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Mandolin is an Italian word meaning "out of tune" - Tim O'Brien

Author Topic: Changing with the Times  (Read 2356 times)

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Online Johnm

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Changing with the Times
« on: April 01, 2012, 10:30:35 AM »
Hi all,
I've been listening a lot lately to Document 6044, "Jesse Thomas--Complete Recorded Works, 1948-1958".  It is a fascinating and varied disc, and one of the things about it that has struck me is how high a percentage of the music Jesse Thomas recorded in that period could never have been predicted based on his earliest recordings, made when he was still in his teens.  On the later recordings, Jesse Thomas does some relatively big band numbers on which he does electric single-string soloing much in the mode of T-Bone Walker and smaller ensemble work on electric guitar, as well as solo pieces on electric and acoustic guitars.  The one aspect of Jesse Thomas's playing that seems to have remained consistent from his recorded beginnings through this later period is the crispness of his right hand attack.

Hearing how Jesse Thomas's music changed over time made me realize how relatively rarely that happens among Country Blues musicians.  The great majority of them, at least based on their recordings, remain musically pretty much where they were when they first arrived on the scene.  This is by no means a weakness--quite often it is a strength, for it shows a highly developed sense of musical identity and how things should sound.  But the relative rarity of changing one's sound with the times and continuing to evolve one's chordal vocabulary, rhythmic sense, or comfort level playing in different ensemble settings made me try to think of other players, who like Jesse Thomas, continued to evolve and change their sounds over their careers.

One player who seemed to fall very strongly into this category is Robert Nighthawk, who changed not only his sound, but his name.  His earliest recordings, as Robert Lee McCoy, showcase a nice guitarist and exceptionally adept harmonica player off of a rack.  Who could have seen from those beginnings that McCoy would evolve into Robert Nighthawk, arguably the greatest electric blues slide player ever, as well as an exceptionally sophisticated conventionally-fretted electric blues guitarist?

With many Country Blues players, it's impossible to assess whether or not they changed with the times and continued to evolve in their music, because we have such a narrow window into what they did.  Garfield Akers is an example of someone for whom there simply is not enough data on even to guess intelligently as to where he went with his music over time.  Four titles recorded only, all with a very similar sound--one would think that that was probably "his sound", for good and all, but there's no way of knowing for sure.

I was wondering if folks could think of other players in the style whose music continued to evolve and change notably over the course their careers?  I'd be interested to hear of other such players you can think of.

All best,
Johnm

« Last Edit: April 01, 2012, 10:42:25 AM by Johnm »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #1 on: April 01, 2012, 11:11:54 AM »
As a side light, in one of the Thomas tags there's a letter reproduced from him thanking Johnny Parth for sending a royalty cheque in respect of Document 6044 CD sales.

(haven't time to trawl them, sorry)

Offline Gerry Clarke

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #2 on: April 01, 2012, 11:14:17 AM »
Well John, I think Big Bill has to be up there as one of the most adaptable artists - from early hot flat-picking and fiddle playing (great) in the very early 30s to suave Bluebird Beat material, through to becoming a doyen of the post war folkies.

I also think of Charlie McCoy as a remarkable adaptor, from that wonderful Tommy Johnson Mississippi style guitar accompaniment to very slick city style mandolin playing some years later.

If it's true that Will Weldon of the MJB really was Casey Bill in later years, then that has to rank as one of the biggest style evolutions in my opinion.

Gerry

Offline lindy

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #3 on: April 01, 2012, 11:22:15 AM »
I'll state the first two names that immediately came to mind, but you might use them as examples of what you're not thinking about: Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy.

The acoustic-to-electric transition is obvious for Muddy--the document (DOCD 5146) CD "First Recording Sessions" is great because it contains all of his Lomax field recordings and his very first Chicago sessions--what a change between '42 and '46! At the same time, he might not be an example of what you're talking about because he really retained the essence of his stripped-down Delta approach in his electric recordings.

For Big Bill, it seems to me that he built such a large repertoire over his career that he could switch between different styles depending on how he read the audience sitting in front of him.

So I'll start the conversation with those two, see where it goes.

Lindy

Offline JohnLeePimp

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #4 on: April 01, 2012, 11:32:40 AM »
I tend to admire the guys that retain their old sound but make it still work after many decades like Big Joe Williams or Frank Edwards

Yank Rachell is one who took to making more modern and rock influenced stuff after being rediscovered (I believe he also made a down-home guitar album in the 60s but I haven't heard it)

Josh White completely changed his approach - his later songs profundity might've been enhanced but I dunno about his musicianship

Sonny Boy I. shook off his jug band derived sound for a jump blues combo where the harp replaced the brass section

To some extent Fred McDowell changed his repertoire and playing style to suit the electric guitar
...so blue I shade a part of this town.

Offline dj

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #5 on: April 01, 2012, 11:50:13 AM »
Quote
Josh White completely changed his approach - his later songs profundity might've been enhanced but I dunno about his musicianship

Well, a lot of that was a severe wrist injury.

As for people who radically transformed their style, I'd list Robert Jr. Lockwood.  From his early country blues recordings, you'd never have guessed he'd move on to the jazzy electric chording he was doing by the late 50s.

Online Johnm

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #6 on: April 01, 2012, 01:20:49 PM »
Hi all,
It's interesting to hear folks' perspectives.  I think I would have put Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell in the "same from beginning to end category".
All best,
Johnm

Offline Pan

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #7 on: April 01, 2012, 01:47:29 PM »
Big Bill Broonzy is what I also first thought of while reading this thread.

How about Lonnie Johnson? He changed his whole approach on the guitar, from fingerpicking to flatpicking, quite late on his long career, not to even mention the stylistical changes.
Many people here might prefere his fingerpicking earlier career, but I've always also admired how he can alone carry a tune with his melodic single string lines, when needed. Just like a jazz horn player. And he always had a most beatiful tone and touch on the instrument, whatever approach he used.

Cheers

Pan

Offline dj

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #8 on: April 01, 2012, 05:09:39 PM »
I look at people like Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie, and Muddy Waters as people who didn't change the way they played to keep up with the times, but rather changed the setting in which they played.  By setting, I mean one or more of several things:  instrument (acoustic to electric), accompanists (solo or small acoustic band to electric band, adding drums, horns, etc.) and repertoire (Big Bill going from country blues to hokum to urban blues to folk).

One thing about Muddy - he didn't change his guitar playing much from his first Aristocrat session to his last one for Columbia, but he sure did change the way he sang.

Thinking about people who changed the way they played, Casey Bill Weldon would have to be on the list.  He didn't have a long recording career, but if you listen to him a lot, you get the feeling that he was always picking up new techniques.  The melodic and harmonic conception of his fills and solos on a song like Guitar Swing is miles away from what he was doing on his first session less than three years earlier.

Online Johnm

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2012, 06:23:36 PM »
I agree with you, Pan, that Lonnie Johnson is a very good candidate for this category.  The one thing I have wondered about with Lonnie for over thirty years is if he was ever, even on his early records, a conventional fingerpicker.  I have long thought that he was a hybrid picker, using a flatpick and fingers to do his "fingerpicked" pieces.  Use of a flatpick by Lonnie would go a long way towards explaining the very fast and forceful runs with which he interspersed his early instrumentals, and would also explain his incredible tone production, especially on songs like "Levee Camp Moan", on which he only plays single lines.  Also, I'm dubious as to how he could have been heard playing with the Ellington Orchestra without using a pick to play
If Lonnie did in fact switch from being a conventional (though incredibly adept) fingerpicker on his early recordings to being a flatpicker exclusively on his post-rediscovery recordings, he would be the rarest of the rare:  a player who completely revamped his picking technique after a long and successful career.  I don't know of a single player who has done that, so I'm inclined to think that he played with a pick all along.  (Incidentally, I've asked Ari Eisinger what he thought about this idea and he had no opinion one way or the other, for what it's worth).
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: April 01, 2012, 08:47:25 PM by Johnm »

Offline Lyle Lofgren

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #10 on: April 02, 2012, 06:14:24 AM »
I categorize artists in terms of dogs and cats, which is another way of saying "other directed" and "inner directed." A Dog Musician says to the audience, "Tell me what you want to hear, and I'll perform it." A Cat Musician says, "Here's some music I like, and maybe you'll like it, too." A Dog Musician tends to treat music as product, while a Cat Musician tends to treat music as art. Needless to say, Dog Musicians are usually more successful, although there are enough of the Cat variety (The Grateful Dead come to mind, of course, and, more recently, the Carolina Chocolate Drops) to give hope to musicians trying to be serious artists.

Both types of musicians can change their styles and materials -- the only difference is who determines those changes, the public or the artist.

Of course, any musician who stubbornly sticks to a genre, such as country blues, is going to be mostly cat, because it's a niche market. Musicians who stubbornly stick with, say, Cool Jazz, are even more feline than blues musicians.

But I'll give anyone benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise, which means that I'm a lot more likely to put some money in the guitar case of a busker than to buy a best-selling CD.

Lyle 

Offline Pan

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #11 on: April 02, 2012, 08:23:38 AM »
I agree with you, Pan, that Lonnie Johnson is a very good candidate for this category.  The one thing I have wondered about with Lonnie for over thirty years is if he was ever, even on his early records, a conventional fingerpicker.  I have long thought that he was a hybrid picker, using a flatpick and fingers to do his "fingerpicked" pieces.  Use of a flatpick by Lonnie would go a long way towards explaining the very fast and forceful runs with which he interspersed his early instrumentals, and would also explain his incredible tone production, especially on songs like "Levee Camp Moan", on which he only plays single lines.  Also, I'm dubious as to how he could have been heard playing with the Ellington Orchestra without using a pick to play
If Lonnie did in fact switch from being a conventional (though incredibly adept) fingerpicker on his early recordings to being a flatpicker exclusively on his post-rediscovery recordings, he would be the rarest of the rare:  a player who completely revamped his picking technique after a long and successful career.  I don't know of a single player who has done that, so I'm inclined to think that he played with a pick all along.  (Incidentally, I've asked Ari Eisinger what he thought about this idea and he had no opinion one way or the other, for what it's worth).
All best,
Johnm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It does seem odd that anyone would completetly change his approach on the instrument, unless a hand injury or something else absolutely forces him to do so.

Cheers

Pan

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #12 on: April 02, 2012, 08:25:23 AM »
How about tampa Red as a candidate for this? I'm thinking of his acoustic slide material versus his accompaniments for Big Maceo on electric guitar.

Offline daddystovepipe

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #13 on: April 02, 2012, 11:09:22 AM »
When you check Lonnie Johnson's YouTube video's of the 60ies you will notice he flatpicks everything with downstrokes....spooky!

Has anyone compared Clifford Gibson's pre- and poststwar recordings?
I don't have this cd but I'm curious
http://www.document-records.com/fulldetails.asp?ProdID=DOCD-5619

Offline Pan

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Re: Changing with the Times
« Reply #14 on: April 02, 2012, 11:31:06 AM »
When you check Lonnie Johnson's YouTube video's of the 60ies you will notice he flatpicks everything with downstrokes....spooky!

Has anyone compared Clifford Gibson's pre- and poststwar recordings?
I don't have this cd but I'm curious
http://www.document-records.com/fulldetails.asp?ProdID=DOCD-5619

I don't have the CD either, but his track from 1951 can be heard on YouTube:



None of the 60's tracks are on YouTube, apparently.

Cheers

Pan

 


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