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?