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Among this pack of cranks, where nuts are not only tolerated, but a welcome part of the social landscape, (78 collector) Bussard is the odd man out of the oddballs: an unschooled and profane "pure cracker" (in the words of a fellow collector) among a bunch of mostly urbane Northerners - Joe Bussard, story by Eddie Dean, washingtoncitypaper.com

Author Topic: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?  (Read 860 times)

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Offline WayneS

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Here's a question.  The other day I was listening to Frank Stokes and his partner in crime playing a ragtime song, and I determined that they were playing in E flat.  I listened to Hugh Laurie  (yes, the actor-- he's a very good blues man) on YouTube doing Buddy Bolden Blues with his band, and, again, they were doing it in E flat.  It seems that there is a surprising number of old ragtime and blues song recordings which are performed in the key of E flat-- and also B flat and F.

Though these recordings often featured a guitar, these are not keys the usual acoustic blues guitarist would generally be happy to see, partially because of the difficulty of maintaining bass-note syncopation, bass line figures, and the like.

A professional musician friend told me these keys frequently are favored in performances of these songs, and showed me a fake book filled with early jazz, ragtime, and blues songs.  A very large number of these songs were written in these three keys.  I believe that Marquis' "In Search of Buddy Bolden" mentions these three keys as being popular as well.  (Pretty sure it does, but don't hold me to it.)

What's going on here?  Are there advantages in these keys for reed instrument players?

Offline Pan

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Re: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #1 on: April 06, 2013, 03:32:04 AM »
A a general observation, many common wind instruments are so constructed that the "naturally" occuring scale is either B flat or E flat, making it easier to play these instruments in flat keys, rather than sharp ones. 

On the other hand, most stringed instruments usually sound better and are easier to play in sharp keys, if they're in standard tuning. The open strings will resonate better. Django Reinhardt played some of his compositions in sharp keys with a string band, but in flat keys with wind instruments.

Regarding the flat keys in blues string bands or duos, the tuning might also be altered, or a capo used to fit the likings of the musicians, so the objective might not have been to "play in a flat key", as we think of it here.

Then again I think the Mississippi Sheiks, for example,  favored flat keys in some of their songs, if I remember correctly. Let's hope that our residential Sheiks expert Frankie will chime in and  share his thoughts on this.

Cheers

Pan

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #2 on: April 06, 2013, 01:10:54 PM »
They're popular keys for horn players, and piano as well. Stokes wasn't playing in E flat. He and Dan Sane would capo, tune low etc etc., so you have to go by what playing position sounds right, not just the pitch.

Fake books are not really anything to go by because they could also just have been transcribed in those keys according to the preference or purpose of whoever transcribed the tune.






Offline P D Grant

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Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #3 on: April 06, 2013, 04:19:30 PM »
What they said! On guitar, rags are generally played out if a C, G or sometimes F position. Players usually tune down or capo up to meet horn/piano keys. If there's no accompaniment then it's just a case of the player making sure the guitar's in tune with itself rather than tuning to pitch or if deliberate, to suit their vocal range.

Offline WayneS

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Re: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #4 on: April 07, 2013, 01:17:32 PM »
Thanks for the responses.  I know you can get a clarinet in either B flat or C as its "home key."  Is that true also of cornets, trumpets, saxophones?  Maybe other keys as well?  'Course, "Mississippi saxophone" is a reed instrument that comes in many keys.

I do not care about no tubas.   ;D

Offline Nicolas Dussart

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Re: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #5 on: April 07, 2013, 02:19:44 PM »
Soprano and tenor saxophones are in B flat, alto and Baritone in E flat.
The note fingered and called C for the tenor saxophone is actually a B flat (and E flat for the alto).
The fingering of a saxophone is close to the fingering of the wood flute that we learned at school  8)

Nicolas

Offline Pan

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Re: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #6 on: April 07, 2013, 02:21:13 PM »
Transposing instruments:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instrument_transposition

(Edited to add: not many people realize that the guitar too is a transposing instrument; the guitar sounds an octave lower than it is written in standard notation.)

Cheers

Pan
« Last Edit: April 07, 2013, 02:25:44 PM by Pan »

Offline WayneS

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Re: Ragtime and blues recordings-- often in certain keys. Why is that?
« Reply #7 on: April 08, 2013, 11:25:30 AM »
Great!!  Thanks to all for the very good information.  After reading all these things, I don't know how a conductor does what he does.

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