|Oh Mama, It's just a little stick of wood,
Mama, Just a lot of bitty holes and wood,
But, Mama, it'll let my soul leak out if I could.
THE HISTORY: The Senegambia slave coast in Africa was dry, and had no great forests. Instead of the great wooden drums found further south, there was a wealth of stringed instruments, ranging from one stringed gourd fiddles to 2-4 stringed guitar-like lutes. Because of close contact with the Berber and Arab cultures to the North there was a vocal tradition of solo singing and long melodic lines unusual in African music. Group singing was polyphonic and polyrhythmic. The harmony was not the resolving harmony of European music, but parallel melodies sung a third, or a fourth and fifth away from each other. The latter two diodic harmonies did not mix with the former.
Further south, in the Congo-Angola region, where Bantu and pygmy influence was felt, the choral music was among the most highly developed in Africa. Even in call/response singing the leader and chorus often overlapped. Solos, duets, and trios emerge from a dense choral background. Some vocal music included whooping (jumping an octave) and falsetto.
The music in general was participative, where anyone could join in response; or involved hocketing, where a multitude of one or two-note parts blended in a complex polyphony. But paramount was the vocality of the music. The Yoruba and Akan people speak a pitch-tone language (like Chinese) in which a syllable's meaning depends upon pitch profile (for example, the Chinese "ma" which can mean mother-in-law, horse, and several other things). In the African pitch-tone languages, a dropping frequency often conveys deep emotion. In their music flutes, drummers, xylophones and partially vocalized dialogue entwined in figurative or literal speech patterns. Instrumentalists, especially flutists, sang or hummed while blowing to give voice-like character to their music. Voice masking, originating in ceremonial face masks, led to the incorporation of bizarre chest growls, and false bass notes. And the rhythmic quality of "swing", perhaps not in the jazz-sense, but of forward-propelling directionality" was prominent. All these are found in the Blues.
|Woke up this mornin', with a sound in my
Woke up to new sounds, rattlin' round in my head,
Singing of things, things that were long, long dead.
THE BLENDING: All that merged and blended as the Africans were forcefully migrated to the American South. The musical strain was rehybridized with Southern White religious songs, British folk music, and plantation orchestral themes. This, in turn, was reshaped by the need of spirituals to encourage the soul, work-songs to relieve drudgery, field shouts to communicate or relieve loneliness in the vast acreage, ring shouts for emotional Christian worship, jump-ups (short, unrelated lines over chorded accompaniment), narrative ballads, and a pervasive rhythmic percussion of hand, feet, and body. Not being hampered by keyboard instruments, the vocal tradition used intonations determined by natural vocal harmonic resonances.
| Easy Rider, what's your music done?
See See Rider, where's your music from?
If I don't catch you, I'll have lost my fun.
THE EMERGENCE: By the end of the 19th century an oral and aural tradition of narrative phrases, and inexpensive, simple stringed musical accompaniment provided a pool from which talented performers could improvise music for themselves, and for others. In the flat, black earth bounded by Memphis, the Yazoo River and the Mississippi, usually called The Delta, blacks and whites began to discover a music that penetrated the soul, and they called it the Blues. Why blue? Even in the 16th century, blue was the color of the devil, perhaps because candles flames burn darker blue in the presence of sulfur. Thus the blue-devils; a mood of despondency and depression. In what follows, facts and myth mix in what we call history, which is our fiction of the past. Since such theory attempts to analyze in retrospect, perhaps the first Bluesmen would have this to say:
| That theory stuff's OK, a'hangin' on your
Oh Yeh, Theory's OK, a'hangin' on your bare wall,
But theory's no good at all, when you get that Blue's call.
THE DELTA BLUES: The original Country Blues usually have as common features a twelve bar AAB structure, bent (flattened) Blue notes, a shuffling triplet rhythm, a half-speaking vocal quality, a pervasive syncopation, and a special modality. The Blues mode will not work without syncopation, and the twelve bar scheme will not work without the Blues mode. Among the framework of the mode are the flatted Blue notes- a microtonal affair of a quarter tone, or even a semitone as they must be on keyboard instruments. They may involve a glide either upward or downward, a slur between notes a semitone apart so that there are two Blue notes, or even a microtonal shake. This, and the inherent vocalization of the melody line, make the genre a natural for the recorder which can both play music and speak. The decreasing frequency of Blue note use is the third, seventh, fifth (and the sixth). Any selection of the Blue notes can be found mixed up with ordinary major intervals. They provide a kind of melodic instability, analogous to harmonic dissonance, which can be resolved.
Why an awkward interval like the minor third comes so naturally to the human voice, and the Blues, is an interesting question. But it has precedent, such as Gregorian chant and schoolyard songs. The origin may lie in the filtering of musical notes by the basic formant frequencies of the vocal tract. Men, women, and children are a minor a major third apart, respectively, in this regard. Some musicologists divide the Blues mode into two tetrachords. The flatted seventh mirrors the flatted third in this analysis. Others examine tribal quartal and quintal harmony, and note that fusion of the two diodic forms produces a scale that contains all the Blues notes. We'll let you decide, as others theorize, whether or not the origin of Blue notes involved pentatonic African scales that didn't "fi" diatonic Western scales. This speculation suggests that slaves, attempting to resolve the misfit, bent some notes out of shape to fuse the two. Whatever happened, worked.
| What my seat can't stand, Mama, my mind won't
What my mind don't stand, Mama, my ear won't hear,
I like the Blues, Mama, it's the theory I fear.
| It takes a long handled shovel, to dig a six
It takes a long handled hammer, to break a great big stone,
It takes a long, long recorder, to satisfy my soul.
THE RECORDER: The recorder, with shading (flattening), slide-fingering (sharpening), and breath-pressure controls can vocalize almost as well as a bottle-neck guitar with a little practice. (Originally, a broken-off bottle top fit to the finger was used as a slide in the guitar fret area to glide notes.) Shading with the finger-tip lets the recorder player bend (flatten) the Blues notes with ease. This involves lowering unused fingers over open tone holes until the note is flattened just right. Start out with the fingers oriented closely over the holes to be shaded, and bring them down slowly near the strike. You can use any of the lower open holes, but the first opening is quite sensitive. Try various holes lower down until you find the best combination for your temperament and the instrument. You can also bring the fingers in from the side if that suits you better. Some find it easier to control a roll-in from a finger in contact with the instrument at the hole's side. Slides to notes are common. Remember, that shading can also be accompanied by an increase in breath pressure, and instrument loudness. Breath pressure increases pitch, shading lowers pitch, so you can bend and control intensity as you wish. The difficult part will be to break away from the printed score, and play what your soul wants. Some scores explicitly flatten the Blue notes; in others you are on your own. If you please yourself, any listener will reciprocate. Tonguing should be firm enough to maintain control, just as in jazz wind instruments.
A later section will focus on the words of Blues songs. Recorder players coming from the classic tradition should try to play the words, to talk to the audience with musical sound. Those lucky enough to have had a session with Pete Rose (e.g., at the Jazz Workshop held by ARS at BEMF '95) will appreciate how easy, and yet how hard, it is to talk and do call/response with the recorder. The music is easy to make; it is hard to break the tradition of playing only from a score. Rose, in teaching jazz improvisation, gives his students a few notes, and asks them to first ask a question with them; and then have a partner reply with an answer using the same notes by controlling sequence and intonation. Try it! It works. Wynton Marsalis shows the method in the recent PBS/CD, video series.
The vocal part of the Blues phrase (the call) generally ends before the phrase itself is completed. Inspirations for an improvised section (the response) may be drawn from the preceding melody, or involve entirely new material. Use the recorder to express yourself. More traditional recorder trills, shakes, and slurs can be used to good advantage in improvisation interludes between stanzas (cf., "Recorder Technique", Rowland-Jones).
Don't be surprised at Blues songs that don't quite fit the twelve bar AAB pattern. Sometimes the words force addition or subtraction of bars. What is important is the three part structure.
THE RHYTHM: The African cross rhythm influence on Blues rhythm is often blatant, sometimes subtle. In the Blues the distinction between simple and compound time breaks down, with duplets and triplets freely interspersed. Think about the hemiola of courant and galliard dances. It became concretized in the triple time of the waltz and minuet. But its relationships (1,2;1,2;1,2 vs. 1,2,3;1,2,3) to African drum rhythms is obvious. In the Blues, the distinction is not so much between simple and compound, but between simple and compound+simple. It is uncommon for a common-time beat in the Blues to go on without being disrupted by some irregular rhythm. Particularly at the end of phrases, four in a bar patterns will be broken by two or three beat bars. The player should experiment.
The syncopation methods may involve (1) a Scotch snap (creating an accent where it would not normally be found), (2) a note replaced with a rest, or (3) a premature accented note. These techniques are not exclusive to the Blues, and may be found in British folk-dance music, American banjo tunes, and Celtic music. The mixing and hybridization that took place in the planting fields as African slaves and immigrant indentured servants from the British Isles worked together can't be ignored. Just don't be afraid to lean (delay) your notes to get the rhythm you want, when you want it.
| I'm a long-line skinner, from places out
I'm a long-line skinner, waitin' for a rest,
Lookin' for the teacher, that'll teach me best.
THE MELODY AND ACCOMPANIMENT: The interaction between the singing and instrument, or in their alternation, is characteristic of the Blues. The Bluesman is not accompanied by the instrument, he sings with it. Therefore the metrical precision, the accuracy of the notes, and the melody as a whole are less important than the emotion of the synergy. Players of the recorder can sing along mentally (and even physically) with their playing, often vocalizing the sound to some extent. Let yourself go in that relationship. Bend (flatten) the notes where you wish, lean (delay) them where you want, and let the harmony follow. This is in keeping with the Blues' general independence of melody and accompaniment
To many theorists the "traditional" twelve bar Blues instrumental bass accompaniment pattern of I IV I V I seems to resurrect memories of the Gregory Walker I IV I V: I IV I-V I pattern (ca 1530), rather than the usual I IV V I pattern of the European classics. The Walker pattern was probably kept alive by semi-professional musicians who found audiences liked the potential to-and-fro pattern, and by the mid-1800's it was undergoing a revival. Many historians tie together Gregory Walker/Blues pairs such as "Darling Nellie Gray"/"Railroad Bill", "Before I'd Be a Slave"/"Hattie Belle", and "Beckie Dean"/"Troubled in Mind". Others tie the basic harmony to the diodys in fourths and fifths referred to earlier. But as the Blues matured, increasingly complex chordal sequences appeared.
One is not dealing with classical harmonic progressions. Although African and European architectures fused in the Blues, it's dangerous to analyze too deeply. Some authors have even examined the possibility of attempted incorporation of the Neapolitan or German augmented sixth into traditional Blues! The concept of a double tonic suggests an actual modulation to a new key, and does give some idea of the abrupt nature of the changes often found. But, Van der Merwe prefers the term shifting levels, since it is so vague and non-committal. A shift of level is a more basic and primal matrix. Renaissance dance music used the technique, and it faded before the pressures of the Baroque. In the twentieth century, Blues reinvented it for its own reasons (cf. Boogie-Woogie Bass). As the song says, "Why they changed it I can't say, Maybe they liked it better that way" (from "Istambul", by Kennedy and Simon). It's probably best to leave the theorists at this point, with their arguments of who was most adept to adopt or adapt, and just live and grow with the Blues.
Don't be afraid to try unusual instrument combinations. The simple fiddle in early Blues bands was replaced by the guitar and Blues harp. The harmonica's construction encourages the use of certain minor 6th and diminished 7th chordal structures. Anything that sounds good is good! An interesting combination for a duo is a recorder with a chromatic harmonica as the bass. The recorder and harmonica both have a remarkable voice quality, and that is the spirit of the Blues. They sound well together, and travel easily.
THE WORDS: A Blues stanza is a rhymed couplet, each line divided by a caesura (strong pause) and end-stopped. Samuel Charters' book "The Poetry of the Blues" does ask a question. Is poetry necessarily the work of a single mind? If so, the Blues fails the criterion. But, if you accept folk-artists who blended traditional phrases in new ways, then listen to the moods, the symbolism, and the messages:
"When a woman gets the blues, she wrings her hands and cries,
I say, when a women is blue, she pulls her hair and cries,
But when a man gets the blues, he grabs a train and rides."
"You can lead a horse to water, can't make 'em drink,
Send your kids to school, but can't make 'em think,
Dig a pit for someone else, 2 to 1 you'll trip in it yourself.
(sung by Brownie McGhee, "Life is a Gamble"
"The water keeps risin', families sinkin' down,
Fifty men and children, come to sink and drown,
I couldn't see nobody home, and was no one to be foun'.
(Charley Patton, 1927 Mississippi Flood, "High Water Everywhere")
"Early one mornin', just about half past three,
You done something, that's really worryin' me,
Come on Baby, take a little walk with me,
Back to the same old place, where we long to be.
(Robert Lockwood, "Take a Little Walk With Me")
"Just listen to this song I'm singin brother, you know its true,
If you're black and got to work for a living, here's what people will say,
'Now if you're white, you're all right, And if you're brown, stick around;
But if you're black, oh brother, Get back, get back, get back.'
(Big Bill Broonzy, "Black, Brown, and White Blues")
The men and women who built the Blues have had legends grown around them. Like the plot of "Amadeus", it is hard to find what was real. Understanding Blues music requires understanding the musicians, just like classical music appreciation demands some knowledge of the composers lives. Several sources should be explored. Seeing Ken Russell's "Lisztomania" and "Mahler" gives different impressions of Liszt, Wagner and Mahler than classical biographies. What is true? Consider: Son House (1902-1988), a Baptist preacher converted to the Blues. Big Boy Crudup (1905-1974) who wrote "That's Alright, Mama" and "My Baby Left Me", received $1.06 royalty for "Mean Old Frisco", and died in near poverty. Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1930) froze to death in a Chicago street when he lost his way. Bessie Smith (1898-1937), who wrote and sang "Empty Bed Blues", died in a car accident that is still misrepresented. Robert Johnson (1914-1938), scheduled to perform at "From Spirituals to Swing" at Carnegie Hall, but (poisoned, knifed, shot ??) a few weeks before by a jealous (man, woman ??). Not all were tragic. Huddie Leadbetter, Leadbelly (1885-1949), in Angola prison for murder, was discovered by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax. They arranged Leadbelly's release, and he carried the Blues to Europe. His legend has grown bigger than the reality, but so has that of the Blues. As you play their music, spend a few moments reading about their lives (see references). Both will enrich you.
| Warm up my recorder, treat my harp with
Loosen up that recorder, bend the notes with care,
I'm gonna find me a partner, baby, in the world somewhere.
THE BLUES PLAYGROUND: The Delta Blues migrated and was modernized, revised, and disguised. Chicago Blues, East Coast Blues, Texas Blues, California Blues- the list goes on. The Blues became electric (guitar), more sophisticated, and took on longer formats. Try them all. One of the nice things about the Blues is its worldwide popularity. Carry your recorder with you, and a stack of sheet music. You'll always find an audience. The author has been found busking outside Kings Cross Station in London, or playing on the streets of Brussels during the Jazz Festival weekend. Those who attended BEMF '95 had the opportunity of hearing several superb buskers, who are also professional players. They commented on the thrill and reward of street playing. And, since the Blues are quintessentially a personal expression they can also be your sole companion while camping or in a lonely room.
1. PLAY THE MELODY: Massage the melody lines of the accompanying pieces. They are Delta (Country) and simple City (Urban) Blues. Experiment with bending and leaning. Practice slipping into the Blue Notes. Keep your fingers close to the instrument to facilitate smooth glides. There are sources of similar music listed below. If you'd prefer something more "sophisticated" pursue the evolution of City Blues. If you like it really hot pursue the music that developed during the rebirth of the Blues in the 1950-'60s. The simple but expressive framework that originated in the Delta at the turn of the Century was stretched by the City Blues singers during the 1920-30's. The themes and laments of these structures were augmented by a frenetic aggressiveness in the music and lyrics 30 years later. Those emotive, pulsing, cavorting, protesting forms will challenge both the player and the instrument.
2. PLAY THE LYRICS: The Blues are a primarily a vocal, melodic medium. This is what separates it from jazz, which is predominately an instrumental, harmonic medium. The recorder's ability to convey words is unique, so the player can sing through his notes. First, think, and then mentally mouth the words as you play. Actually humming and singing as you play can create interesting effects. If your lips vibrate as you hum or sing you are doing it just right. It is as close as one can get to the guttural growling voices in the Blues. As you sing and play glide from one word/note to the next. Eliding is common in vocal Blues forms. It's the reason many texts gathered from recordings are incomplete. The words aren't very clear. Falsetto, yodelling affects found in contemporary Blues will take more effort. For the experienced player try some of the avant-garde vocal and mouth effects described in the literature (cf., O'Kelly). Alternative fingerings permit cleaner glissandi by reducing the number of finger movements needed. Flutter-tonguing is also effective. Your goal is to to emulate, not imitate. Most of the available scores will be noted from C4 through A5. A tenor+soprano therefore offers an easy way to obtain expanded range. An alto played with "soprano/tenor fingering" give a nice middle ground and permits quick instrument switching.
3. FILL IN THE BASS: When you are comfortable with your material, start working with another instrument and accompaniment. A guitar or harmonica are ideal. Blues harps (harmonicas) are inexpensive, and simple tunes can be played with a few hours introduction. They come in diatonic versions (one key only) that make classic supporting chordal structures easy in low notes. You may wish to consider chromatic versions. It's possible to bend the Blues notes as you play either. Such instruments don't require a perfect synchronization to be satisfying. Some of the original Blues were single chord. Then, the 4 bar tonic, 2 bar sub-dominant, 2 tonic, 2 dominant 7th, 2 tonic form became common. Incidentally, the blues harp also makes it easy for just a single player to "fill-in" the improvisation sections that occur between lines in a stanza, and between stanzas. You can also employ electronic keyboards, using any of the many compatible voices available. For altos, the easiest way to get started with most available guitar/vocal sheet music is to use "tenor/soprano" fingering and transpose the figured bass that accompanies the melody.
4. SHARE YOUR NEW INTEREST: If you have access to other recorder players build up a consort to exchange ideas and techniques. Be a salesperson for a new sound.
5. LISTEN!: In the tradition of Bluesmen, listening to available recordings helps syncretize the building of your own style. The reference books have extensive discographies.
6. LOOK!: The ultimate performance is aural and visual. There are a number of videotapes available that cover various types of Blues, and the performers who created their living image. "Good Morning Blues" (PBS) covers the origin and evolution of the Delta Blues. "Country Blues Guitar" (Vestapol) has rare vintage film and music. "History of the Blues" (PBS, and its companion book "History of the Blues") covers the origin and migration to Chicago Blues. "Chicago Blues" (Rhapsody) is self explanatory. "America's Music, Vols. 3-4 (Blues I & II)" (Genesis) has material that reveals the beginning of the segue to Rhythm-and-Blues, and Rock-and-Roll.
7. PRACTICE: An excellent introduction to jazz recorder playing by Joel Levine and Pete Rose appears in AR (May 1995, pp. 6-12). It contains many suggestions suitable for advanced Blues playing, improvising, and jamming. The ten suggestions given in that article are equally applicable to the Blues. A delightful video excursion for rhythm and practice is "Marsalis on Music"; browse http://www.pbs.org (keyword=Marsalis) for this and other PBS sources.
8. COMPOSE: Using the Blue's lyrics that form the subject dividers in the text, compose your own melody lines. It`s then a simple step to writing your own complete Blues. Borrow freely, that's what all Bluesmen do. Being a composer is fun. And, since the Blues express your moods, they are good for working out problems. That's why they became so popular in the first place.
9. AMPLIFY: Electronic amplification makes many unusual sound effects easier to reach. If the thought of an artificial aid bothers you, recognize that trained opera singers learned to create a singing formant that gave a pronounced peak at 2-3,000 Hz, placing themselves well above the overtones of most instruments, which decrease steadily in amplitude above 2,000 Hz. It was the only way they could be heard without amplification. But their wide open mouths and lowered larynx distorted vowels beyond recognition. With the invention of the microphone the distortion became glaringly obvious, and popular music went another way. You can use amplification to bring out low level sounds and effects that would otherwise be lost. In using microphones, recognize that clamping one above the windway of the recorder will alter the perceived timbre because of the geometry of sound radiation and interference patterns from the various holes as a function of frequency. If a stand microphone is used the player is "fixed" in one area, but movement can control loudness. Experiment!