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The only definition of 'broadcast' in 1901 was 'to sow seeds.' This is still my favorite metaphor for public radio - Bill Siemerling, 2003

Author Topic: Re-Thinking the Blues  (Read 3739 times)

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Offline doctorpep

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Re-Thinking the Blues
« on: February 18, 2008, 02:44:08 PM »
After reading most of Stephen Calt's biography on Skip James, and Elijah Wald's "Escaping the Delta", is it time that we all re-think our notion of what Blues is? In Wald's book, he discusses how Blues was commercial music, and not the deep expression of the oppression of a particular race. He mentions how Lonnie Johnson's records, on which he was told by whites in the record industry to make up lyrics about certain themes, sold way better than anything by Crying Sam Collins or Boweavil Jackson ever did. He also talks about how Robert Johnson's less romantically esoteric contributions to Blues, as found in "Sweet Home Chicago" and "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom", are the ones that influenced black Bluesmen to come after him, whereas white record collectors in the 60s consciously decided to mythologize Johnson and make him a legend, considering songs like "Hellhound On My Trail" to be his best work. Calt talks about how white record collectors in the 60s created the term "Country Blues", which he says makes no sense because a lot of this music was being played in the cities. He also says that regional styles like the "Bentonia School" and "Delta Blues" do not even exist. He describes white Blues fans in the '60s as "discovering" Bluesmen just like buying another "nigger". Is he just being a cold-hearted, bitter man because his idol, Skip James, turned out to be less than friendly, or is there a great amount of truth to this? The only rebuttal I can make is that when I listen to Jim Thompkins' "Bedside Blues" or Texas Alexander's "Levee Camp Moan", nothing about either one of these songs sounds artificial; they both sound like a pure expression of human feeling. When I read that Johnny Shines said that Robert Johnson loved Polka music, it really did a lot to de-mythologize the way I had thought about Johnson. So, what does everyone think? Are Calt and Wald 100% right? Is the conservative viewpoint of Blues and Bluesmen correct? Or is the truth about the nature of the men and their music somewhere in the middle?
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

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Offline Rivers

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #1 on: February 18, 2008, 06:55:56 PM »
Fortunately for me I have no conception of what 'blues' is anymore, other than an all too convenient bracket for people to lump together a lot of different music. These days it's become a term used generally by people not really interested enough to dig deeper. This is, IMO, a result of the recording industry's need to 'genre-ize' and commoditize a song to make it easier to sell it to the musically unsophisticated. You are absolutely correct.

The 'blues', as it has evolved to date in the public mind, is a genre, capable of analysis and duplication. So if artist X wants 'a blues' on his or her next record they know which buttons to push, and people say, 'oh, it's a blues'.

Offline doctorpep

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #2 on: February 18, 2008, 08:52:58 PM »
So, then, you're inclined to believe in Blues Revisionists' theories? (I wonder if I just coined a term haha). The thing I have trouble with and wrestle with is that Blues (and I'm talking about what we often call "deep blues" and not Blind Blake's "Seaboard Stomp" or Blind Boy Fuller's "Step It Up And Go") is NOT a deeply esoteric and personal expression of pain, but dance music and entertainment. Maybe it's just me!
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

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Offline unezrider

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2008, 11:14:03 PM »
hello friend,
let me start off by saying i think doctorpep is right about a lot of blues music being 'dance' music & entertainment. not all of it, but a lot of it. in the end, though, it really doesn't matter which it is. personally, i've never found a music that has struck me so deeply, & stuck w/ me as long as blues (country, delta, what have you). there's a lot of heartfelt emotions in these tunes, that you don't get from more popular forms of music, in the last 1/2 century or so ;). & frankly, hearing robert johnson sing about hellhounds on his trail, is just as engaging for me as hearing memphis minnie singing 'soo cow soo'. (& i don't even know what that means!) who cares if he really had hellhounds on his trail in real life - during that performance he sure as hell sounds like he does, & that's all that matters.
as for wald's book, it really gives you a lot to think about. if for nothing else, but trying to debunk the notion robert johnson, had he lived, would have been very similar musically to muddy, elmore james, wolf - any of those guys that came out of mississippi, to record & live in chicago. & the way he breaks down those recording sessions gives good ground for his argument. & maybe johnson would have loved to have been a jump blues guy, we'll never know. personally, i don't really hear anything in those recordings he left us to suggest that he'd have gone that route. imo, his slide pieces are w/out a doubt, his most moving & forever lasting performances. plus, his death wasn't 10 years removed from muddy hitting it big in chicago w/ his 'electrified' country blues sound. so there would have been $$$ in something that obviously was very natural fit for him.
as for rethinking the blues... i guess it's all of what you want it to be. perhaps the road you took to get to the blues, will influence the way you look at it, think about it, etc... maybe the notion of someone selling their soul at a crossroads is romantic. i think it's great! i don't think it happened - but i think it's great story, none the less. let us not forget, there is a lot of humor in those old blues tunes, as i believe wald mentions in that book. (it's been awhile since i read it.)
enjoy it, learn it, pass it on. thats all that matters.
chris
"Be good, & you will be lonesome." -Mark Twain

Offline GhostRider

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #4 on: February 19, 2008, 08:31:14 AM »
Hi:

I think Wald is 100% right. I think more pseudoemotional bunk has been written about pre-war acoustic blues than any other artform.

Still great music though, better when it's stripped of the "itinerant bard" nonsense.

Alex

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #5 on: February 19, 2008, 08:31:38 AM »
I'm not trying to be a conciliator here but my feeling after years of trying to analyze my own conflicting responses to this complex music is that all of the above are true ...or not depending on the individual case. Certainly there are songs which come from the depths of the human soul, and there are dance tunes, and sometimes they are done by the same person. Certainly outside forces influenced what got to be on record, but sometimes producer's ideas coincided with the natural expression of a particular artist. So Maybe a more useful endeavor would be to provide categories within the overall heading of blues that can accommodate these markedly different kinds of songs.
I have long felt that for the type of song which seems to have nothing but pure personal expression as its goal like
Bukka White's Strange Place Blues, an appropriate name would be Early Twentieth Century Rural African American Art Songs.  Stick that on your ads next time you have a gig!
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
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Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #6 on: February 19, 2008, 08:38:38 AM »
Quote
I think more pseudoemotional bunk has been written about pre-war acoustic blues than any other artform.

NOT EVEN CLOSE! In my other life I have the misfortune of being a painter. What you encounter surrounding the Blues is a benign waltz through the tulips compared to the mega-ton piles -o- shit that infect that sorry ass world.
Pick up a copy of ARTFORUM magazine sometime.
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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

Offline Stuart

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #7 on: February 19, 2008, 08:50:36 AM »
...is it time that we all re-think our notion of what Blues is?

What does question this assume/presuppose?

Offline Johnm

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #8 on: February 19, 2008, 09:09:20 AM »
Hi all,
I think whatever difficulties arise with trying to say just what it is that the Blues are derive mostly from thinking the the Blues are one thing, when in fact they were and are many things, as Mr. O'Muck noted two posts back.  I think perhaps one factor that often is forgotten in discussions, too, is that it is a style.  Artists like King Solomon Hill, Skip James, and other scary singers were no more a pure reflection expressed in music of their true personalities than were Frankie Jaxon and or Sweet Papa Stovepipe.  In fact, we don't know what these artists' personalities were, and it's a bit credulous to think that their musical means of expression necessarily coincided with their personalities.  Musicians gravitate to particular sounds and means of expression because it's a way of expressing one's self that comes pretty easily and naturally, because it projects something in a performance sense that they feel comes across well for an audience, and perhaps most of all, because it's a sound that they want to hear themselves making.  I think the last reason is the most telling and most mysterious.  Why do we want to hear what we want to hear and respond to what we respond to?  Bad sentence, but good question.  I think you have a better chance at getting at the essence of the music, though, if you don't complicate matters by trying to make suppositions about the player's personality based on the music he made; there may be no obvious correlation.
all best,
Johnm      

Offline dj

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #9 on: February 19, 2008, 11:29:34 AM »
Quote
...is it time that we all re-think our notion of what Blues is?

I don't want to come off as sounding flip or condescending here - sometimes it's hard to tell how to take something without the benefit of facial expression and vocal tone.  With that out of the way, here goes...

I first became aware of something called the blues approximately 43 years ago.  Ever since day one, when I thought "the blues" was an instrumental format dreamed up by the Yardbirds to put on the B sides of 45 RPM records, I've been pretty much constantly rethinking my notions of what the blues is.  I think that's as true today as it was 40 years ago.  It's not a process I'll ever come to the end of.  I'm confident that this is true of all of the people who have spent very much time conversing about the subject in the forums here. 

And yes, I agree that "the blues", like "jazz", "rock and roll", and "Scandanavian Christian prog/psych" (I actually know someone with a fairly vast collection of that!), is just a convenient shorthand that lumps a lot of disparate music together and that means different things to different people.  My definition, as I relate "the blues" to Weenie Campbell, is "music commercially recorded for an african-american audience by african-american performers before and immediately after World War II, rooted in and emanating from minstrel shows, ragtime, jazz, medicine shows, vaudeville, black folk music, white folk music, country, pop, hawaiian, and other unknown sources, and that music's continuation after World War II as both commercial and folk music".  Hey, "the blues" is so much easier to say.   ;)  And anyway, ask me tomorrow and my definition will be different.   ;D     

Offline blueshome

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #10 on: February 19, 2008, 02:47:24 PM »
Deja vu seems to be kicking in here - I'm sure we've all had this type of discussion before.

My position is very simple - "is it blues?" - if you have to ask you don't know!

What I find most fascinating, broadly agreeing with the commercial basis for the music (even if someone was only playing for a few cents back then), is the richness and variety of styles from different performers, especially before the influence of recordings intensified.

The levels of artistry attained by many of the performers never ceases to amaze me - I struggle to understand the why's and how's of people in their situation to do this. No doubt there are many sociological and psychological explanations - I prefer to see it as evidence of the strength and creativity of the human spirit even in the most adverse conditions to produce something that will live on as art, whatever the motive of the player.

Offline NevadaPic

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #11 on: February 19, 2008, 05:14:08 PM »
It's my guess that the blues players of yore did so to make a living more than for personal expression.  Nothing much has changed in the meantime.  With that said, it takes nothing away from the blues as a means of self expression.  Has anyone ever suggested that blues players exploited their audience's suffering and misery?  I know it's a release for me being on the receiving end and the giving end.

The points expressed regarding white folks exploitation of black musicians are well taken.  I'm not sure that many whites regard for black folk extends any further than their entertainment value.  But the racism cuts both ways let us make no mistake.  That will never change and that is our lot as human beings. 

It's a simple form of music, the complexity is added by the individuals interpretation of it.  I am constantly amazed at the vast array of different approaches to it and all the time it being immediately recognizable as blues.  The blues have been a life long fascination to me and obviously to rest of us as well.  What more do we need to know?
If I don't meet you no more in this world, I'll meet you in the next one so don't be late...

Offline Rivers

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #12 on: February 19, 2008, 05:40:24 PM »
You're right, we have all had this discussion before but this is turning out to be much more interesting and insightful than most. Most of the points I was going to make have already been made. The 'Yardbirds 45rpm B-sides' thing made me laugh out loud, so true in that time and place. The term means / meant different things in different times and places, if you're wanting to pin down a concise definition you'd need to incorporate that idea.
« Last Edit: February 19, 2008, 05:44:04 PM by Rivers »

Offline RobBob

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #13 on: February 20, 2008, 06:57:46 AM »
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where blues was something heard via jazz.  Being drawn to the music as fundamental to all music as I know it, there is no need to ask, "Is it blues?" Country blues exists today because white people have only begun to feel the pain inflicted on his black brothers for centuries.

Having known some blues players who were neither famous or if it existed then, inclined to use a computer much less the internet, and who played blues because it spoke to them and was fundamental to their lives.

You all can spend hours talking about a music, or play it, live it, and be it.  One of those blues singers I knew, loved Big Bill and sounded a lot like him.  He kept a big stack of records in his living room and would play the songs he loved the most for me on his stereo console.  He lived in a small row house with red carpet on the floor.  He drove truck for a moving company and took his Yamaha guitar on the road while he left his precious J-50 Gibson at  home.  One time his house was broken into while on the road and his amp, microphone, and Gibson were stolen by a nephew who needed money for drugs.  He never really recovered on one level from that incident.  Henry Townsend reprimanded him one time for not being "original enough".  It hurt him.  He died with little notice after making one LP for Flying Fish which was marred by bad harmonica playing from a wanna be white kid. 

We meet one night when I was playing in a bar and he asked to do a guest set.  i  played harp for him. After that we played in bars, college concerts and his kitchen while he cooked chitlins and we drank boiler makers and played blues while his wife read the Bible in the front room with a Jehovah Witness,

That's the blues.

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: Re-Thinking the Blues
« Reply #14 on: February 20, 2008, 07:02:34 AM »
And his name was.............?
My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977)

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

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