floors of cabins
were literally broken down by the dancers.  John talked about this with
three other Piedmont bluesmen (John Jackson, Archie Edwards, John Dee
Holeman) when we were filming the documentary, "Blues House Party," in the
early 80s and they all knew about it. (But I'm not sure the discussion is
in the video; it may have been cut.)  Their acoustic branch of the oldest
blues draws upon the old black string bands (fiddle, banjo, rhythm groups)
for repetoire, performance settings and many terms, so I suspect that you
have here a Tidewater term that reveals some of the oldest roots of the
American musical tree.  Joe Wilson

You can view the threads here and here.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: What Is a Breakdown?
« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2008, 07:44:16 AM »
Thanks Frank, those links help clear things up (and muddy things further). For those who may be interested, an Oxford English Dictionary definition:

Breakdown:  A riotous dance, with which balls are often terminated in the country.  A dance in the peculiar style of Negroes. 1864 -- "Don't clear out when the quadrilles are over, for we are going to have a breakdown to wind up with."

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: What Is a Breakdown?
« Reply #6 on: February 09, 2008, 02:35:03 AM »
Being the boring etymological geek that I am just had to scan the entry from the four volume Dictionary of American English On Historical Principles (Chicago UP 1960). As the citations are "of their time" I have not changed any of the wording.

Breakdown. {I832-} + A noisy rollicking dance of rustic origin.

Also, 'a dance in the peculiar style of the negroes' (B. '59).

1819 QUITMAN Life & Corr. 1. 42 Lay at Point Pleasant where Whiting and I visited a Virginia 'break-down.'
1840 in Buckingham E. &. W. States (1842) II. 28 The match. . . will consist of a variety of Breakdowns, Jigs, Reels, &c.
1847 FIELD Drama in Pokerville, etc. I80 There were river yarns, and boatmen songs, and 'nigger break-downs.'
1875 Chicago Tribune 30 Sept. 5/l Lotta, the charming little actress who plays the banjo and dances break-downs.
1889 E. B. CUSTER Tenting on Plains 234 The fattest darkey of all waddled down next and did a break-down.
1899 BRET HARTE Hamlin's Mediation 102 The dancing of the girl suggested a negro 'break-down' rather than any known sylvan measures.
1920 C. R. COOPER Under Big Top 5 Lidge Dawsey was holding a supper and breakdown.
attrib. 1864 T. L. NICHOLS Amer. Life I. 227 She. . . heard a long impromptu song composed in her honor, with a banjo and breakdown accompaniment.

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