collapse

* Member Info

 
 
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

* Like Us on Facebook

* Support Weenie!

Shop on Amazon using these search boxes and Weenie earns a small commission:
USA
Search Now:
In Association with Amazon

United Kingdom
Search Now:
In Association with Amazon

Canada
Search Now:
In Association with Amazon

* Weenie's CD!

Pot of ham and cabbage, ain't enough to fill mine. That just makes me peckish, I could eat a dozen fine - Me And My Tapeworm, Sylvester Weaver 1927

Author Topic: The Wordless Voice--The Role of Instrumental Accompaniment in the Blues  (Read 5725 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Online Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10411
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Hi all,
I have heard it said that the role of the guitar or piano in the blues is to accompany the voice, and while there is an element of truth in that, it has always struck me as an over-simplification.  If the role of the instruments accompanying the voice in blues is simply to provide an accompaniment, what explanation is there for the instrumental virtuosity achieved by so many players in the style?  The virtuosity is certainly not needed to accompany the voice--that can be accomplished perfectly adequately in a much plainer fashion.  No, the instrumental role in blues playing and accompaniment is more complex: to serve as another voice, holding up one end of a call-and-response and reacting to what is being sung, in addition to providing the harmonic and rhythmic support normally accorded by an accompaniment.

Once you begin to think of the musical instrument as another voice, the sense of so many of the conventions pertaining to how blues are structured and played fall into place.  The AAB lyric structure so often found in 12-bar blues builds space for three vocal statements, each of which is answered by an instrumental response.  Recognizing the extent to which the response role of the instrument is honored and valued structurally also goes to explain metric irregularities that are so often encountered in the country blues.  The music abounds with songs in which a signature instrumental response lick is always played through to it's completion before the vocal pick-up beats are sung introducing the next phrase.  It all makes sense:  If the response lick is four beats long  and the vocal phrase requires a 2-beat pick-up, to maintain four beat measures throughout the course of a rendition would require entry of the vocal half-way through the response lick, thus interrupting the wordless voice.  And whether you are talking about Ed Bell playing "Mean Conductor Blues", Rube Lacy playing "Hamhound Crave" or Frankie Lee Sims playing "Lucy Mae", or a host of other Country Blues greats, these players will not interrupt a signature lick to sing--that would be tantamount to interrupting a speaker in mid-sentence.  In this way, the role of the wordless voice is accorded full respect.
Particularly adroit instrumentalists have had a lot of fun and derived some real entertainment value from their ability to speak through their instruments.  Think of Charley Patton's amazing version of "Spoonful Blues" in which he maintains a three-way conversation  with his singing, spoken asides, and the wordless voice supplying instrumental responses and finishing many of his lines for him.  Or think of Rev. Davis's admonishment to his guitar, "Talk to me!"  Other players utilize this technique in more mysterious and subtle ways.  Herman E. Johnson was a master of this, so often using his slide to finish lines, as did Blind Willie Johnson.
Another feature often encountered in the Country Blues that makes so much sense if you think of the accompanying instrument as a wordless voice is the "thriving on a riff" phenomenon, where a player steps outside of the form momentarily, and accords the instrument an unusual open-ended amount of time to explore an idea or perseverate on a lick.  It amounts to giving the instrument it's due--seeing what it has to say, letting it speak its peace.  There's plenty of time to come in singing after it has delivered its message, we're not operating on a timetable.
One of the exciting things about thinking of the accompanying instrument as another voice is that it provides an avenue for phrasing things more in the moment, and not being governed by formal conventions having to do with x number of bars of four beats each, etc. Instead, if you build the reflexes for it, you can remain open to the idea of the instrumental response going longer if and when you feel like it has more to say.  Some players are fortunate enough to have felt this and been comfortable with such an approach throughout their playing careers.  So, when you think about the famous Lightnin' Hopkins quote, "Lightnin' change when Lightnin' want to change.", he wasn't just blowing smoke, or being cute, he was remaining open to possibilities other than those prescribed by the forms as they are most often played.
All best,
Johnm
  
« Last Edit: May 31, 2010, 03:39:12 PM by Johnm »

Offline eric

  • Member
  • Posts: 524
John,

There you go with another thought provoking post.

One of the first delta tunes I learned was M & O Blues by Willie Brown.  I was so focused on the guitar part, it didn't dawn on me until I had it somewhat mastered and tried to sing it that it was really two completely different tunes that complemented each other perfectly creating a third piece.  The timing between Willie's guitar and singing is perfect, and I still think the guy who made that piece of a music was genius.
--
Eric

Offline lindy

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 1037
  • I'm a llama!

I'm listening to Ramblin' Thomas as I read your post, so it's very easy to throw him up as an example.

In some of his tunes (So Lonesome, Hard To Rule Woman Blues) the way the guitar acts as another voice is clear--he never (or barely) touches the strings behind his singing, and responds to every sung line with everything from a simple bare-fingered slide up a couple of frets followed by a bend, to licks that evoke Lemon Jefferson. Beyond call-and-response.

When I first heard two Ramblin' tunes a couple of decades ago I thought, "I think I'll cop that neat rick, hide my guitar shortcomings by only playing when I'm absolutely not singing." Dumb, but that's what I thought he was doing at the time, I was just starting to discover who all these guys were and what they were doing. Then I heard Sawmill Moan and No More Baby--wow, all that spiffy stuff behind and between the vocals, in some cases your most basic call-and-response stuff, in other cases way beyond. If I understand your post correctly, they're examples of the sung and wordless voice in balance.

Lindy

Online Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10411
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Hi Eric and Lindy,
Thanks for your posts.  Yes, the examples you cite from "M & O Blues" and the Ramblin' Thomas songs all speak to the use of the accompanying instrument as another voice, to varying degrees. The more I think about this, the more I see how varied the use of instrumental accompaniment has been.
  
In relatively rare instances, as in Teddy Darby's "Lawdy Lawdy Worried Blues", you have the guitar singing in unison with the voice, and repeating one interior line at the end of the first phrase, like a congregation's response, "Yes, brother, yes".  One of the most striking accompaniment devices is the ostinato, a little repeating cell that keeps going behind the vocal but is musically independent of the vocal's melody--examples would be what Lemon played behind the I chord on "Bad Luck Blues", or Ed Bell's playing behind the first two lines of "Mean Conductor Blues".  The ostinato has a Swiss watch sort of feel to it, like a kind of clockwork moving behind the vocal, or a murmuring undertone.  What Willie Brown plays on "M & O Blues" is almost like an ostinato, except for it's closeness to the sung melody--it's almost like a competing or alternate version of the melody.  An accompaniment that is notable for its ambitious concept is Roosevelt Graves' playing on "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Standing On Jesus".  Graves plays a highly rhythmic harmonized version of the song's melody with connecting bass runs, all the while singing and reacting to his brother Leroy's terrific vocal counter-punching and funky tambourine work.  The result is ecstatic.

Occasionally, players are encountered who use the guitar almost exclusively for time-keeping and providing the chordal backdrop.  A player who seems notable in this regard is Sleepy John Estes, who is rare in having relegated his guitar to a pretty strictly defined accompaniment role.  So it is, that most often on Sleepy John Estes' recordings, another instrument, whether Hammie Nixon's harmonica, Yank Rachell's mandolin, or Charlie Pickett's or Son Bonds' guitar ends up filling the role of the wordless voice, and providing the responses to Sleepy John's vocal calls.

Do any other accompaniment strategies or use of an accompanying voice come to mind?  I'd certainly be interested to hear other examples, because I think the interaction of voice and instruments is one of the most fascinating aspects of this music.
All best,
Johnm  
« Last Edit: May 31, 2010, 05:54:46 PM by Johnm »

Offline blueshome

  • Member
  • Posts: 1354
  • Step on it!
    • Blueshome
"Do any other accompaniment strategies or use of an accompanying voice come to mind?"

King Solomon Hill's slide pieces come to mind here, especially the way to bass is interjected. I think it's this that makes his music so tricky to get to grips with when trying to perform it.
« Last Edit: May 31, 2010, 10:47:09 AM by blueshome »

Offline onewent

  • Member
  • Posts: 382
  • Mr. So and So
    • vintagebluesguitars.com
John, thanks for that thoughtful overview..it's sort of an 'a-ha' moment in the sense that, no matter how 'tricky' or 'complicated' the guitar part, I still looked on it as 'accompaniment' to the sung words..even learning Lemon's Black Horse and Bad Luck I was essentially aware ..probably subconsciously.. that the guitar played during the verses was more than a 'time keeper' for the singer, even though it took a lot to sing along with Lemon's accompaniment.  And I often wondered, too, why the old players made the guitar part to accompany vocal so 'difficult', when a simple strum or picking pattern would have sufficed.  After digesting your overview, I see many songs in this genre follow the same format, and that there's even a name..ostinato.. for it.  It would be difficult to defend the notion that the guitar, in this music at least, simply serves the vocals.  Tom

Offline Stuart

  • Member
  • Posts: 2537
  • "The Voice of Almiqui"
...I have heard it said that the role of the guitar or piano in the blues to accompany the voice, and while there is an element of truth in that, it has always struck me as an over-simplification... 

It's another one of those blanket statements that falls apart upon closer examination. The guitar, piano and other instruments produce sounds that the human voice cannot. But then there's the Mills Brothers...

Offline frankie

  • Member
  • Posts: 2441
    • DoneGone.net
...I have heard it said that the role of the guitar or piano in the blues to accompany the voice, and while there is an element of truth in that, it has always struck me as an over-simplification... 

Fair enough...

It's another one of those blanket statements that falls apart upon closer examination. The guitar, piano and other instruments produce sounds that the human voice cannot. But then there's the Mills Brothers...

Saying that the "role of the guitar or piano in the blues to accompany the voice" is (as someone who has said it) certainly an oversimplification.  It is, in my mind, shorthand for the notion that the blues is very strongly vocal-driven.  There are certainly multitudes of examples of wonderful and unique guitar or piano accompaniments in blues - and though a singer may still give his instrument a voice of its own, it's the singer's own voice that drives the tune and, in most if not all cases, is the defining element of the song.

Just to be clear, I would never refer to blues accompaniment, even something as ostensibly "basic" as time-keeping, as "just" accompaniment - it has to be lively, and to live alongside the vocal as well as support it.  Blues accompaniment done well is a very nuanced activity - it always seems easier than it really is.

Offline dj

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 2615
  • Howdy!
Quote
I would never refer to blues accompaniment, even something as ostensibly "basic" as time-keeping, as "just" accompaniment - it has to be lively, and to live alongside the vocal as well as support it.

I always think of a good accompaniment as adding melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic interest, in varying combinations, to the song. 

Online Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10411
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Hi Phil,
Your example of King Solomon Hill as fitting what we're talking about is a good one.  I hear what he does with the bass runs as being a different voice than his treble playing with the slide, so with the singing, three strands of linear movement.  I remember reading somewhere (probably Wardlow) that he used a piece of cowbone for his slide.  I've never heard of anyone else doing that.  Do you think he used that slide to fret the bass runs or did he do it with conventional fretting?  I remember the fretted notes in the runs having a sort of "knocky" sound which makes me think he may have been using the slide to hammer the notes.  Certainly not a common technique, if that was indeed the case.
All best,
Johnm

Offline blueshome

  • Member
  • Posts: 1354
  • Step on it!
    • Blueshome
Re KSH. 
 When I try to play his pieces I find myself using both fingers and slide on the bass according to how it lies with the rest of the guitar part, usually on the inside strings. Sometimes its easier with the fingers, sometimes with the slide. There are certainly some 3rd fret slurs on the bottom string, which seem to be common in his playing, which I think are bends.
The major problem is not how to play the notes but when!!!!! It's like 5 ball juggling, one slip and it's all on the floor.

Offline jpeters609

  • Member
  • Posts: 225
I remember reading somewhere (probably Wardlow) that he used a piece of cowbone for his slide.  I've never heard of anyone else doing that. 


In his spoken asides during one of his recordings (I believe it was "Live at the Mayfair" or perhaps "I Do Not Play No Rock & Roll"), Fred McDowell stated that as a youngster he first played slide with a cow bone. Unfortunately, he never recorded with one!
Jeff

Online Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10411
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Hi all,
I know what you mean about King Solomon Hill's timing, Phil.  That may be a good subject for a Licks and Lessons thread.  I will give him some serious study.  Thanks for the information on Fred McDowell also using a cow bone, Jeff,  I never heard that before.

I deleted a post here that responded to some of the issues Frankie raised because it got into some personal responses to playing the music that were off point.  But I would say that I absolutely agree with Frankie that the vocal is the most important thing happening in blues, it's the aspect of the music most tied to the person making it, even given some players' individual sounds on their instruments.  And even when an accompaniment is engaged in a response role, or a complicated ostinato or other accompaniment device, while the vocal is happening, the first order of business is supporting and bringing out the vocal.  

Different players had and have differing degrees of comfort with activity behind their singing.  Bo Carter, one of the most harmonically advanced players in the style, favored a quiet left hand behind his singing--he almost always just holds the appropriate chord or chords and runs his right hand (though his timing is quite varied and tricky).  Lemon Jefferson played it both ways, extremely active, as in "Bad Luck Blues" or "Crawling Baby Blues" or relatively still behind his singing, with response lines linking the vocal phrases, as in "Blacksnake Moan" and the whole family of C blues that it typifies.  Suffice it so say that generalizing about accompaniment approach, ways of keeping time, and the rest on a style-wide basis just gets you in trouble. Whatever the approach may be, it is crucially important to be able to play time well, both for the music's sake and for professional reasons--it can make the difference between working and not working, and not just in the blues.  Musicians respect the ability to play time well and tend to be dubious of players who only are interested in soloing.
All best,
Johnm  
« Last Edit: June 03, 2010, 01:19:09 PM by Johnm »

Online Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 10411
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Hi all,
I realized that George Carter's "Rising River Blues" is a great candidate for the wordless voice accompaniment, to the extent that, like B.B. King, Carter does not sing and play simultaneously until he gets to the tagline of each verse.  His 12-string guitar is certainly working in a response role in the first two lines of each verse.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Michael Cardenas

  • Member
  • Posts: 79
  • traditional Blues singer & slide guitarist
    • Myspace
It is, in my mind, shorthand for the notion that the blues is very strongly vocal-driven...  'in most if not all cases, is the defining element of the song.
Could be said a critical melody needs no accompaniment or at best holds its own, same goes for opera as it is in Blues. I've wondered if Son House was hinting at that truth late in his career, in fact how dearly does someone love Charlie Patton if they aren't inclined to so much as hum his vocals in favor of emulating guitar technique? When I listen to Willie Brown's M & O Blues I feel goofy trying to cop his licks because one has to truly sing like Brown to understand the motivation for the guitar and frankly the vocal is too good.
LISTEN TO BLUES MUSIC

 


anything