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Author Topic: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing  (Read 14320 times)

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Online Johnm

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Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« on: January 13, 2005, 06:00:03 PM »
Hi all,
It occurred to me that in the 8-bar and 16-bar blues threads, we have always thus far tied the forms to chord progressions, which can be helpful, but which altogether neglects the extent to which the vocal phrasing and phrase lengths are what really drive blues phrasing.  Bearing that in mind, I thought it might be helpful in understanding the different blues forms to see how the vocal phrasing tends to be expressed in each form type. 

A 12-bar blues is most often expressed vocally in 3 four-bar phrases.  In some of the earlier country blues, the same lyric may be sung 3 times, as in Henry Thomas's "Bull Doze Blues                                                                                 I'm
going where you never get bull dozed            I'm
|      I              |         I            |    I     |    I    |
going where you never get bull dozed            I'm
|      IV            |       IV           |     I     |    I    |
going where you never get bull dozed
|      V7            |      V7            |   I     |    I    |
In this instance you can see that Henry Thomas was phrasing in front of the beat, and was starting each vocal phrase in advance of the downbeat of the 4-bar phrase.  In this case, and in many or most others, the same melodic line is sung over the first two 4-bar phrases, and the way it sounds different over the IV chord in the second phrase as compared to the I chord in the first phrase is what creates much of the tension in the blues sound.  The melody in the third phrase, or tag line, is usually different, and creates a resolution to the tension between the first two lines.  Note, too, that most of the singing occurs in the first two bars of each four-bar phrase; this leaves the second two bars of each phrase available for an instrumental response or fill.
A more commonly encountered vocal phrasing for a 12-bar blues involves the introduction of a vocal line in the first 4-bar phrase, which is then repeated in the second four-bar phrase, followed by a tagline in the final 4-bar phrase that comments on/resolves the earlier repeated line.  From Mance Lipscomb's "If I Miss The Train":
                                                              If I mi-
ss the train got a big black mule to ride        If I mi-
|          I            |            I           |   I   |    I     |
ss the train got a big black mule to ride        If i mi-
|          IV           |            I          |   I   |    I     |                                 
ss that mule got a automobile to drive
|      V7                |          I        |    I    |    I     |
The vocal phrasing here is very similar to that in the Henry Thomas song, the biggest difference being the presence of the different tag line.  The harmony is slightly different, with the I chord returning in the 10th bar rather than the 11th.  These subtle changes in the blues form tend to be more commonly encountered in Country Blues than in modern day amplified blues.
Another kind of 12-bar vocal phrasing which became really popular in the 1930s is what I would call the "Chorus Blues".  For some reason, it has always had a more Show Biz or Pop feel to it for me than the previously discussed 12-bar phrasings.  In the Chorus Blues, a different line is sung over each of the first four bars of the form and then the chorus arrives as you hit the IV chord, continuing to the end of the form.  The Mississippi Sheiks' "Sales Tax" is a good example.
Old Aunt Martha lives behind the jail A sign on her door says "Liquor for sale"Oh the 
|          I                    |         I         |          I                   |     I        |                   
sales tax is on it           Oh the sales tax is on it    yes the
|         IV          |   IV            |          I           | I          |
sales tax is on it    everywhere you go.
|        V7          |        IV               |     I     |  I     |
Other well-known Chorus Blues include Tampa Red and Georgia Tom's "Tight Like That" and Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe's "Bothering That Thing".  Note that in the chorus blues, the only lines which change from one verse to the next are those that are sung over the first four bars.  Also, the lyric-heavy nature of the first four bars does not really allow any space for fills.  The fills tend to fall in the 6th, 8th, 11th and 12th bars.

8-bar blues phrase out differently than 12-bar blues, as you might expect.  Though not so commonly encountered, there are 8-bar blues that simply sing the same line twice (though with a different melody in the repetition).  John Hurt's "Slidin' Delta" goes
That sli---din' del--ta    run right by my door
        |       I   |   V7   |       IV7            |   IV7    |
        slidin' delta run right by my door
        |       I        |       Vmin7      |    I   |  I    |
Often an 8-bar blues will phrase out vocally as one longish thought with no repetition a la Furry Lewis's "Dryland Blues"
I can look through muddy wa-ter,   baby, and spy dryland  If you
        |       I                     |   V7 |        IV7           | IV7         |
don't want me, baby, let's shake hand in hand.
|        I                  |          V7              |  I    |   I   |
From these examples, you can see that the biggest space for fills in the 8-bar form falls in the 7th and 8th bars, and it is no coincidence that Furry and John Hurt both often extend the form between verses by really loading on some great fills.
As with the 12-bar form, the 8-bar form similarly has its own version of the chorus blues.  Two of the archetypal 8-bar chorus blues are the Mississippi Sheiks "Sitting on Top of The World" and Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues"
How long, how long, has that evening train been gone? How lo-
        |  I          |       I7        |         IV7          |  IV7         |
-ng? how long,  baby how long
|        I    |      V7            |    I    |   V7    |
Leroy Carr created such a beautiful rhythmic tension in this song in the placement of his vocal phrases relative to the pulse and chord changes.  Notice how nothing squares up and he is constantly phrasing across bar lines and chord changes.  Genius!  The 8-bar chorus blues creates a natural space for a turn-around in the 7th and 8th bars, the idea of the turn-around being a nifty series of chords which moves you from I to V7 to lead back into the next verse.  Like the 12-bar version of the chorus blues, the only lyrics that change from one verse to the next in the 8-bar chorus blues are those that fall over the first 4 bars.  I will talk about the 16-bar blues next.
All best,
Johnm
 

 
« Last Edit: February 15, 2013, 10:31:15 AM by Johnm »

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #1 on: January 13, 2005, 07:30:27 PM »
Hi all,
The 16-bar blues has, on occasion, had versions in which the same lyric phrase is repeated four times.  From Elvie Thomas's "Motherless Chile Blues"
 My mother told me just before she died          My
         |       I         |        I             |   I    |  I    |
        mother told me just before she died            My
        |      IV             |       IV          |    I    |   I    |
        mother told me just before she died           My
        |      IV             |       IV          |    I    |  I    |
        mother told me just before she died
        | IV/VI             |      V7            |   I    |  I    |
In this case, and in most, for a 16-bar blues, the same melody is sung over the second and third vocal lines.  The 16-bar form also really seems to lean on the movement to the IV chord, since in most instances it repeats it.  Incidentally, if you have never heard this song, do whatever it takes to hear it.  I think it is kind of a miracle--so beautiful.
Probably most often in a 16-bar blues the opening lyrical phrase will be repeated twice and then rounded off with a tag line, as in Lemon Jefferson's "One Dime Blues".
 I brought the  morning      news         Lawd, Lawd,    I
   |        I        |       I         |   I  (long)  |         I        |               
   brought the  morning      news                                I
   |      IV       |      IV        |      I            |  I               |
   brought the  morning       news                    then I
   |     IV        |      IV        |      I      |   I               |
   brought a     ceegar       too         
   |      I          | I     V7       |     I      |     I         |
Where Lemon is long in the 3rd bar he is coming out of a tremolo passage and doing some bends--kind of an instrumental aside that doesn't really alter the structure, but stands outside it in a way. 
Finally, there are 16-bar versions of the Chorus Blues, as well.  A great one is Marshall Owens's "Try Me One More Time".
Woke up this morning, half past two, got another woman and I can't use you
|            I                  |      I          |                 I                 |         I     |         
Try me       Try me one more time
|   IV         |          IV            |    I    |    I    |
Try me       Try me one more  time      she said ta--
|   IV         |           IV            |  I    |    I           |
ake me back and try me one more time
|       V7            |     IV                 |   I    |    I   |
As with other Chorus blues, the phrasing of the verse in the first four bars tends to be straight up and down, and not nearly as syncopated or in as complex a relationship with the pulse as in the non-chorus blues.  Maybe this is because so many words need to be fit in that there is less wiggle room to fool around with the phrasing.  Marshall Owens phrasing of the chorus is really exceptional.  He always sings the word "time" right across the bar line and chord change, and the way he phrases the tag line, "she said take . . ." in front of the beat holding the melody note for "take" across the chord change into the V chord is really beautiful.  Note also that the fill areas follow the characteristic format of the other Chorus Blues:  no space in the first four bars, but good space in the 7th, 8th, 11th, 12, 15th and 16th bars.
Of course there are many Country Blues, even within the 8, 12 and 16-bar categories that do not conform to the phrasing schemes that I've outlined here and in the other post, and that is one of the beauties of the style:  it accommodates individual variations of formal conventions so generously.  A huge number of blues do adhere really closely to the vocal and instrumental phrasings we've seen here, though, and so to that extent, it may be worth thinking about when you listen to songs in the style or try to come up with your own.
All best,
Johnm   
« Last Edit: January 23, 2006, 05:12:36 PM by Johnm »

Online Johnm

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #2 on: January 14, 2005, 10:43:14 PM »
Hi all,
I just encountered another phrasing archetype for the 12-bar blues (I'm sure there are very very many).? It is Charley Jordan's "Hunkie Tunkie" and it plays out as follows:
Lord I'm going uptown, find the chief of police, my woman quit me & I can't see no peace, yeah--(first four bars)
She keep me worried and bothered all the time-------------yes she(second four bars)
Keep me worried and bothered all the time---------------Well I (last four bars)
The form starts with the gabby lyrics in the first four bars that we would normally expect from a chorus blues, though the line, unlike a chorus blues, is extremely syncopated (as is the accompaniment).? A more terse line enters with the IV chord, leaving the space in bars 7 and 8 we would expect from a non-chorus blues, and then is repeated (with a different melody) in the last 4-bar phrase, leaving fill space in bars 11 and 12.? I had always appreciated the terrific rhythm in Charley Jordan's guitar part for this tune, but I don't think I ever fully registered the originality of the lyric scheme.
A closely related approach to phrasing can be found in Ishmon Bracey's "Saturday Blues":
I've got four or five puppies, got one shaggy hound, it takes all them dogs to run my women down, it takes(first four bars)
All of them dogs to run my women down-------------It takes (second four bars)
All of them dogs to run my women down--------------If you (last four bars)
Like "Hunkie Tunkie", "Saturday Blues" has the wordy lyric of a chorus blues in the first four bars, though quite syncopated, but it then extracts the tail end of the first four bar phrase to provide the lyric for the second and third four-bar phrases.? There is a wonderful economy in this method, and Ishmon Bracey employs it throughout the song, not just in the verse cited here.?
I've been listening to and playing this music for more than forty years now, and I have never thought about these issues of vocal phrasing like this before.? It is really grabbing me right now, and strikes me as the kind of thing that is particularly worth taking a look at if you are interested in writing songs in the style.? Anyhow, I hope this stuff is of some interest to someone other than me.? Sorry not to be posting mp3s on these songs, but I believe they can all be requested on the Juke.
All best,
Johnm?
?
« Last Edit: April 04, 2005, 04:42:22 PM by Johnm »

Offline waxwing

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #3 on: January 14, 2005, 11:09:44 PM »
This is a terrific thread, John, and I feel there is something for everyone in looking at these ideas. Definitely a lot for me. Keep up the great work. Anything that is interesting for you about country blues that you feel like sharing is fine with me. Not only does it give me great choices about what to work on next and reasons why, I also find it gives me ideas for patter, which I try to make somewhat educational as I feel that that is a good way to develop the audience for country blues. Something I think that all of us who perform or are thinking about performing country blues should be aware of. Thanks.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline a2tom

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #4 on: January 15, 2005, 07:32:15 AM »
Yeah, I find this to be a very interesting thread, laying it out there as to vocal form - thanks very much, it really is helpful to hear this analysis from someone who knows probably 1000 more tunes than I do!  I first really noticed a variation from the standard "1st line repeated, then tagline" when listening to Brownie McGhee's Kansas City Blues (still a favorite of mine to play), which is a chorus blues.  It struck me so much that I ended up writing one of my own in that form (maybe some day it will be ready for the Back Porch) - so I am entirely on the page that thinking about form is quite relevant as you try to create your own. At the same time, I sometimes feel - OK, I almost always feel - that I am trying to force things into a form.  I wonder for how many great songs did the form beget the tune and vocal concept, or did they start as great snippets of word and melody that inevitably and naturally fell into a form?  How conscious is/was all this to the writers?

I agree that the chorus blues form does sound much more "pop", BTW.  My chorus blues has always been a more captivating tune for my family (who aren't into the blues) to listen to.  They even make up lines with me! - something about the way that the verse line leads into the repeating chorus makes it much more "accessible".

tom

Offline Richard

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #5 on: January 15, 2005, 10:42:52 AM »
Excellent and just what I wanted, an analysis that I can understand  :) 
(That's enough of that. Ed)

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #6 on: January 16, 2005, 08:29:18 AM »
Great thread, John. You've broken this down very clearly and it's stuff I've only recently started thinking about myself as I try to put more of the vocals over the guitar parts I've learned. Phrasing is a huge part of this process, aside from memorizing the damn lyrics. :P I think sometimes amateurs like myself tend to phrase the vocals too straight, up and down on the beat, when the original singers are more rhythmically subtle. It's good to remind yourself to not only learn the subtleties of a guitar part, but a vocal too. You may phrase it differently, but being aware of these typical forms will help you do that I think.

The phrasing similarities between Hunkie Tunkie and Saturday Blues had never occurred to me but you sure are right. I agree about Motherless Chile Blues as well. It gets overshadowed by Last Kind Words but is a really wonderful tune.

Offline OMpicker

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #7 on: January 16, 2005, 12:18:55 PM »
Great thread.  I also like to listen to examples of the same tune sung in different contexts -- temporal: recorded at different points in time showing the influence of musical/cultural, etc. developments at different points; geographical: a St. Louis-area version v. a Texas-area version; cultural: urban v. country; or, as is often the case, a mixture of all.
Dennis

Online Johnm

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #8 on: January 17, 2005, 11:28:53 AM »
Hi all,
You make a good point, Andrew, of the dangers of phrasing things too straight up and down.  It can have a stiffening effect on the overall feel and flow.  I do think it is a worthwhile endeavor to spend time phrasing different places relative to the pulse, pushing and phrasing in front of the beat sometimes, sometimes phrasing back behind the beat.  If one can develop a degree of comfort with phrasing different places relative to the pulse, it becomes an aspect of performance that can change every time you do a song, even though you may be singing the same words every time.  It introduces a "here and now" aspect into each performance, and a sort of wild-card improvisatory effect.  I very much get this feel from Charley Patton''s singing; he appeared to be able to phrase anywhere relative to the pulse, and as a result his singing always sounds in the moment, and has a freshness that a memorized rendition can never have.  I guess there is no shortage of things to work on, but it all is worth it.
All best,
Johnm 

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #9 on: January 21, 2005, 09:37:20 AM »
Hi all,
I was thinking last night and came up with a couple of more phrasing archetypes.  The first you might call Ballad/Refrain.  It's kind of a subset of the chorus blues archetype, but in the chorus blues the chorus generally arrives with the IV chord, in the second four-bar phrase.  In the Ballad/Refrain, the chorus or refrain does not arrive until the last four-bar phrase.  For some reason, this set-up seems to turn up with particular frequency in narrative blues, which are not all that common, anyway.  For example, you find it in John Hurt's "Frankie", in both John Hurt's and Furry Lewis's versions of "Stackerlee" (Furry's has a different title), and in Mance Lipscomb's "Freddy".  In "Frankie" it works out as follows:
   Frankie was a woman, everybody knows----------------She pai- (first four bars)
   id one hundred dollars, for Albert a suit of clothes----He's her ma- (second four bars)
   an,    but he did her wrong.-----------------(third four bars)
One of the many cool things about "Frankie" is the way John Hurt slightly alters the refrain in different verses to match it up with the narrative flow in each verse, so that you end up with refrains of, "He's your man, and he's doing you wrong", "You's my man, and you doing me wrong", "He's my man, but he did me wrong", "Killing a man, and he did you wrong", etc.
Why all these narrative blues should share this same phrasing scheme I don't know, but maybe it is because, with a story to tell, you can't afford to devote two of the four-bar phrases to a chorus.  It is nice, though, to have the final four-bar phrase be a refrain that can comment on the story as it unfolds.
All best,
Johnm

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #10 on: January 22, 2005, 09:58:32 AM »
Hi All -

To enhance John's descriptions of these various blues forms and phrasing, I'm posting some audio clips of the songs and verses referred to in the above posts. It will take a few posts.

John, the version I have of If I Miss the Train doesn't match up. It's from Texas Songster Vol 2 You Got to Reap What You Sow (Arhoolie).

Edited to add: Please note these are excerpts, not entire songs. They are to give those unfamiliar with the tunes a better idea of what John is describing.

[attachment deleted by admin]
« Last Edit: January 22, 2005, 10:11:44 AM by uncle bud »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #11 on: January 22, 2005, 10:00:33 AM »
Here are Slidin Delta, Dry Land, and How Long...

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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #12 on: January 22, 2005, 10:03:33 AM »
Here's Motherless Child, One Dime, Try Me One More Time...

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Offline uncle bud

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #13 on: January 22, 2005, 10:05:21 AM »
Last but not least, Hunkie Tunkie, Saturday Blues and Frankie.

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Online Johnm

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Re: Blues Forms and Vocal Phrasing
« Reply #14 on: January 22, 2005, 10:13:09 AM »
Thanks Andrew, very much, for posting the mp3s for the examples.  It makes the whole discussion a lot stronger.  I will have to check "If I Miss the Train" and see how I screwed up--that's what I get for working from memory!
All best,
Johnm

 


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