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I could DIE doin' this" - Yank Rachell encouraging Dan Smith on Night Latch Blues

Author Topic: How To Write/View Country Blues Lyrics  (Read 9752 times)

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Offline Mike McLaren

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Re: How To Write/View Country Blues Lyrics
« Reply #15 on: August 07, 2008, 01:27:43 PM »
Hi John.

For me, trying to figure it out for myself is why I'm glad I rediscovered the Weenie web site. I can't have these discussions with folks around my town, 'cause they don't understand the blues language or the ideas some of us have about writing a good blues tune.

In my neck of the woods, it's "Wagon Wheel" this and "Old Crow" that, or " how many different ways do you think A.P. Carter strummed the G7 on an autoharp." If it's not that, it's something screaming out of a Line6 amp, with so much distortion I can't distinguish one chord from another. Folks around here love hearing blues, but only three of us in the county play acoustically; the rest of what little remains of blues around here is played electric.

Don't get me wrong. "Wagon Wheel" is a great tune. A few years back I even rewrote the lyrics to be about Humboldt County and my wife instead of goin' south out of Roanoke to Philly to North Carolina. Occasionally I'll listen to Motorhead. But 99.99% of the time I'm thinkin' and playing blues.

It's nice to chat with folks who know what I mean by "ridin' the blinds" and "biscuit roller." Whether I'm gigging or just sitting around with friends (which I prefer), I still have to consider what I'm doing. "99-year Blues" is a great tune, but I'm obsessively committed to non-violent thinking, so I'm not gonna sing "give me my pistol, said three rounds balls / gonna shoot everybody I don't like at all."

I wrote a song about a female checker at Winn-Dixie, and I loved playing that song... but fifteen years ago I moved to Northern California, where only 5-in-128,000 folks in the whole county have ever heard of Winn-Dixie. That song just doesn't fly around here.

On top of that, I never want to disrespect the music that I love, or the folks who played it before me. I owe what I do to what they did.

So whether I play publicly, with a student, or with friends, I want to make sure that I'm choosing the right words, because in anybody's mind I am nothing more than what they see and what they hear... and in my mind I want them to see and hear only what makes them happy.

What I'm finding out on Weenie is that there's a lot of folks doing the same thing I am. Cool! And to me it doesn't matter whether it's an intellectual discussion or bantering among online geeks. Every one of us has to do the exact same thing: pick up the guitar and play it... and we have to figure out how to do that every time we pick up the guitar... even if we're Eric Clapton.
Woke up this morning... I think.

Offline dj

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Re: How To Write/View Country Blues Lyrics
« Reply #16 on: August 07, 2008, 01:52:32 PM »
As someone who next week will enter my rolled buttermilk biscuits in the baking contest at the county fair, I can assure you that I know exactly what "biscuit roller" means.    >:D

Offline waxwing

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Re: How To Write/View Country Blues Lyrics
« Reply #17 on: August 07, 2008, 03:55:49 PM »
Mike, I was referring to the question of how white folks could sing the blues, which seemed to be where the discussion was headed, and in my opinion is a moot and unanswerable rhetorical question. But they can, 'cause they do.

Personally, I don't care if my audience doesn't understand what all the words mean. If you substitute Safeway for Winn-Dixie today, what are you gonna sing when you get a gig at a festival in Japan? Trying to find a word that everyone will get leads sooner or later to the dreaded Lowest Common Denominator and that makes for way less interesting lyrics to me.

If there's an interesting lyric that my audience may not get right off, I might explain it to them before the song. I think that makes for more interest, not less. And often folks will ask me what a word means. Like when I sing Future Blues I will often be asked what "mamlish" means. Discussing it's use as an "intensifier" similar in use to the adjective "f*ckin" makes people appreciate the lyrics more. If I were to just sing "Woman I love now, lightnin' when she, lightnin' when she, f*ckin' smiles." I think the song would actually be diminished in its impact. Maybe if I was in England I'd sing "bloody smiles"? I don't think so.

I think one has to realize that this is an historical music form. It is not a contemporary form. I think most audiences realize this and place the performance of it in a historical context. That doesn't mean they can't get the artistic thrust of the song.

Personally, I don't think the way to make it timely is to change the language of the blues to fit modern sensibilities, I think that dilutes the music. To many audiences it renders the music virtually comical. Hundred year old music with modern words? I think it is more important to fully understand the lyrics oneself and to draw a personal parallel to the emotional view of the narrative. If one can fully invest in the emotional content of the song, that will be passed directly to the audience. They need not understand every word or even every image presented in the lyrics. If something makes them ask the meaning, that opens the possibility for more interplay, leading them to a deeper understanding of the music. But if they feel the artist's honest connection to the content, they very well may feel the parallel between the way the issue was addressed then and how the same issue may exist in their own lives today. Often they will get the meaning of those unfamiliar words from that context.

I like to treat my audience with respect and give them credit for some understanding and intelligence. Your words above seem to indicate a rather low opinion of your audience. A sad fate for a performer, but perhaps a self fulfilling prophesy?

Sure, if you want to write blues from your own life, you are going to have to use words from your own life, but for me it is important to stay within the historical context as much as possible, to borrow phrases from the pool of "floating" lines and verses, just as you do with the music.

As always, these are just my views and my approach to the music and I think there is room for every approach here. Every artist finds his own way and fortunately, the differences are what make them all worthwhile.

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

“Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Offline doctorpep

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Re: How To Write/View Country Blues Lyrics
« Reply #18 on: August 08, 2008, 06:31:52 AM »
I enjoy preserving the original lyrics to these songs when singing them. For instance, what would Ed Bell's "Mamlish Blues" be if we removed the word, "mamlish", as you just mentioned? It's always fun to research old, southern, black Bluesman vocabulary. There are even books that are essentially Blues dictionaries!=)
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."


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