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I swore to myself I wasn't writing another goddamned broken-hearted love song, but then my lover took flight and I found myself alone, worn out, disillusioned, and heartbroken in a way I hadn't known before. The future was looking like an exhaustingly long walk through a knee-deep tunnel of shit ending in death, so, it seemed like it wasn't going to be an overly joyous next record after all - Gill Landry on making Love Rides A Dark Horse

Author Topic: Country Blues-writing songs in the style  (Read 9538 times)

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Offline GhostRider

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #15 on: September 19, 2004, 08:05:15 PM »
Hi all:

I remember seeing John Hammond about 20 years ago here in Calgary. I was quite a fan and had brough an album for him to autograph. This lead to a brief discussion between sets. In speaking about his style he said;

" I really like the blues and I try to play within it's structure. If you fuck (his words) with the blues too much, it ain't the blues no more!"

I always thought that was a great motto.

Alex

Offline Slack

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #16 on: September 19, 2004, 09:22:41 PM »
Seems to me Hammond has F!@#$%^ with it plenty! 

I'm with blueshome knowing it when you hear it (being a simpleton) - and the difficulty in nailing down what 'in the style' means - it is an art, it's fluid and evolving.? Or at least was... not too many people doing what you are attempting Johnm.? Having said that - it's always fun to try and define it.? :P

I think because most of us are city guys and gals that we have to depend on what has gone on before to define the 'country' part of Country BLues.? We may all interpret that a little differently but I think we all have some general agreement.? We could pick a set of elements and mix and match them and maybe some combinations would be more in the style than others (ex., played on acoustic instruments, groove music, idiosyncratic, use of flatted thirds and sevenths, thumb and fingers for rythm and lead, etc etc) - maybe a bit too cookie cutter and maybe none of those is essential to the style but we all have those kinds of things in mind from listening to a lot of 20's and 30's music.? There have been debates on whether Lonnie Johnson is "Country Blues" or Lightnin' Hopkins - because their sound is too slick or polished or complicated sounding.? Is that true? Or is this just part of the evolution.?

And also agree, that if the structure sounds 'country', the lyrics take a back seat to defining the style.? I think of JB Lenoir singing about the Vietnam War.

So John, are you asking because you've written a tune that you are unsure is of the style?

Cheers,
slack
« Last Edit: April 18, 2005, 04:58:33 AM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #17 on: September 20, 2004, 02:27:42 PM »
Hi all,
I think I was asking, John D., because I know there are a lot of serious aficionados and players of this music around here, and I was interested in hearing some different points of view on the topic, I guess.  I feel like I'm generally pretty clear in my own mind how much a particular piece adheres to/diverges from the "sound".  I know some of the chordal ideas that appeal to me kind of bump up against the boundaries of the style, though they are certainly not any farther out than a lot of what Walter Davis or Robert Pete Williams did.  The style really accommodates a lot--there are a lot of one-offs which end up fitting in the style, which on the face of it, might not.  "Mississippi Blues", for instance, is incredibly uptown, but the vocal kind of brings it back to earth.  Anyhow, as you say, it is fun to try and define things, if only to try and achieve a little clarity in one's own mind.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Slack

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #18 on: September 20, 2004, 05:47:39 PM »
Hi John,

Well, my question did not come out sounding quite the way I intended - I have no doubts that you are clear in your own mind/ I also have the advantage and priviledge of listening to your new country blues at Port Townsend... which is where my 'no doubts' comes from.  In any case...

I have to agree with the wide open part re: Robert Pete Williams... and not only chordally wide open!  Robert Pete, an acquired taste.  I had not thought about Mississippi Blues being brought down to earth by the vocals - but you are absolutely right.  And it always seemd like such a shame, for such a beautiful guitar part, that the lyrics were so lousy! 

In my opinion of course. ;)

Offline Johnm

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #19 on: September 29, 2004, 06:43:06 PM »
Hi all,
In line with Frank's re-opening of the "recreation vs. interpretation vs. innovation" thread, I thought it might be a good time to re-open this thread, because good covers (and I'm not including covers done by the artist who did the original) arrive at something new and different while working with materials already in use in the style.? When I tried to think of qualities that make for a good cover, the following occurred:
?* Recognizably related to the original, but not slavishly imitative;
?* Reworking the rhythmic feel of the original to gibe with the new performer's preferences with regard to groove and phrasing. (Think Blind Boy Fuller's "Meat Shakin' Blues" as coming out of Lemon's "Bad Luck Blues")
?* Working within the vocabulary of the original style or stylist, but coming up with additions to the vocabulary (think Ramblin' Thomas's "Jig Head Blues" as deriving from Lonnie Johnson's basic template, or Ramblin' Thomas's "No Baby Blues" as coming from Lemon's "A" Blues lexicon)
?* Emphasizing some quality in the song that was not emphasized in the original (think Paul Rishell's version of Charlie Patton's "Some Of These Days")
Certainly there are other approaches that can be taken to doing covers.? Other ways to create some distance between the original and a cover might include:
?* Playing the guitar part out of a different tuning or position than was used in the original performance; or
?* Changing the melody of the song.
I guess I have been thinking about this a lot because I feel like if we adopt a strict curatorial, recreative approach to the music it will ossify, and I think the kinds of alterations that are employed in good covers are well within the grasp of serious players and fans of the music like the folks who hang out here.? You know the language--pay attention to what you do when you're screwing around on the guitar and not thinking about it too much.? You may have the beginning of a great tune!? It doesn't take that much in the way of musical material to make a great song--think of "That's No Way To Get Along".? There you go.
All best,
Johnm?
« Last Edit: April 06, 2005, 09:44:19 AM by Johnm »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #20 on: September 30, 2004, 06:45:35 AM »
Hi John,

There's a lot there to chew on but for the time being just an additional thought: another way is to change the instrumentation. For instance Paul Geremia doing Patton's Shake It and Break It with Howard Armstrong playing mandolin.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #21 on: September 30, 2004, 12:18:00 PM »
Also, re. instrumentation, there's the reverse. Just looking back at the William Brown thread for a moment where waxwing points out Elijah Wald discussing Brown's guitar playing as imitative of Yank Rachell's mandolin and Jab Jones' piano. So one can take a group sound and turn it into a solo piece. Not sure if this is indeed what Brown does since I haven't A/B'd the Brown and Estes versions, but the concept works.

Another variation would be Del Rey's fondness for interpreting piano pieces on guitar, or merging Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie parts into one guitar part.

Offline frankie

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #22 on: September 30, 2004, 12:50:30 PM »
One thing I've learned from playing old-time music is that having the opportunity to play a song frequently can help stimulate ideas about how to put your stamp on the song.? Communication between musicians is important in old-time (perhaps less so than in jazz, I think, and of a different quality), so there's always an opportunity to exchange ideas in real time.? You're obviously not going to get that kind of interaction playing solo, but I imagine that if you were to take a handful of songs - say twelve or thirteen - and channel all your musical energy into those songs for a few months, you'd undoubtedly be playing them differently at the end of that period than at the beginning.

You'd have to do *something* differently, just to relieve the tedium!

Putting that kind of energy into the same few tunes is something that, historically, I haven't been very good at.? I tend to get bored quickly with one tune or another and move on to the next one.? It's something that made regular gigging for me a torture, because I felt that I had to do a different bunch of songs each time I played - I was always playing half baked songs...? some things haven't changed, apparently, except that I don't gig anymore.

To really follow through with the idea, I know there are a couple of things I'd definitely have to do:

1.? No figuring out new tunes
2.? No listening to the original versions of the tunes
3.? If you feel like changing something, change it

Even so, there are a couple of things that I play right now that are likely to remain as 'set pieces' - Sawmill Moan jumps to mind.? I can't imagine changing that for the better (I suppose others might say that with an entirely different meaning).? I'm not sure about the other stuff that I've worked out recently...? maybe I'll just try it...? after figuring out a couple more Lemon & McTell tunes though!

Edited to add:? I don't mean to imply that the stuff I've done qualifies as good covers, or even that I'm capable of producing good covers...? probably should have posted this message under a different topic!
« Last Edit: April 11, 2005, 06:44:21 PM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #23 on: September 30, 2004, 02:29:34 PM »
You are right on in your additions to the various methods which can be employed to arrive at different musical results in covers, Andrew.  I particularly like working from piano parts, but simply changing instrumentation, substituting fiddle for harmonica, or mandolin for fiddle changes things more than it seems like it would.
I'd say you posted in the right place, Frank.  Of your dicta, the one I like best is, "If you want to change something, change it".  I also like the unstated obverse, "If you don't want to change something ["Sawmill Moan" for you, Tommy Johnson's "Lonesome Home" for me], you don't have to!"  There are Country Blues tunes that I can't imagine doing any way other than the original way, just because the original seems so definitive as a way of expressing the song, that my imagination rejects other alternatives and just locks up.  I can't imagine changing Robert Wilkins's "I Do", for instance.  What am I going to do, improve it?

For a lot of Country Blues songs, though, I have come to feel that the original performance was just one way to do the song.  Other ways are out there remaining to be found.  People of our generation who love this music can't be put into the position of having to reject our ideas simply because we, the unworthy present-day people, came up with them.  The materials of music don't belong to anybody.  Listen to any style of music long enough, and it gets into you.  I guess my rule would be
   Listen to everything and then do what you do.
All best,
Johnm   

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #24 on: September 30, 2004, 04:30:10 PM »
Putting that kind of energy into the same few tunes is something that, historically, I haven't been very good at.? I tend to get bored quickly with one tune or another and move on to the next one.?

This is my problem too, more or less, though you have more success by far. Moving from song to song. Part of this is OK as it involves finding what songs work for me, or don't, no matter how much I'd like to play them. It makes for a slow evolution in my case: I still couldn't do a gig (nerves and lack of talent aside) largely because I know only a lot more parts of songs than the smaller numbers of parts of songs I knew 5 years ago :).

That said, I do find myself more frequently these days just starting to play a tune without a really clear intent of copying the original but just playing the tune because I'm more familiar with the vocabulary and have vague recollections of figuring it out or learning it from someone at sometime. The results when this happens are often personally exhilirating, regardless of whether they would actually qualify as a good cover of the tune. But the Frank Stokes tune feels Stokes-y without necessarily being note for note, the Patton tune flows real nice without worrying about which variation came on which verse, the Joe Callicott tune has a groove, maybe even a different groove. From an amateur perspective, this is real progress to me.

As far as the real world goes (i.e., not me playing in my basement), I think there are many really tremendous covers out there from modern players, but there's some really bad contemporary covers that would meet many of the criteria we've outlined as well. There's a nebulous group of ingredients involving taste, talent, inspiration, and experience that are important factors as well.

Quote
Edited to add:? I don't mean to imply that the stuff I've done qualifies as good covers, or even that I'm capable of producing good covers...?

Too modest Frank. I was just listening repeatedly to Church Bells the other night with great pleasure and admiration. And a mind to steal it.
« Last Edit: April 11, 2005, 06:46:28 PM by Johnm »

Offline frankie

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #25 on: September 30, 2004, 05:00:45 PM »
taste, talent, inspiration, and experiencers...?

Oh yeah.? That stuff.

Church Bells

I've been playing that tune for about six or seven years.? All the other ones are things I've listened to for a long time, but have only figured out since January or February.? Hmmm....? play 'em long enough and they play themselves?
« Last Edit: April 11, 2005, 06:48:18 PM by Johnm »

Offline lindy

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #26 on: September 30, 2004, 06:04:41 PM »

It seems to me that it really doesn't take much at all to make a cover your own, and I think the CD I'm listening to right now is a perfect example: Jerry Ricks' Many Miles of Blues.  I think of two tunes especially: Turn Your Money Green and Hey Hey, two CB standards if there ever were.  The basic elements are the same as the originals, but he slows them both down, makes them both a bit more quiet, and adds some funkiness to the rhythm with that amazing thumb of his.  Both renditions are true to the originals, but just different enough to make you sit up and say, "Furry/Big Bill never did it that way."

I also think Jerry's Deep in the Well and Many Miles of Blues CDs have something to say on the topic of lyrics that I think y'all touched on a while ago. If I remember right, y'all were discussing how to write lyrics that sound true to the form.  The Delta Zen Master sings on one song (forgot the title, it's the second cut on Many Miles of Blues):

You wake up some morning and everything seems so real,
You wake up some morning and everything seems so real,
When you figure out it's them old blues, now I said it ain't no big deal.

It will take your pain and throw it on out the door.
It will take your pain, I said, and throw it on out the door.
Cause the blues keeps cleaning what's wrong and even more.

Whew, pretty upscale philosophy compared to a lot of coutry blues tunes, and of course it helps that he's playing delicious lines underneath and in between.  I'm trying real hard to come up with a brilliant statement that knocks y'all over, but I can't seem to come up with anything better than this: whether you're trying to recreate early-20th century sensibilities in Mississippi or the realities of urban American life in the 21st, you got to sing those lyrics out loud and see if they feel right and say something.  The tricky part is not letting them get in the way of making a strong statement musically.

Lindy

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #27 on: September 30, 2004, 08:11:20 PM »
Church Bells

I've been playing that tune for about six or seven years.? All the other ones are things I've listened to for a long time, but have only figured out since January or February.? Hmmm....? play 'em long enough and they play themselves?

OK, so I picked the wrong example. :P I could just have easily have said Joliet Bound (which I also started working on) or Rolling Mill (which made me order the Peg Leg Howell CDs)...

But sure, playing 'em for six or seven years can't hurt. :)
« Last Edit: April 11, 2005, 06:50:02 PM by Johnm »

Offline a2tom

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #28 on: November 07, 2004, 07:38:07 AM »
Hi all - I am new to the Weenie Campbell forum, but will almost certainly be hanging around a good bit now that I've discovered it (thanks to waxwing...).  I'm a middle-aged guy who does science for a living and picks country blues guitar almost incessantly as a hobby.  As a newbie, I am honestly not sure if I should be replying to an old thread in the Archive, but here goes...

I was very intrigued to see JohnM's post on writing new songs "in the style".  I posted on this topic a day or two ago at Stefan Grossman's forum.  If I am getting the force of the input from there and from this thread, it seems that not many people posting on these forums ARE writing their own CB music?  If true, I must say I find that odd.

It strikes me that this music is, by its very nature, improvisational.  OK, not like a bepop combo with fully improvised solos, but when one of the masters picked up a guitar I doubt that they set out to play a tune in some rote proscribed fashion.  Instead, they played around the framework of the tune.  Loose, in terms of expression, was good.  When I think of someone like Broonzy or Rev. Davis especially, this seems transparently true.  Maybe when our experience is restricted to those precious old recordings we tend to think of the music as static.  Sure, we can (and should) learn Walkin Dog Blues note for note, but if you stop there you really aren't doing what Davis was doing, which was more free.  The more I learn, the more I can do this, so I know the foks on this forum, who I am sure are generally more skilled than me, do it too.

And new songs just naturally follow from improvisations on old, don't they?  When I play, I find myself switching something up a bit - improvising - and then thinking, hey that sounds good by itself, and from there the seed of a new tune are born.  I guess what I'm saying is that new songs seem to come from the guitar, not from thinking "OK, now I want to write a song about X.  It will be called the X and X Blues.  Let's see, I think it should be in G...".  Is this not common experience?

I really liked the discussion in this thread on lyrics - these are indeed hard.

Anyway, good to have found this place - look forward to more.

tom



Offline Slack

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Re: Country Blues-writing songs in the style
« Reply #29 on: November 07, 2004, 10:58:33 AM »
Hi Tom, Welcome to forum!

No problem reviving a thread in the Archive - in fact, sometimes we move them out to the main board.

I think in general you are correct - not many people are writing their own CB music.  Various reasons I suppose: 1) No money in it. :) 2) Country Blues is difficult to play well 2) We love these old tunes so much, that it is very satisfying to just be able to play them or attempt to play them 4) It is difficult to write songs period, much less in a style that was popular 80 years ago.... eg to make them sound convincing and in the CB style (and the word style has different meanings to different people). 

I think a lot of people improvise in the style with their covers (Paul Rishell, Alvin Hart, Paul Geremia are some pros that do very well), fewer write original tunes in the style - again, there is just not much money in Country Blues, so there is not much of a driving force to create new CB.   

Our resident Pro - John Miller is working on compiling a CD's worth of original Country Blues (we've heard a few and they are great) - and I think it is quite a challenge, even for a pro like John who has been listening and performing CB for 40 years.

In any case Tom, if you have some original CB, we'd love to hear them.  We have a 'Back Porch' area for memebers to post their tunes (original or not) - our mission is to promote Country Blues through education and performance - so posting orignal CB would be right down that alley.

Cheers,
slack


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