Sunday, May 23, 2010

Twelve Bars That Died For Our Sins






C.R. recently opined that the "African Diaspora aesthetics of sound...breathed life into hackneyed and stagnating forms." There's a story hidden in there about form and blowing and it has to do with the blues.


A Rough History.


Pentatonic (5-note) scales seem to be among the first musical discoveries made by every culture. Ancient cultures organized their reeds, made their flutes and tuned their stringed instruments to play them. Getting from note to note was always a local issue, although, of course, there were commonalities. Flatting the third and the fifth was widespread and this scale and these inflexions infused the music brought to the US with slavery. Once here, it was reproduced vocally, on banjos and then on brass. Its identity was as a raw and expressive medium of story-telling. It was simple in structure, especially in comparison to Ragtime, which took some ideas from the blues, but introduced more formal compositional elements.


I've always found calling W.C.Handy "Father of the Blues" a little weird. His compositions, including the Memphis, Beale Street, and St. Louis Blues, had bluesy elements, but were elaborately constructed-much more ragtime/blues hybrids. In fact, I think of him as part of a professional music crowd that sidetracked and temporarily hijacked the blues in the first 20 years of the century. The idea seemed to be to make it more sophisticated, while sneaking in just a little bit o' the other (nudge, nudge). The word 'blues' was used in many tune titles in the teens, but the recorded evidence-Chinese Blues, Ghost of the Terrible Blues, etc.-would not prepare you for what happened in the 1920's, when recordings finally revealed the soul of the blues.


What seems to have happened was the buying power of African-Americans became sufficiently established that the actual needs of that community began to be met by the recording industry. Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter had all been on the road for many years singing the blues and all went unrecorded until the 1920's. Mamie Smith was in the right place at the right time and had the honor of starting an explosion.







Unlike the ill-fitting forms that attempted to defuse it, the form that the blues really needed in order to tell its story became available in recordings. This form found a deep place in American culture and still does.


Next time: Why?

18 comments:

Chris Albertson said...

Just how much W. C. Handy actually composed and how much he simply heard, committed to paper and published is a lingering question.

For example, many Handy contemporaries were quick to point out that a song like "St. Louis Blues" had no known composer—it was practically coming out of the bushes and from around the corners in the South.

Chris Rich said...

That makes sense as those early participants may have been in some mid point between ethnography and composition.

Melodies, the dna of music, rise from some soil or context to be captured by alert ears on sheets.

I forget when the discipline of ethno musicology really cohered as an element of curriculum and study but it is fairly advanced by the time Bartok and Lomax ventured into their gardens with wax cylinder gear.

One of the more delightful pursuits in music for me has been tracing the wanderings of melody. A snippet of Dufay seeps into the soil of folk music when polyphony falls out of fashion in the court of Burgundy and then somehow ends up in Quebecois country fiddle music and Cajun music with different form biases that seem to be shaped by place.

Cajun renditions are more languid and melodic development drawls out while the northern counterparts are brisk and concise as if the northern nip in the air prompted brevity.

Handy then would have brought us snippets of something rising with a bit of polish and adaptation to the potentials of larger ensembles.

Steve Provizer said...

Handy was a great self-promoter, no doubt...There was always a struggle between "uplift" and 'devil's music' and I suppose Handy's 'codification,' if you will, represented some kind of a compromise. In any case, what got short-ended in terms of recording/ documentation, was the devil's music.

Chris' point about the meandering melody certainly is relevant to the discussion about form. A combination of notes merges at a particular time and place with tempo, rhythmic stresses, inflection, lyrical metrics (if there are words) and harmony. If the confluence is felicitous-ya got a keeper.

Steve Provizer said...

An small addendum, by Jelly Roll Morton (referenced by R. Chalfen). Of course, Morton's veracity is often challenged, but this seems pretty right to me:

"I do not claim any of the creation of the blues, although I have written many of them even before Mr. Handy had any blues published. I had heard them when I was knee-high to a duck. For instance, when I first started going to school, at different times I would visit some of my relatives per permission, in the Garden district. I used to hear a few of the following blues players, who could play nothing else — Buddie Canter, Josky Adams, Game Kid, Frank Richards, Sam Henry and many more too numerous to mention — what we call “ragmen” in New Orleans. They can take a 10c Xmas horn, take the wooden mouthpiece off, having only the metal for mouthpiece, and play more blues with that instrument than any trumpeter I had ever met through the country imitating the New Orleans trumpeters."

rob chalfen said...

The afro-economics angle is true, but here's some other angles to the breakthrough of the blues - Perry Bradford had been busting his ass for years trying to get his compositions recorded by black artists (aka his pals), and had some success in the 'teens with singer Bert Williams, almost exclusively, but with white orchestras, on Columbia. He leaned on Okeh, an indie label, to record Mamie Smith singing his tunes, but a white band was used and the sides were stiff & went nowhere. Her break-through record, Crazy Blues (1920), a Bradford composition with a black jazz band, hit. (The man must have had seriously sharp elbows.)

Until 1920, the 2 major labels, Columbia & Victor, had a patent lock on 'lateral' recording, until a judge ruled otherwise. Okeh and other indies could thus then issue records most folks could play on their home Victrolas.

Columbia and Victor were scared that black records would trigger Klan boycotts in the South. "Crazy Blues" (originally "Harlem Blues", changed for above reason) proved a smash with black people, selling in the hundreds of thousands. Blues records were suddenly kosher, but the floodgates weren't opened til after 1921, when a major recession hit the industry, and the blues craze was grabbed as a sort of cultural life-preserver.

rob chalfen said...

We're talking the jazz-blues, country blues didn't really get on wax until 1924.

Steve Provizer said...

The lock you mention Columbia and Victor had---I don't think people realize how litigious the recording industry-and then the radio industry-were. Edison was King Su-er. Some people were made (Sarnoff), others were broken (Edwin Armstrong).

Chris Rich said...

Were? America is the land of litigation, oligarchic rent seeking and pie in the sky dreams of something for nothing.

It is good to know that we've always sucked. But then, nearly every facet of the current economic calamity is a slight re do of the same shit that caused the great depression, arcane financial derivatives, too big to fail banks, oligarchic rapacity and the general scum baggery that made us what we are today, a fat flabby narcissistic witless thing that can't get out of its own damned way.

One day I'll tell you what I really think.

rob chalfen said...

the first blues records were of military bands in the 'teens recording Handy tunes - drive yourself mad with the Victor Military Band playing Memphis Blues (Handy), 15 July 1914.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0xlxmUvzr4

here they play Kansas City Blues (Euday L. Bowman), 15 Sept. 1916 (a bit slow)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RX9YhiOdXgU

for comparison, here's black Minneapolis vaudeville jass band of clarinettist Wilbur Sweatman's more happening version, 24 March 1919 -
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPGhzjZEt2w&feature=related

rob chalfen said...

Handy's Orchestra of Memphis, Sept. 1917 - Livery Stable Blues
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8Ohfmy7bco

Chris Albertson said...

Steve Provizer: "Some people were made (Sarnoff), others were broken (Edwin Armstrong)."

But Mrs. Armstrong (Sarnoff's former secretary) triumphed in the end, winning all the lawsuits that drove Major Armstrong to committing suicide.

Steve Provizer said...

Yes, although one might call it a pyrrhic victory.

Chris Rich said...

I've just been laying here in the swelter thinking about the early recording industry output in total in the immediate period following the introduction of the Pathe Marconi round flat thing that saved us from Edison's stupid cylinders, the grandpa of dumb artifact formats left in the ash can like 8 tracks.

My friend Cook traffics in old 78's and mentioned the hot items on E Bay now are odd precursors to what we now call'world music'.

The recording industry was a small cottage thing until mass media radio occasioned the drive to greater homogeneity.

I recall a cd series in the mid 90s, "The Secret Music of Mankind" that were re masters of world music from an avid 78 collector in New York.

The diversity was astonishing. There was recording activity of music as it existed in its place on every continent. In some cases it is a wonder how it even got recorded but I imagine the age of nationalism was a factor.

This made it a handful for early label business models cause you had to cover so many bases, Norteno Corrida music of the border lands such as the Mendoza Sisters, Texas Czech Brass bands like Joe Patek, Klezmer groups, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers and on and on.

One might see the career choice of a young B. Goodman as a tell. As homogeneity dawned through radio uniformity there wasn't much call for Klezmer clarinetists but plenty of work in swing bands. Benny could read the writing on the wall.

The rise of all this was a happy accident of choice in a time of increasing uniformity. And that determined the musical industrial complex's shape til fairly recently when all has become so much over leveraged rubble and a few sad souls still hoping for a paycheck or attempting to keep one do the odd handstand of objecting to unseemly polemic and raillery against corporations from assholes like me who earn a living fixing buildings.

I feel for em but, come on. Corporate hegemony is fucking us over everywhere we look from the oil seeping into Louisiana marshland to the vaporization of 401ks, Too big to Fail ponzi financial speculations and rentier wealth confiscation at every turn.

And the collapse of it all beginning with the rise of punk rock independent labels began this restoration of astonishing diversity likely to be missed if music is viewed through a jazz prism.

I encourage all you wonderful participants in this Bilious Corner to have a look at other things going on in tandem with these early jazz periods.

To that end I was delighted to bring Rob, our details archivist a set of discs of 78's including Rebeteika bands, A Greco Turkic Jewish singer named Amalia and of cours, the Patek Family Orchestra from Shiner, Texas.

And I promised Cook I'd help him make sense of the odd piles of Eastern European and Chinese 78's he has laying around as the labels are all in cryptic languages and alphabets where a listen will reveal the contents.

rob chalfen said...

Goodman (b. 1909) got into jazz because he lived in Chicago where it was all exploding around him and klez must have seemed like old world old hat - he could hear Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, Leon Rappollo live, and live on the radio - Network radio didn't kick in til 1928, when he was already cutting sides as a leader.

I've got a piece of Chinese theatre music from Shanghai, 1925 that sounds like Edgard Varese

Steve Provizer said...

Don't gainsay the influence that ethnography had on documenting the world precurser musics-a double-edged sword, to be sure. For a thoroughly riotous look at said activity, check out Flann O'Brien's gaelic masterpiece An Béal Bocht, translated as The Poor Mouth.

Chris Rich said...

I understand how the melting pot rush to assimilation happened and I wonder when radio moved to mass market homogenization.

In the early years it had its hands full just inventing the content forms and there was diversity. But at a certain point, when the Swing Era became the first mass media music 'craze', the other elements went into decline.

David Riesman wrote about a point when everyone began listening to and wearing and buying the same stuff.

This wasn't sudden. It phased in.My interest is that point of real differentiation before a given wave of immigrants went whole hog for this quasi fabricated "American" thing.

How was it fabricated? When did it take off? Mr. Goodman began with an instrument favored by his culture in its core context and then joined the prevailing flow, probably because he could make a living, ya think?

But then we have melodies from klezmer showing up in arrangements and renamed. And what of that trip to Budapest on the eve of world war two to record a trio with Bartok and Szigeti?

Steve Provizer said...

Radio was in a more or less a wild west state until the early 1920's, when the big shots moved in, smelling big profits. Megacorp NBC was formed in 1926. More and more the line was: "let's tie the country together with networks." By 1927, pro broadcasters convinced Hoover and the Commerce Dept. to set up the Federal Radio Commission (later the FCC), to keep the many amateurs with home-made crystal sets from stepping on their enormous signals. The homogeneity die was cast.

rob chalfen said...

Goodman had diverse influences but he was jazz-mad from an early age.

Cultural homogenization via radio is generally dated from 1928, when the NBC/RCA combine set up the first regular coast to coast network. The first effect was that double-entendre blues lyrics were immediately bowdlerized in the recording studio, so that the sensibilities of American Gothic types in the Midwest wouldn't be scandalized. The break-down of distinct regional folk and dance styles proceeded gradually from that point. Dance bands took on a smoother 'parlor friendly' sound with less rough jazz. Where do you think we are, in some speakeasy?? The sweet/hot balance started tilting sweet. This didn't really turn around nationally til swing hit again in '35 - the archetypal event being Goodman's smash gig at the Palomar in LA - the kids had heard the coast to coast remotes of the tour as they crossed the country, bombing.