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Author Topic: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?  (Read 9688 times)

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Offline CF

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I've been watching a lot of country blues stuff on youtube lately.
Too bad when people ask about note-for-note accuracy when performing this music they never mean the vocal.
I see unending praise for musicians who play a mean guitar but who's singing is so poor it makes the guitar part void, for me. & I don't mean kinda bad singing, I mean nigh atrocious, as if they're not even listening to the song or . . .
If Son House, Skip James, Leadbelly . . . even Blind Blake who's vocals are often criticized, sang as poorly as some of todays' players we probably would be talking A LOT less about them.
When is there going to be a country blues VOCAL revival?
This is a major, major problem with the country blues situation today as I see it.
Sorry for hijacking your thread reuellis but I spent a long night shaking my head at a hundred videos of amazing guitar players & probably not a single great singer.

« Last Edit: April 24, 2008, 05:01:11 PM by cheapfeet »
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Offline uncle bud

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #1 on: April 23, 2008, 10:07:30 AM »
I'm betting you didn't watch Paul Rishell then.

While I tend to agree that more emphasis in general needs to be put on singing this music, to be fair, Youtube does not necessarily represent a good sample. For instance, the clips from instructional videos put up by Stefan Grossman frequently show instructors teaching tunes they do not really perform, and vocals are cursory at best, since the focus of these videos is guitar instruction. Other Youtube video I've watched of some contemporaries doesn't catch them at their best either. And some just aren't great singers.

It's going to be hard for anyone to measure up against the likes of Son House though. You can eliminate most of House's own contemporaries too.

Ditto Leadbelly. Not many people, period, sing that well.

Anyway, a couple contemporary players whose vocals I think are always great: Paul Rishell, Alvin Youngblood Hart.

Offline CF

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #2 on: April 23, 2008, 11:04:46 AM »
No, you're right Andrew, of course there are some great singers. I wasn't trying to imply there wasn't. But providing a short list of accomplished singers only makes the larger list of the unaccomplished  more glaring & reveals some kind of perverse institutionalized disregard for vocal competency. I can't think of a single pre-war vocalist who's vocals are outright horrible. Of course those vocalists probably didn't get recorded. I don't think it's necessarily that people just don't know how to sing this music anymore, I think a large part of it is that the vocal tradition hasn't been embraced enough by the revivalist movement.
Let's not even compare ourselves with the likes of Leadbelly or House, two of the more obvious great vocalists. Blake is a good example. The nuances even in his admittedly meagre vocal are deep & reflect a communal influence or style that obviously valued melody & invention in the voice. Robert Wilkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Chatmon were just some of the great bluesman who were not technically great vocalists yet showed they had chops even within their limitations.  
I'm not criticizing amateurs or people who play for their own enjoyment. But would many of these people who post on youtube be so forthcoming if they had a tradition or teacher who said 'Hey junior, you got that guitar part down real nice but you ain't playing these blues right if you're not singing it right. WORK on your vocal as much or more than you do your guitar playing.'
Paul Rishell is a damned good singer. That should be a more obvious & nurtured standard for us wanting to do the country blues in the new millenium.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2008, 11:11:52 AM by cheapfeet »
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Offline Stuart

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #3 on: April 23, 2008, 11:05:49 AM »
When is there going to be a country blues VOCAL revival?

When people get back to "screamin' and hollerin' The Blues." ;)

Actually, I think that there's much to be said for both aspects. Note-for-note improves and expands one's guitar skill level and one's ear, as well as preserving the original as played. But we're not merely custodians of culture who treat the music as historical artifacts. Ari Eisinger really did a good job of summing this up in the liner notes to his recent CD.

We all connect with the music on an emotional level, but it takes some doing to put this across in a performance. You have to be able to lay it all out there. Easier said than done. Plus it helps to have the pipes.

Taking the original and making it one's own (so to speak) requires--and expresses--individual creativity. There's a lot to be said for this as well. And of course, its always nice to just sit around, relax and play in one's own style without making it a chore. The first and second generation CB musicians learned the music of others and from others, but rarely produced a carbon copy. As an aside, it's interesting that in other cultures, "writing in the style of" or "in imitation of" is an accepted and well respected genre.

The comment is often made--and repeated--that so-and-so never played a song exactly the same way twice. Of course, no one really knows with absolute certainty that that was the case for obvious reasons, but it does speak to the point that variation was and is an important part of playing CB.

Offline reuellis

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #4 on: April 23, 2008, 11:19:43 AM »
one can practice a song or lick over and over and over and over and get it.  to sing (well) you have to be born with it.  if this isn't true, please teach me to sing!

Offline waxwing

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #5 on: April 23, 2008, 11:34:56 AM »
Have you spent as much time practicing singing as you have guitar playing? Do you have instructional materials on singing? Have you taken lessons from a singing coach? Your voice is an instrument that needs just as much practice as your guitar.

I blame it all on the Rev who seems to have had an overly healthy disdain for singers to the point where he smokes a cigar while singing. Sure, he could sing when he wanted to, but because he was with us in the '60s, his competitive pride about his guitar playing spawned a whole school of barely singing, if at all, guitar players who are now very influential in the "country blues scene".

All for now.
John C.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2008, 11:36:10 AM by waxwing »
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Offline dj

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #6 on: April 23, 2008, 11:57:33 AM »
Quote
Plus it helps to have the pipes.

Quote
To sing (well) you have to be born with it.

I couldn't disagree more with the two statements quoted above.  I suppose on some level, you're not going to be Son House or Robert Plant or Pavarotti unless you have some genetic basis - good vocal chords and lung capacity, and a genetic predisposition for very hard work.   ;D  But to be able to sing on key, to phrase a song, to breathe in the correct places, to project the meaning and emotion of the lyrics, and to throw in the occasional ornament or variation, all it takes is study and practice.  And practice, and practice, and practice...   

Edited to add:  Please note that I'm not in any way claiming to be a good singer myself!
« Last Edit: April 23, 2008, 11:59:36 AM by dj »

Offline Janmarie

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #7 on: April 23, 2008, 12:59:22 PM »
I'm enjoying this thread and would like to interject my ideas on the vocals (although am heading out of town soon and may not see your responses). 

So often on this sight the emphasis is on male guitarists but there are many female country blues artists out there who can really sing and sing well.  Not many of them played guitar in the 20's and 30's.  Memphis Minnie was an exception and amazing as well.  But some of the fine vocalists that come to mind are Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida cox, Lil Green, Ethel Waters .... the list is really quite long and only a few dip into the category of "screamin' and hollerin'".  The songs they sings are just as potent as the men's and styles as varied.  Perhaps because many of them do not play an instrument you can feel their focused passion in their phrasing and control.

I think to understand one's potential as a singer of the country blues, listening to the female vocalists as well as the men provides quite an education.

For me (mostly singer,so-so player), the key is as much listening as practicing and understanding the subtle vocal variations.  I have neither the time nor patience to replicate someone else's playing/singing but I am in awe of those who do.  I simply try to do the best I can within the framework of who I am but I suppose that's what we all do.


Offline doctorpep

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #8 on: April 23, 2008, 01:02:37 PM »
I'm not a musician, but am a very good singer when it comes to Blues. I seem to have a very good ability to mimic voices and vocals in general, but am especially good at it when it comes to bass-oriented black Blues singers. Take a look at this guy, if you think you have the stomach: . Here is an example of a man who plays guitar much better than I'll ever be able to, but who has, please excuse my language, pure whitebread delivery. I don't mean that white people can't sing Blues; what I mean is that this guy sings like he's never had problems or trouble in his life, and like his biggest worry is getting his kids to soccer practice in the nice, suburban town he lives in on Long Island, New York. By the way, just to show how important vocals (and lyrics) can be, I'd like to say that Lomax recorded a guy named Bama who had some of the most beautifully stunning vocals ever put to record, and the man never played an instrument, to the best of my knowledge. I'd rank his work up there with the best of McTell, Robert Johnson, Richard "Rabbit" Brown, Johnny Shines, Willie Walker, Gary Davis, etc.
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Offline Stuart

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #9 on: April 23, 2008, 01:07:06 PM »
Quote
Plus it helps to have the pipes.

I couldn't disagree more with the two statements quoted above.

Hey DJ:

I just meant that it helps, not that it was a necessity. I'm a hard work / lots of practice kind of guy myself--talent alone is rarely enough. All great singers don't necessarily have the gift of a great voice, and not all those who have the gift of a potentially great voice are great singers. Hope this clarifies things.

Edited to add: The "Screamin' and Hollerin" comment wasn't meant to be all-encompassing.
« Last Edit: April 23, 2008, 01:12:10 PM by Stuart »

Offline CF

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #10 on: April 23, 2008, 01:11:15 PM »
Oh my, I've opened a can of worms here haven't I 
Maybe to be fair to reuellis part of this thread could be moved to it's own thread. Call it The Blues Vocal Tradition or something?
« Last Edit: July 04, 2012, 06:51:48 AM by cheapfeet »
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Offline doctorpep

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #11 on: April 23, 2008, 01:17:29 PM »
Sleepy John Estes is a guy who literally "cried the Blues", meaning he didn't have a good voice in the conventional sense. However, he put a lot of emotion into his vocals, thus the songs were meaningful. I don't think one needs to be born with a good set of pipes in order to sing the Blues well.
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Offline Stuart

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #12 on: April 23, 2008, 01:27:24 PM »
Oh my, I've opened a can of worms here haven't I  >:D

Yeah, but it's a great can of worms.

Maybe what we need is a "What the Hell is a "set of pipes" anyway??!!" thread. I've been listening to the JSP Sleepy John set along with Howlin' Wolf's "Definitive Collection" as of late and lovin' every minute of it. So what the Hell do I know?

Offline Mike Brosnan

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #13 on: April 23, 2008, 03:03:49 PM »
This is a very interesting thread that does seem like it should be split in two.
 
As far as the original topic: I usually try to find the happy medium between copying the originals note for note and playing things my own way.  (With varying degrees of success... :-\)

Regarding emphasis on vocals: I agree that vocals are generally not emphasized enough in 21st century country blues (not counting obvious exceptions like Mr. Rishell).  But I'm not going to decide who should and should not sing publicly whether it be on youtube, a street corner, or on stage.  Singing is healthy even if you suck.  If someone's gettin' paid to sing poorly and play well, more power to 'em.  If I don't like it I'll go elsewhere.  To each their own...

I was about to take this thread even further from its original point, but I'll stop myself and just start another one...

Mike
« Last Edit: April 23, 2008, 03:29:52 PM by brosna »

Offline Mr.OMuck

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Re: The Blues Vocal Tradition or why don't we sing like they used to?
« Reply #14 on: April 23, 2008, 05:31:52 PM »
Quote
I blame it all on the Rev

This is plain wrong! Its just that his guitar playing, great as it was seemed attainable, like something you could learn as in taking piano lessons. Who could even conceive of singing like him, one of the greatest singers of religious music ever? ...well I give it a shot.

Quote
The songs they sings are just as potent as the men's and styles as varied.  Perhaps because many of them do not play an instrument you can feel their focused passion in their phrasing and control.

If you are a dude and you want to learn to sing the blues, put on a Bessie Smith record evryday and immerse yourself in the music and try to emulate  her sound.

Singing is where the rubber really hits the road. How invested are you? What do you have to bring to the song? How much are you capable of letting yourself feel? How much of that are you willing to show? Are you willing to step out of your set identity to engage a song? Unless singing is embaressing, it ain't no damn good at all.
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