Ramblin' on My Mind: New Perspectives on the Blues
edited by David Evans
University of Illinois Press, 2007
Paper: 978-0-252-07448-6 | Cloth: 978-0-252-03203-5 | eISBN: 978-0-252-09112-4
Library of Congress Classification ML3521.R29 2008
Dewey Decimal Classification 781.643
Reference metadata exposed for Zotero via unAPI.
This compilation of essays takes the study of the blues to a welcome new level. Distinguished scholars and well-established writers from such diverse backgrounds as musicology, anthropology, musicianship, and folklore join together to examine blues as literature, music, personal expression, and cultural product. Ramblin' on My Mind contains pieces on Ella Fitzgerald, Son House, and Robert Johnson; on the styles of vaudeville, solo guitar, and zydeco; on a comparison of blues and African music; on blues nicknames; and on lyric themes of disillusionment.
Contributors are Lynn Abbott, James Bennighof, Katharine Cartwright, Andrew M. Cohen, David Evans, Bob Groom, Elliott Hurwitt, Gerhard Kubik, John Minton, Luigi Monge, and Doug Seroff.
David Evans is a professor in the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis and the author of Tommy Johnson, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues, and The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Blues. A seasoned performer and producer, Evans is also a Grammy Award winner.
Contents Introduction David Evans 1 Bourdon, Blue Notes, and Pentatonism in the Blues: An Africanist Perspective Gerhard Kubik 2 "They Cert'ly Sound Good to Me": Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, and the Commercial Ascendancy of the Blues Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff 3 Abbe Niles, Blues Advocate Elliott S. Hurwitt 4 The Hands of Blues Guitarists Andrew M. Cohen 5 From Bumble Bee Slim to Black Boy Shine: Nicknames of Blues Singers David Evans 6 Preachin' the Blues: A Textual Linguistic Analysis of Son House's "Dry Spell Blues" Luigi Monge 7 Some Ramblings on Robert Johnson's Mind: Critical Analysis and Aesthetic Value in Delta Blues James Bennighof 8 "Guess These People Wonder What I'm Singing": Quotation and Reference in Ella Fitzgerald's "St. Louis Blues" Katharine Cartwright 9 Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: A Decade of Disillusion in Black Blues and Gospel Song Bob Groom 10 Houston Creoles and Zydeco: The Emergence of an African American Urban Popular Style John Minton Index Ramblin' on My Mind Introduction David Evans The years since the late 1950s have seen a dramatic growth in scholarly and popular literature about blues music. Blues was certainly mentioned in print before this time, but previous writers had almost universally viewed it as either simply a type of folk music, more or less anonymous and unchanging, or a "root" form of jazz, worthy of a chapter or two at the beginning of any study of that genre. While it was recognized that blues had been popularized and commercialized, folklorists generally viewed this process with alarm, equating commercialization with a decline in artistic quality and cultural relevance. Jazz writers were more favorable toward commercial blues, but few had heard enough of it to do more than comment on selected artists and recordings that came to their attention, especially those that contained good jazz instrumental work. What was lacking, except among musicians themselves and their immediate audiences, was a sense of blues as a distinct type of music with its own personalities, stylistic variety, and history of musical development. The modern era of blues scholarship and the significant growth of our knowledge of this genre began with the publication of Samuel B. Charters' The Country Blues (1959) and Paul Oliver's Blues Fell This Morning (1960), followed soon by the launching of the British magazine Blues Unlimited and a steady stream of albums featuring both reissues of historic commercial recordings and contemporary recordings in a full variety of styles. Blues artists were interviewed and profiled in magazines. New artists were discovered, while older recording artists were "rediscovered" and had second careers. Folklorists began to explore the relationships between folk and popular blues and place more emphasis on the personalities of their informants. Historians began to write the story of this music in particular cities and regions, identifying both an array and evolution of styles. Musicians from outside the traditional blues community began to learn how to perform the music and teach others, both directly and through instructional books and articles. There are now books that analyze blues as music, literature, and culture, that profile individual artists, producers, songwriters, and record companies, and that explore the relationship of blues to religion, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, and ethnicity. The music is today more popular and widespread than ever, as witnessed by the growth of an international club, concert, and festival circuit, blues magazines in ten languages, thousands of available CD recordings, university courses and archives, radio and television programs, blues as theme music for advertising, blues awards programs, museums, and even blues tourism. One now hears increasingly of a "blues industry." Interest in blues has particularly increased since the early 1990s, coinciding with the maturing of rock music and the rock generation, rock's fragmentation into a variety of competing subgenres, the rise in interest and availability of world and ethnic music, and the challenge that rap has presented to rock and older styles of African American popular music. Blues was able to find a niche in the spectrum of popular music and has been interpreted variously as a more authentic alternative to bloated rock music, something that preserves a spirit of rebellion, anarchy, or "chaos," a true ethnic expression, or something that generates pleasant nostalgic feelings without the aggression of rap or hard rock. Many new and younger fans of blues have emerged in this recent period, and one would expect a corresponding increase in blues scholarship, with new and younger writers and new interpretations expanding, refining, revising, or challenging old information and assumptions. There has been plenty written about blues in recent years, to be sure, including a number of groundbreaking works. Most of them, however, are by writers who were already active in blues research some twenty years ago or earlier. Much of the work by newer writers, on the other hand, has been journalistic interviews and artist profiles. Many are admittedly quite good, but they largely add to the storehouse of information about blues rather than provide new interpretations. Beyond this material we observe a proliferation of photo essays and picture books, instruction guides for performers, accounts of blues history that perpetuate or even simplify old understandings, and attempts to explain the blues as a whole according to some fashionable intellectual current or by means of a theory or methodology drawn from some other field of study. Sometimes it seems as if younger and newer scholars of the blues wish to avoid tackling the wealth of material that the genre has come to offer or the wealth of information and previous interpretation about blues, its personalities, history, social context, and meaning that has been compiled over the years. The purpose of the present collection of essays is to offer new perspectives on the blues by exploring previously neglected aspects, reinterpreting familiar material, conducting broader and more scientific surveys, and exploring specific blues performances in great depth and detail. These essays are by well- established blues writers, distinguished scholars in other fields of music, and several newly emerging writers. The authors represent the diversity of backgrounds that have contributed to blues scholarship over the years: folklorists, musicologists, anthropologists, musicians, fans, and collectors. Three of them are based outside the United States, reflecting the internationalization of blues music and blues research in recent decades. The authors' approaches to the blues include fieldwork and other direct encounters, analysis of recordings, and research in the printed literature. Each of the essays is the product of careful and wide-ranging scholarship, not a brainstorm dashed off quickly. All can serve as models for future study both of the blues and other types of music. These essays include a comparative study of the blues and African music, broad surveys full of detail about solo blues guitar styles, blues nicknames, and lyric themes of disillusion in the years following World War II, an in-depth portrait of an important but neglected early blues "advocate," detailed studies of individual performances by Son House, Robert Johnson, and Ella Fitzgerald from literary and musicological perspectives, an exploration of an early phase of blues in sheet music and vaudeville prior to commercial recording, and a reinterpretation of a particular style of blues known as zydeco. Four of these essays were published previously in the journal American Music. My experience in editing them and their favorable reception among scholars prompted me to gather this larger collection and make this scholarship more accessible not just to specialists in American music but to scholars in related disciplines and the many seriously interested lovers of blues music. There has long been an assumption that blues is somehow historically related to African music. At a general level, of course, this should be an obvious fact if only due to the African ancestry and cultural inheritance of the creators of the blues. The problem has always been to identify which specific traits are African and determine how these traits can be isolated from other traits found in the same music, and which are clearly of Western derivation or are original American creations. How can we discuss African traits in the blues when there is almost a century of earlier non-blues music by African Americans between the time when the last Africans entered America and the time when the blues came into being? For many years, writers wrestled with these problems. At first they were stymied by the diversity of African music and the lack of a broad knowledge of its characteristics. Writers would sometimes discuss the music of one particular region or ethnic group as if it represented all of sub-Saharan African music, finding similarities between it and the blues or jazz. Others would hear vaguely "bluesy" characteristics here and there in African music and point to them as sources or "roots" of the blues. Few blues experts, however, had more than a superficial knowledge of African music, and few African music specialists knew much about the blues. A breakthrough came in 1970 with Paul Oliver's Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, in which the author identified a number of musical and contextual traits shared by the blues and the music of the savanna region of West Africa. In 1999 the eminent Africanist Gerhard Kubik published Africa and the Blues, undoubtedly one of the most important works of blues scholarship in the last decade. There he refined Oliver's observations and gave them a musicological basis, showing how the blues scale was created from specific African sources. InChapter 1, Kubik elaborates on some of the ideas presented in his book, isolating the concepts of bourdon and pentatonism as crucial in the formation of music with a true blues quality and showing that a "west-central Sudanic scalar template" is the likely basis for most blues scales. These scales normally contain "blue notes" at the third and seventh degrees. Kubik goes on, however, to discuss the more difficult problem of the blue note at the fifth degree of the scale and its likely African source in an extended version of the same scalar template. Mississippi blues artist Skip James' highly acclaimed 1931 recording of "Devil Got My Woman" serves as an example for discussing these issues. Using the same example, Kubik provides a somewhat more speculative analysis of possible relationships between scalar and textual elements in the blues. His observations stand entirely outside the framework of Western musicology and come from someone with field experience in seventeen African countries over more than forty years and numerous publications on many types of African music. Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff write on early blues sheet music and vaudeville performance in Chapter 2, an essay that should cause a revision in the prevailing view of blues prior to 1920, the year in which the first commercial blues recordings by black singers were made. Until recently our view of this era has been influenced by the reports of early folklorists, analysis of a small amount of sheet music, the songs and autobiographical writings of W. C. Handy, the man commonly known as the "Father of the Blues," and the later recollections of singers and musicians who had been active in this early period. Abbott and Seroff reveal a body of almost completely unexplored contemporary information about blues in the black vaudeville theater circuit drawn from black newspapers of the time, particularly the Indianapolis Freeman. We begin to visualize a vibrant professional music scene in which blues was a growing and controversial element, a scene not dominated by W. C. Handy but including many other interesting personalities, some of whom had already become stars and passed away before 1920. The authors show that popular blues was a cultural, social, and musical movement in the early years and not simply the creation of one or a few individual songwriters. They also show that blues began to enjoy widespread popularity in the South within a few years of its initial appearance as a new type of folk music, a fact that is not surprising, as the early participants in the popular blues movement were, like their audiences, little removed from a folk culture themselves. Elliott Hurwitt presents in Chapter 3 a different view of W. C. Handy by focusing on Handy's friend, advisor, and collaborator Abbe Niles. Just as Handy played an important early role in giving the blues an appeal to white American and international audiences, Niles played a parallel role in interpreting and explaining this music to the same audiences. In doing so, he became a blues advocate. In reviews, articles, and an introductory essay to a book-length blues collection by Handy, Niles expressed views and understandings that were remarkably perceptive at a time when blues was still in its early stages of development. As a fan, historian, critic, and promoter, coming to the music from outside its core culture, he paved the way for many other blues "advocates" in later years. In "The Hands of Blues Guitarists," Andrew M. Cohen offers a new treatment of an old issue. Since the 1960s one of the main approaches to the discussion of guitar-accompanied folk blues has been to categorize the material on a regional basis. Terms such as "Delta blues," "Piedmont blues," and "Texas blues" have become enshrined in the literature, indicating not only the blues of a particular place but also blues in a particular style. Most of the writing linking region and performance style has been superficial and impressionistic. Judgements made some thirty or forty years ago, when we knew much less about blues than we do now, have continued to be generally accepted by fans and scholars alike. They may, of course, prove to be essentially correct. Surprisingly, however, they have not been tested in a scientific or objective way despite the vast amount of documented musical material now available. Cohen, a guitarist with anthropological training, has taken a first step toward testing the older judgements and assumptions by constructing a sample of ninety- four blues guitarists born over a span of sixty-six years from all regions of the South. He restricts the discussion of style to a single but vital characteristic, the use of the right thumb for timekeeping and making melodic figures, demonstrating clear patterns of regional variation in the thumb's role as well as showing development of these patterns and roles over time. Cohen adds a further dimension to the discussion by correlating the players' hand postures with thumbing styles, regions, and changes over time. Ninety-four is still a relatively small segment of the total number of fingerpicking blues guitarists of whom there exist recordings or visual and biographical data. Cohen's visual and aural judgments need to be confirmed or revised by other scholars, and the sample needs to be enlarged. Whatever the final outcome, he has moved the discussion off the impressionistic level where it had stood for over thirty years, and it is likely that his approach will form the basis for future studies of this issue. One could envision the discussion of style expanded to include favorite keys and tunings, scales, other techniques besides thumbing patterns, and the vocal dimension of the music. The general approach could also be adapted to the study of other instrumental styles, particularly solo piano blues. My own essay on the nicknames of blues singers (Chapter 5) surveys a large sample of over three thousand blues artists, more than six times as large as any previous sample. It considers all artists who recorded blues between 1920 and 1970, the genre's peak years of development as an African American art form. The essay is concerned with the types of nicknames that artists have and the normal meanings of these nicknames in African American culture rather than with explanations of their origins in particular personal characteristics or experiences of the singers. It recognizes that many nicknames combine more than one meaning or can be understood on multiple symbolic levels. There are several distinct categories of nicknames and their percentages of use vary over time, especially before and after World War II. There are also significant differences in the types of nicknames held by male and female blues singers. Taken as a whole, the nicknames and their categories give a deep insight into the world of the blues and the meaning of this music within African American culture. "Preachin' the Blues," Luigi Monge's study of the text of Son House's 1930 recording of "Dry Spell Blues," is a penetrating look at one of the most unusual blues lyrics by one of the greatest artists in the genre's history. House alternated between being a preacher and a blues singer over his long life, and his personality embodied the conflict between sacred and secular values, between God and the devil. His blues songs were always serious and often deeply philosophical. He sang in a manner reminiscent of many later "soul" singers and often mentioned God in his verses, as well as another spiritual being that he called The Blues. His "Dry Spell Blues" was composed and recorded in the midst of a severe drought in his native Mississippi Delta. Monge relates House's text to this historical event and through a very precise and detailed analysis shows that it is a "blues prayer," a novel type of expression that matched House's conflicted personality. Monge also reveals a remarkable symmetrical structure to the text and multiple levels of meaning encoded within it. It shows that Son House was one of the great composers of the blues as well as a great performing artist. Robert Johnson was inspired by Son House and he is viewed by many as one of the greatest figures in the blues in the period before World War II. This opinion has received recent support from the extraordinary sales success of a boxed set of Johnson's complete recorded works more than fifty years after his death. But what is it that makes his music in general and his individual performances great? Questions like this have been addressed for many years by musicologists in the study of Western art music, especially in respect to composers, and often in great detail. In recent decades ragtime and jazz composers and performers have begun to receive similar attention. Such detailed discussion is seldom given, however, to performers of blues and other simpler types of folk and popular music. When their individual works are cited for greatness, it is usually on account of one or more fairly obvious features, such as compositional or literary originality, improvisational ability, technical virtuosity, or emotional expression. After transcribing a partly improvised performance by Robert Johnson (thus making it appear more like a composition), musicologist James Bennighof examines these and other features of the piece in detail in Chapter 7, showing how Johnson combined them to produce a work of great complexity and creativity. While we may never know Johnson's ultimate intentions with respect to this or any other piece nor all of the forces that impelled his apparently tormented genius, Bennighof's rigorous application of musicological methodology enables us to understand a few moments of this highly creative composer/performer at work. In applying this methodology, he has adapted it to the blues tradition, avoiding jargon alien to the tradition and examining relevant aspects of Johnson's life, time and place, and overall musical output. More such studies of generally acknowledged great works in the blues would be welcome. Blues is not the exclusive property of those who define themselves as blues singers and blues musicians. In our desire to treat blues as a distinct and separate musical genre with its own characteristics, historical development, and personalities, we often lose sight of the fact that throughout its history blues has interacted with other types of folk music as well as popular genres such as ragtime, jazz, country and western, gospel, rock and roll, and rap. This interaction has been a two-way street, with blues drawing musical influences and personal participation from these other musical communities as well as contributing stylistic influences and specific songs to them. Many blues tunes are embedded in these other genres, and often they enjoy great popularity there, while falling outside the purview of scholars and commentators who deal with blues in a narrower sense. A case in point is the song "St. Louis Blues." Composed and published by W. C. Handy in 1914, it became a national, and eventually international, hit in mainstream popular music¿in fact, one of the biggest hit songs of the twentieth century. For a period of several years following the publication of "St. Louis Blues," blues was a significant part of the spectrum of mainstream music. This is a fact that we easily overlook nearly a century later when blues once again enjoys this status. "St. Louis Blues" has been sung and recorded over the years by countless jazz and pop singers. The late Ella Fitzgerald was one such singer who featured this song in her repertoire. Although she is known as a jazz singer, even as one who never gave great emphasis to blues material, it would be fair to say that her versions of this song reached far more listeners than versions by most so-called blues singers. Fitzgerald's treatment of "St. Louis Blues" in one particular performance is analyzed here in detail by Katharine Cartwright in Chapter 8. The singer makes this song interesting by her use of the device of "quotation," that is, the interpolation of bits and pieces of this and other songs as performed and recorded by other singers. In using this device, Fitzgerald reveals many influences on her own style of singing. Cartwright explains these influences in a way that allows us to see Ella Fitzgerald as a truly original performer with wide ranging musical tastes, even when working with a song that many would consider to be overly familiar. The lyrics of blues songs have long been investigated by writers and commentators for the light that they can shed on African American community life and history. In the first half of the twentieth century writers tended to view these lyrics as expressions of "the Negro." Eventually they came to realize that blues represented the thought of only a segment of the African American community or even the thoughts of individuals. But whatever the case, most of the songs are shared with others and represent at least fairly widely held feelings and opinions. In "Beyond the Mushroom Cloud: A Decade of Disillusion in Black Blues and Gospel Song," Bob Groom, one of the pioneering British blues commentators of the 1960s, examines a number of blues songs composed in the decade following World War II to gauge feelings and attitudes toward contemporary events and conditions. Most previous research on blues lyrics has dealt with the period up to and including World War II, a fact that is surprising since the blues has experienced a longer history after the war than before it. Groom's article is innovative not only in exploring this more recent period but also in the sense that it reveals and examines a mood during this period, specifically a mood of disillusion. It does not merely relate a series of songs to specific historical events and trends. Writers in other fields can determine whether this mood in the blues is correlated with moods expressed in African American literature, press reports, and other vehicles of expression in the same period of time. In Chapter 10, folklorist John Minton has combined fieldwork with a study of recordings and literature to explore the origins of a regional and ethnic derivative of blues called zydeco, a style prevalent among musicians of Louisiana Creole background. In the late 1940s and early 1950s blues was bursting out from its geographical and cultural confines in the black Anglophone rural South and urban ghettos, reaching white audiences through recordings on independent labels, radio, migration, and integration. One result of this process was rock and roll, which became for a time a biracial mainstream popular music. Another group that lay in the path of blues influence at this time was French-speaking and bilingual Louisiana Creoles. This population was actually most accessible to blues influence in Texas cities, particularly Houston, where many Creoles had settled and come into contact with black Anglophone culture. Out of this contact, as Minton shows, zydeco was created. This music did not gain sigificant attention from outside the Creole community until some years later, by which time it had diffused back to the Creole homeland in South Louisiana. Its early development predominantly, if not exclusively, in Texas cities remained largely unknown outside those cities. Zydeco's advocates today associate its origins almost entirely with rural South Louisiana, where it frequently serves as a symbol of Creole ethnicity and tradition and as a lure to promote tourism and local pride. Minton's detailed examination of source material shows clearly that zydeco in its earliest manifestations was Louisiana music only in the sense that its creators had been born in Louisiana and were familiar with an older tradition of Louisiana Creole music. But to call it simply a Louisiana music without taking into consideration the urban Texas synthesis that it underwent would be like calling Chicago blues a Mississippi tradition because most of its chief practitioners came from that state. Minton's article serves as a corrective to facile assumptions and adds significantly to our knowledge of what zydeco is and where it came from. Taken together, these chapters contain some of the most innovative recent scholarship on the blues, examining it as literature, music, personal expression, and cultural product. It is hoped that they can serve as models and inspirations for future scholarship. I would like to thank all of the authors for their great patience while this collection went through the process of compilation, editing, revision, and final acceptance. I would also like to thank Judith McCulloh, Joan Catapano, Sara Luttfring, and Christina Walter at the University of Illinois Press for their editorial help and Scott L. Hines at the University of Memphis for help in assembling the final version and supplementing my meager computer skills.