Friday, December 23, 2005


One of the earliest albums I bought was, naturally enough, The Beatles' Abbey Road. The sound of this record is unique among all Beatles' records - clear, warm and open. It is by far the best sounding - as in naturalistic - Beatles' album outside of, ironically, their first album. Their first record sounds good because the primitive (by contemporary standards) recording equipment available forced an essentially live-in-the-studio performance that captures the band very well. Even the deficiencies in the bass (bass guitar and bass drum) do not hurt this record that much.

Abbey Road, in contrast, finally put The Beatles into a 16-track studio (albeit without the benefit of Dolby noise-reduction) allowing the band to forgo the repetitive mixing down to mono track that was necessary to create their multi-tracked productions from their earliest records through The Beatles. (Let It Be, recorded largely live in the studio is a different beast altogether). This created dense, compressed, recordings that were artistic triumphs but nonetheless contained elements of artificiality. Abbey Road changed the sound dramatically, and it really is a tragedy that the band collapsed before they could explore these new sonic vistas.

Nonetheless, Abbey Road spawned remarkably few records that actually capture its sound. This is a testament to George Martin's and The Beatles' production skills, but why so many early 1970s records succumbed to a murky muddiness really is a mystery. Perhaps it was an attempt to be heavy that was mostly misplaced, but few producers managed to emulate The Beatles' punchiness and clarity. Led Zeppelin did so with their fourth album, Pink Floyd with Dark Side Of The Moon. Few others though.

However, of those few others, one band managed to produce an Abbey Road-sounding record that actually rivals The Beatles' achievement. The Pretty Things' Parachute is an astonishingly fine record that confounds all expectations one might have of the band, even those generated by their prior album, S.F. Sorrow, generally accepted as the first rock opera. Much of this is due to the (temporary) departure of founding guitarist Dick Taylor and the consequential ascendancy of bassist Wally Allen and singer Phil May who brought a much more ornate pop sensibility to the band's sound. Furthermore, Parachute was actually recorded at Abbey Road studios with Beatles' engineer Norman Smith producing resulting in harmonies (particularly in the opening medley The Good Mr. Square through The Letter) that closely resemble but without in any sense aping those of The Beatles' Sun King.

But in some ways Parachute even outdoes Abbey Road, most clearly in the rockers which have an altogether dirtier and more convincing drive than those on Abbey Road even allowing that Come Together is a assured masterpiece. Cries From The Midnight Circus and Sickle Clowns hew closer to a Rolling Stones sensibility, but that band would only really rival these songs with those on their down and dirty masterpiece, Exile On Main Street. Amazingly, The Pretty Things get away with the best of both worlds on Parachute. Absolutely essential listening for anyone interested in 'classic' rock (or any rock, for that matter), Parachute is a true gem.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Lexicon Of Love

Throughout my life there have always been special albums - those records that reflect, absorb, process and refine whatever emotional state I happened to be in at the time. Once such, appearing in 1982, was ABC's The Lexicon Of Love.

I first heard this record when I was living in a miserable bedsit in Bristol with my first wife, already beginning to sense that things were not going to work out with that particular relationship (but finding myself unable to do anything about it for some years to come). A vivacious medical student friend whose name I forget brought it over and we played it as a group on my stereo which happened to the best one available to us.

I was knocked out by it, liking it immediately, and it became established as a favorite. It has continued to be so, if anything increasing in value over the years. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the very skillful production, arrangements and witty songwriting. But I have many such other records that have failed to make a similar impact. Where The Lexicon Of Love scores is in its heart - a rather deep heart that, on the surface, goes against the bright sheen of the record with its glossy Brit-soul/funk and Martin Fry's mannered vocals. Contrived it may be, but there is something more at work here, giving this record a soulfulness that is quite different from American soul music even as it draws it inspiration directly from it.

The true antecedents of this sound lie in the explorations of the British band Roxy Music throughout the 1970s. Roxy Music are going to become, if they are not already so, one of the most important rock bands in the history of the music because they were the first musicians to successfully meld glam, progressive and 1970s soul influences into a coherent European form of dance/soul music. Almost single handedly, Roxy Music laid the groundwork for the European dance music that coalesced in the 1980s and has continued to thrive, with ups and downs, to this day.

ABC were an early manifestion of this burgeoning style, and The Lexicon Of Love deserves to be considered in specifically English terms (certainly the lyrics make no concession to Americanisms) and the record is best appreciated in the knowledge of the social and political climate that dominated the United Kingdom in the early 1980s - Thatcherism, high unemployment and shattered hopes for many young people. Hence the underlying cynicism and weariness that characterizes much the lyrical content, and the very careful arrangements that suggest both excitement and ennui at the same time. A Roxy Music speciality this, and no easy accomplishment.

ABC would make a much more overtly political record with Beauty Stab, a glorious mistake that squandered their strengths (but was scarcely the disaster that critical reputation has given it), but the message is quite clear in their first record. Lexicon questions the basic assumptions not only of society but also those of the individual living in it. Such a personal message was - and is - very compelling to anyone, such as myself, who was coming to terms with the collapse of dreams and hopes. As such it secured a place in my heart.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The spirit that characterizes the American Man

Purely national music has no place in art. What negro melodies have to do with Americanism still remains a mystery to me. Why cover a beautiful thought with the badge of slavery rather than with the stern but at least manly and free rudeness of the North American Indian?.... Masquerading in the so-called nationalism of Negro clothes cut in Bohemia will not help us. What we must arrive at is the youthful optimistic vitality and the undaunted tenacity of spirit that characterizes the American Man.

An interesting quote by Edward MacDowell, presumably emanating from around the 1890s, that is reproduced in the liner notes to the Naxos CD of MacDowell's two Orchestral Suites (Naxos 8.559075). MacDowell has a reputation of being the most "Europeanized" of American composers active at this time, and consequently has been marginalized as most distinctive American composers, Ives, Griffes, even Gottschalk, came into critical favor. Certainly MacDowell's music comes solidly out of the European, mostly Central European, late-Romantic tradition and even his conscious nods to an American identity - e.g. the Orchestral Suite No. 2, the "Indian" - could just as easily been composed by a European composer as an American.

Pushing this aside though, and simply considering MacDowell's music as music, it is very attractive. If an unabashedly Romantic composer such as the Englishman Arnold Bax can be resurrected and appreciated today, so equally can Edward MacDowell. The suites are prime examples of mythologically-informed tone painting, rich and harmonically lush. The assumed Indian melodies that inform the 2nd Suite are treated solidly within the European Romantic tradition, losing any cultural otherworldliness in the process, but generating entirely satisfactory music. On its own terms these are very convincing works and deserve to be heard again.

But back to the quote. MacDowell is clearly entirely a man of his time. He has absorbed the prevailing wisdom and prefers not to question it. The implicit racism and white supremacy contained within even this fairly innocuous statement were very much contemporary sentiments. Perhaps this lack of questioning is at the core of his failure to stamp an American identity on music. The more visionary American composers of the time, although not necessarily any more culturally or racially enlightened than MacDowell, give a sense of attempting to look deeper into the roots of their thinking that suggests an unease with the assumptions that govern their status in American society. They show a willingness to look beyond the obvious and the acceptable. At least in today's values, this is much more the spirit that charactizes the best of the American Man.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Noise Of Carpet

The gloriously expanded sound world of popular music that opened up in the 1980s and has continued to this very day is both an opportunity and a restriction for contemporary musicians.

To make music that sounds fresh today when so much ground has already been covered requires a far more developed sense of musicality than was necessary in the past. Previously, ploughing a genre furrow was enough - the style itself was fresh enough to sustain interest. That's no longer the case. To succeed today requires different skills; the ability to pull the essence out of well-worn forms and weave a new fabric. This is a tough challenge. Personally, I believe this has pushed the sheer artistry of the best new pop music to even higher levels than we've seen before. Sadly I don't think this is recognized, particularly by members of my generation (late 50's baby-boom) many of whom remain solidly wedded to the past.

All of which is a preamble to an appreciation of one of my favorite late 20th century bands, Stereolab.

In many ways Stereolab's music echoes that of Adam Faith recorded 35 years earlier - it is pop music, solidly constructed and seemingly unchallenging, but nonetheless individual and subversive in its own way. Rooting their sound in the German progressive bands of the 1970s such a Can, with elements of the British Canterbury art rock scene (Soft Machine in particular) thrown in for good measure, Stereolab nonetheless almost completely eshew the aesthetic of that period. Instead a solidly 1960s lounge groove is embraced, complete with singsong vocals and muzak-derived harmonies. However these are totally transformed by the repetitive, minimalist, treatment that they get. The result is unique. Rarely is a band more distinctly defined by its sound. I love it.

Adam Faith

One of the best side-effects of the two music courses I took in 2005 was the infusion into my record collection of a vast amount of new music, much of it music that was unlikely to have been bought by me under normal circumstances.

One of these artists, purchased solely to give me some sense of the British pop scene before The Beatles broke through, was Adam Faith. I picked up a single CD set of his greatest hits expecting nothing much more than featherweight pop.

In fact, much of it is precisely that. But what unusual feathers. Before Faith changed his sound to that of Merseybeat after that scene broke through, he specialized in a series of mid or slow-tempo pop songs backed primarily by orchestra with a light pop rhythm. A recipe for unbearable schmaltz? On the surface, yes, but Faith's musical arranger happened to be none other than John Barry, shortly to shoot to worldwide fame on the basis of the early James Bond movies.

Barry's arrangements are truly subversive. Yes, there are twee pizzicato strings galore, but sometimes there is really hot electric guitar, a pointedly 'country'-style fiddle, bass-harmonicas - the latter usually associated with Brian Wilson and The Beatles' output from the mid-1960s - and other touches that move these songs right out of the conventional pop song style and into something both charming and captivating.

In many ways, when Faith toughened his sound to meet The Beatles (something he does very successfully in conjunction with The Roulettes), as much is lost as is gained. When, for example, you hear on "Poor Me" a chorus singing that undulating harmony that is much better known as the James Bond theme, you feel pop cultural markers being turned upside down and inside-out. That is worth a lot.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Blues Guitar/Singers - a brief survey

Another response to a project question for my American Music course. It's a shame I can't put the music up to go with it, but it's well worth tracking down. Listening is worth a thousand words.

Q. Collect recorded examples of at least three blues-guitarist singers. Describe and compare their original guitar technique and styles, especially in their treatment of the “breaks”.

On the face of it, this is relatively simple assignment. One can easily find three blues guitarists who, on the surface, seem to have original and unique styles and ‘break’ or solo in a distinctive manner. But, as I thought about this more and more, I began to consider the underlying assumptions behind this question.

Firstly, just what is ‘original’? Original in terms of difference from prior performing styles or original in terms of technique? To answer this question fairly, one needs an encyclopedic knowledge of blues guitar forms. Reading any album note, you’ll find names of influential musicians dropped everywhere. Does this mean that to find a truly ‘original’ blues musician, you have to return to the dawn of the music? Perhaps – and perhaps not.

Secondly, I began to wonder exactly what a blues-guitarist singer is. Obviously there is a vocal component. Equally obviously there is a guitar component. But what else, and if there is something else, what role does it play? If one considers the blues, and certainly on listening to it you get this impression, as an effective melodic ‘call and response’ interplay between the voice and instruments or instruments, how is that practically realized? Then there are the harmonic and rhythmic components of the blues song. Are these to be carried on the guitar as well, or allocated elsewhere?

Already we see a marked complexity emerging as we consider the blues guitarist-singer. The temptation, then, would be to restrict this study to the singer-guitarist who works with no other instrument, either on his own account or by adding extra musicians. But that would be restrictive, and missing many ways that a guitar can be used to play blues.

So lets us begin with a musician who stands on the threshold between older African-American musical styles and the blues. A musician who recorded very few blues songs, preferring minstrel, vaudeville, dance tunes (square dances), and ‘rag’ ditties[1].

The exact birthdate of Henry Thomas seems to be unknown, but is conjectured to be 1874. This would put him in into his fifties by the time he recorded 24 songs, only four of which are blues. One of these is Texas Easy Street[2] . Aside from a short introduction which establishes the characteristic blues harmonic progression, the guitar is used as rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment to the voice. Where the voice drops out, the guitar is used solely to maintain the flow of the song. There is a call and response component, illustrated 54 seconds into the recording, where Thomas sings:

Oooooh, tell me what is the matter now? – ain’t nothing the matter

Please tell me what is the matter now? – tell you what, nothing’s the matter

I’m going back to Texas

Live on Easy Street

Another blues by Thomas, Bull Doze Blues[3] , does contain instrumental breaks – but not on the guitar. Here Thomas uses quills, a pan-pipe-like instrument used often in American South but apparently under-recorded, to provide a catchy, distinctive introduction and a singing melodic response to his vocals. Transferring such melodic elements to the guitar would require a playing technique that could provide rhythm, harmony and melody.

Ironically, it appears that some of this movement towards solo accompaniment was driven by commercial considerations. Record companies preferred to record black blues musicians on their own – it was cheaper that way. Many early blues musicians would normally perform with a string band[4]. A field recording of one such was made by Alan Lomax in 1941. This features Son House (guitar, vocal) with Fiddlin’ Joe Martin (mandolin, vocal interjections), Willie Brown (guitar) and Leroy Williams (harmonica).

The first thing that strikes you about this recording of Walking Blues[5] is how busy it sounds. Over a moderately paced rhythmic strumming, you hear frenetic mandolin, second guitar runs, and impassioned harmonica (the train – horn at 1’ 48”, wheels at 2’ 08” was accidental but a wonderful sound effect nonetheless). House’s vocal delivery stands in complete contrast to Thomas’s more measured performance. House swoops, hollers, growls, moans and slurs all around the lyric. Much in the manner of a Southern black preacher in full flow. The song seems on the verge of collapse from time to time but holds together. Remove the backing band, and how is House going to replicate this?

The answer is to make the guitar sing as much as possible while maintaining a driving rhythm and the basic harmonic underpinning. On the 1930 recording, Preaching The Blues Parts 1 & 2[6] , House uses a bottleneck or slide to generate a sliding and singing high note sound, while slashing at the guitar to generate a fierce and forceful, yet flexible, rhythm. Note how he uses a steady foot tap (evident in Part 1, not in Part 2) over which the guitar drops syncopated chords. In this way, he makes his guitar talk to him and to us, carry the harmony, and give the song a series of powerful rhythmic surges.

House does not greatly vary his melodic responses to each of his bellowed lines greatly, in essence sticking to a single riff, but there are subtle fluctuations in rhythm and attack that maintain musical interest. The sole break occurs in Part 2 at 5’ 05”, and is marked more than anything else by a heightened rhythmic insistence, giving the song a rocking quality.

Son House was one of the first blues artists to make commercial recordings, and these influenced later blues men such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Indeed, his records are so forceful it is hard to see how any blues guitarist who heard them would not be influenced. But House’s approach is not the only way to make an acoustic guitar talk the blues – or emulate a string band. Consider the approach Blind Lemon Jefferson uses for his oft-covered Matchbox Blues[7] (1927) . Here was also have an insistent guitar rhythm over steady foot tapping, but Lemon does not slash and attack the guitar with anything approaching House’s ferocity. Instead, Jefferson uses the guitar to embellish his vocals, which are noticeably smoother (although still impassioned) than those of House. Jefferson fingerpicks runs all around his vocals (much in the style of mandolin playing, good example at 2’ 39”). He varies his accompaniment constantly, even introducing boogie-woogie riffs (at 1’ 30” and 2’13”). Much more melodic action on the guitar here than with the House recording, which, in turn, is rhythmically more forceful. Two artists generating individual styles by altering the blend of the guitar’s melodic and rhythmic qualities to complement their differing vocal styles. Another outstandingly proficient blues guitarist, Blind Willie McTell, finger-picks in a decorous style with fast arpeggio runs, stylistically hewing closer to Anglo-American folk styles, as illustrated in Statesboro Blues[8], recorded in 1928. The stylistic variation among these early blues guitarists is as individual as their singing voices, and one could devote a book to them. The most famous and lauded acoustic blues singer/guitarist was Robert Johnson who laid down most his recordings late in the acoustic blues recording boom. Phonograph Blues[9] is illustrative both of Johnson’s strumming/picking style that combines styles ranging from Son House through Blind Willie McTell, as well as a telling comment that Johnson was learning his licks from existing recordings. Technology was helping broaden the bluesman’s influences far beyond the confines of his region.

The 1920s and 1930s saw considerable demographic changes among the African-American population. Seeking better paying jobs and a daily existence that was not smothered by the overwhelming taint of institutionalized racism, large numbers of blacks migrated north to the big cities such as Chicago and Detroit. Cities provided clubs and steady work for the musicians who followed this migration. The close proximity of these clubs allowed musicians to check each other out, listen and jam.

The blues guitar playing underwent a radical change at the end of the 1930s. Two factors, one musical and one technical, lay behind this. Firstly, jazz music had co-opted blues forms and had generated a series of outstanding blues musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Earl Hines. But these were primarily trumpet, saxophone and piano players – musicians who could solo above a drum and bass rhythm section and still be heard. The quieter acoustic guitar was suited more for the role of rhythm. All this changed with the introduction of electrically powered amplification that, for the first time, allowed a guitar to be clearly heard above the propulsive rhythm section. One of the very earliest, if not the earliest, electric guitar blues was performed by jazz guitarist, trombonist and arranger Eddie Durham. Good Mornin’ Blues[10] from 1938 is a good example of jazz blues playing. Over a swing solid rhythm, courtesy of Count Basie’s rhythm section, Durham solos along with trumpet player Buck Clayton and bassist Walter Page, and provides warm, resonant harmonic underpinning elsewhere. His solo, 38 seconds into the song, packs a lot into a short period of time. A swift introductory phrase moves into lower register picking, then climbs up, utilizing both picked notes and strummed chords, and ends on a fast flourish. It’s perfectly proportioned and fits seamlessly into the overall jazz performance.

It’s worth emphasizing the radical differences that amplification allowed. With the introduction of a jazz-derived rhythm section, the guitarist was freed from rhythmic and harmonic duties if he wished to be. He could now solo freely in much the same way as a horn player.

Whether Eddie Durham prompted blues guitarist T-Bone Walker to switch form acoustic to electric or whether he picked it simply because ‘it was in the air’, the result was a series of groundbreaking performances that, growing from similar jazz roots, provided a stylistic blueprint for much of later blues and rock and roll guitar grew. With Walker, the electric guitar assumed an overarching prominence.

All of this in evidence in one of Walker’s earliest recordings Mean Old World[11], cut in 1942. After a brief descending chordal strummed introduction, T-Bone solos throughout the first verse of the blues, introducing phrases that would be recycled endlessly in blues and rock playing. He plays on and around the beat, leaves holes in the music, and 30 seconds into the song introduces a signature up-tempo flurry of notes that creates a rush of excitement – and would form one of the bedrocks of Chuck Berry’s playing style and, thus by extension, practically all of rock and roll guitar. At 43 seconds, he sets up a brief high register ostinato, again generating musical tension and excitement. By the time he starts singing, you have been completely drawn into the performance and he continues to punctuate his vocals with apt guitar phrases, fast finger picked runs or bell-like chords or simply no guitar at all. T-Bone, like the finest musicians, knows the value of silence.

T-Bone Walker’s style was a major influence on a far more celebrated blues guitarist/singer, B.B. King, as is evident from this 1951 recording Three O’Clock Blues[12] but that’s hardly a bad thing. Note the horn backing, again illustrating the invigorating influence of jazz upon the blues, but now integrated into the musical texture to provide a solid backdrop over which King sings and solos. From this, King’s playing evolved a highly individual high register stinging tone that soars above the increasingly loud amplified rhythm sections of 1950’s R&B bands. It is a style capable of floating evocatively over a ‘60s soul string and electric piano arrangement such as is found on The Thrill Is Gone[13].

One supremely individual blues electric guitar stylist emerged out the Detroit scene. John Lee Hooker was a throwback to the acoustic guitar styles of the deep South, but he chose to play them on the electric guitar. Thus Boogie Chillun [14] from 1949 emerges a beast clearly in the acoustic tradition, but the single string-led riffing – a riff that one might find on the horns in a small band and that continues throughout the whole song, punctuated only by rapidly strummed high register chords - is loud and in your face. Changing the dynamic between the voice and the accompaniment gives the performance a charged quality, hypnotic in its effect. Likewise the more conventional delta style – in a Robert Johnson/Delta Blues tradition – that Hooker uses on Crawling King Snake[15] emerges as altogether more menacing in this electric performance. These recordings provide yet another blueprint for the rock styles that would emerge most prominently in the 1960s and beyond.

So far finger picking, riffing and strumming. What happens if you add a blues bottleneck or slide to the electric guitar? Look no further than Elmore James. I Believe[16] , recorded in 1952, illustrates James’ roaring slide playing, drawn from Robert Johnson’s acoustic slide, that dominates the rocking small R&B group. Again, insistent ostinato guitar patterns underlie the performance, heavy with the vibrato that only a slide can produce, generating tension that releases only as the blues verses resolve. Plus it is in-your-face loud!

Listening to later performances by blues artists, it’s clear that whatever sheer musicianship is involved in placing the notes or generating a distinctive individual tone, almost everything that you hear has its clear antecedents in the music. Perhaps only in the 1960s was there a re-infusion of truly original creativity into blues guitar playing, and much of this was the product of even more technological innovation in the electric guitar. Although blues guitarist were not averse to making good use of the sonic qualities generated by a malfunctioning amp, truly reproducible electronic enhancements were the by-product of the burgeoning electronic music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Hitherto uncontrolled elements, such as amplifier feedback, achieved startling precision in the hands of a guitarist such as Peter Green. The Supernatural[17], a track recorded in 1967 with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an extraordinary example of controlled sustain (and a track that is a blueprint for Carlos Santana’s entire early career!). Note that this is an instrumental. Whether by accident or by design, the close link between guitar playing and singing established by the earliest pioneers was progressively loosened as the blues moved through the R&B phase of the 1940s and 1950s and this continued as blues became integrated into rock. Simply, there were not very many rock blues singers who could play guitar well and vice versa.

One exception towers above them all. The musician who most definitively blended a large gamut of electronic sounds into blues guitar playing is, of course, Jimi Hendrix. No recording better illustrates this than Voodoo Child (Slight Return)[18] with its opening wah-wah effects, crashingly distorted chords and waves of highly amplified sound permeating the performance. Yet this is still guitar blues. Hendrix also brought a highly individual singing style to his performances, laconic rather than impassioned in the Son House manner, but the contrast suited his guitar technique perfectly.

On one level, we could leave this overview just where it stands. But that would by most unsatisfying and the true reward of any undertaken project is the unexpected insight. This brief but intense listening survey has served to finally answer a conundrum that has bothered me ever since I was a young man – why are so many lengthy rock, blues, boogie and heavy metal guitar performances so stupefyingly boring? Finally I have the answer. The most convincing blues performances rely on maintaining a balance between the rock solid harmonic underpinning of the blues structure and the tension-generating methods of playing that have been elucidated above. Most extended rock performances fall into the trap of over-extending the stock guitar motifs and/or losing the solidity of the blues harmonic base. In live performance – when the very high volume levels effectively amplify every overtone to produce effectively a grounding drone – or under the influence of mind altering drugs, these musical shortcomings may not be shortcomings at all. But removed from such environments, the music – and I am thinking of the live recordings of Cream as an example here – falls flat.

Only one extended blues-rock recording convinces me on all levels and that is The Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray[19]. Sister Ray, which is based on a basic blues chord pattern much in the manner of Louie Louie, succeeds completely not least because John Cale, importing drone and monotony techniques drawn directly from LaMonte Young’s Dream Syndicate, establishes a true trance-like atmosphere. But above Cale’s organ cacophony (Cale very carefully generates his extreme dissonance by progressively modifying the basic blues chords of the song), we hear blues licks galore, and seven and a half minutes into the performance a perfectly proportioned blues guitar solo, rich in sustain and feedback, from Lou Reed. A second solo at 13’ 25” is even more stunning, not least because Maureen Tucker’s drumming, which has been maintaining a steady foot tap throughout, starts to break up and the rhythm guitar is progressively amplified giving us a series of Son House-style slashing chords. This is one performance from a band (that is not considered a blues-rock band at all!) that suggests a deep and profound understanding of the music. Nor would Lou Reed be considered a blues singer, but his vocal style is not that far removed from Jimi Hendrix and again suits perfectly the extraordinary noise that his band generated. I have played this track perhaps over one thousand times since I first came across it in the early 1970s, and still find surprises and extraordinary touches within. Tracing the roots of the blues as I have done here is revealing many more.

[1] Calt, Stephen. Liner notes to Henry Thomas – Texas Worries Blues, Yazoo CD 1080/0 1989

[2] From Henry Thomas – Texas Worries Blues, Yazoo CD 1080/0 1989

[3] From Henry Thomas – Texas Worries Blues, Yazoo CD 1080/0, 1989

[4] Lomax, Alan. Notes from CD The Land Where The Blues Began Rounder CD 82121-1861-2, 2002

[5] House, Son, with Fiddlin’ Joe Martin, Willie Brown & Leroy Williams Walking Blues from The Land Where The Blues Began Rounder CD 82121-1861-2, 2002

[6] House, Son from Blues Masters, Volume 8:Mississippi Delta Blues Rhino R2 71130

[7] Jefferson, Blind Willie Matchbox Blues from The Best Of Blind Lemon Jefferson Yazoo 2057

[8] McTell, Blind Willie Statesboro Blues from The Classic Years 1227-1940: Atlanta JSP Records 77114

[9] Johnson, Robert Phonograph Blues (Take 2) from The Complete Recordings Columbia Legacy C2K 46222

[10] Kansas City Six featuring Eddie Durham, Good Mornin’ Blues from Away From Base JSP Records 923C

[11] Walker, T-Bone Mean Old World from The Original Source – T-Bone Blues Proper Records Properbox 38

[12] King, B.B. Three O’Clock Blues from The Modern Records Blues Story Fuel Records 302 061 345 2

[13] King, B.B. The Thrill Is Gone from Anthology MCA 088 112 410-2. Interestingly the original version of this song by Roy Hawkins was a contemporary release on Modern Records with King’s Three O’Clock Blues

[14] Hooker, John Lee Boogie Chillen from The Modern Records Blues Story Fuel Records 302 061 345 2

[15] Hooker, John Lee Crawling King Snake from The Classic Early Years 1948-1951 JSP Records JSPCD7703

[16] James, Elmore I Believe from Blues Masters, Volume 8:Mississippi Delta Blues Rhino R2 71130

[17] Mayall, John with Peter Green The Supernatural from London Blues 1964-1969 Deram P2 44302

[18] Hendrix, Jimi Voodoo Child (Slight Return) from Electric Ladyland Reprise W2-6307

[19] The Velvet Underground Sister Ray from Peel Slowly And See Polydor 31452 7078-2

Monday, December 12, 2005

They don't write 'em like they used to

Another essay project from my recent music course - Early Ragtime and Blues lyrics.

It was something of a surprise to read, in Edward Berlin’s contribution to Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music[1], that ragtime in its heyday is not typified by renditions of piano gems such as Joplin’s The Entertainer and Maple Leaf Rag, but rather by a large and very popular set of songs. Considering that the only song I, and probably most other people, associate with ragtime is Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a song that isn’t even in ragtime – it’s clear that we are dealing with largely buried history here. The early blues songs may also be largely unknown outside of W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues but at least there is a sense that the song was the fundamental manifestation of the blues, even as the form was incorporated into the developing instrumental style of early New Orleans jazz. So why bury ragtime song?

The answer is not in the music clearly. The ragtime revival that began in the 1940s and gathered pace ever since has reintegrated ragtime instrumental music into the vernacular idiom, where is remains popular if not massively so. But the songs have died, and the reason has to lie with the texts. It is instructive here to introduce a song that is considered one of the first, if not the first, ragtime songs. From the pen of African-American songwriter, Ben Harney, we have the 1895 song All Coons Look Alike To Me and this chorus:

All coons like alike to me

I’ve got another beau, you see,

And he’s just as good to me

As you, nig! ever tried to be,

He spends his money free[2]

Not a song that most performers would be comfortable with today. The sad fact is that a large number of ragtime songs are also what came to be called coon songs, and the main lyrical content is based on an outgrowth of the minstrel song’s stereotypical and dehumanizing view of the African-American. An outgrowth that seems even more starkly racist and degrading, in that the stereotype is more negatively drawn and what initially might across as amusement has turned to ridicule and belittlement. And yet, these words came from the hand of an African-American, and Harney was not the only example. Why?

The reason is quite simple. These songs sold. In fact, they were so popular that newspapers included free coon song sheet music in their Sunday supplements, thereby spreading the coon song throughout middle class America[3]. They clearly amused and delighted the predominantly white audience that played and listened to these songs. In doing so, they tell us a great deal about contemporary white society’s attitude to the black man that was clearly patronizing at best and contemptuous and hateful at worst. The fact that an African-American composer such as Harney was able to make some money through these debasing songs might seem like small compensation, but in reality it was a sign of significant financial empowerment of African-Americans in the entertainment industry that compensates in some ways for the acceptance of the negative stereotype. But that was a high price to pay.

So if the ragtime song began and flourished as a series of racist generalizations aimed to amuse whites, where does the concurrently developing blues song fit into this?

The most important point to make about the blues song, and one that is responsible entirely for its character and content, is that it is a song aimed at the African-American listener. Blues was not a music for whites. Indeed it was not even a music for educated middle-class blacks. W.C. Handy may be known as ‘the father of the blues’, but he was ignorant of the music until he came across it in a Southern railway station as an adult. This illustrates the deep folk roots of blues music, and blues songs share the characteristics of folk songs. They are songs about real people, their real lives and their real feelings. There are lyrical conventions and poetical formulae in blues songs, but these serve to support the reality conveyed in the lyric, whereas similar structural elements in the coon song serve to prop up the stereotype.

The coon song survived only as long as it was publicly acceptable to voice such sentiments, and as ragtime developed the public taste for such songs diminished. Ironically, the continuing distaste generated by such songs has led to their expulsion from collections of 1890s songs, such as Favorite Songs Of The Nineties[4]. One can understand this from a political point of view, but it creates bad history that mirrors the selective forgetfulness that applies to much of the chronicle of the slaves and their descendents in the United States. How can one hope to understand if one does not know?

A different kind of forgetfulness applies to the blues song. Largely insulated from commercial consideration until the explosion wrought by the recording industry in the mid-1920s, it developed as a folk music, indifferent to commercial concerns and very much dependent on the oral method of promulgation. Unfortunately, the inherent fragility of maintaining music in this way makes for a spotty history. One is always struck by how the blues appears to spring fully formed, like a Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus, into the vernacular of the fin-de-si├Ęcle. One would suppose, though, that the form existed, evolved and was promulgated through African-American society well before it was transcribed or recorded. Such pre-blues developments died with their practitioners, leading only tantalizing clues with a handful of black musicians who lived long enough and were fortunate enough to be recorded[5].

So what we have to work with when we compare these songs is inevitably restricted by the mask of history. Nonetheless, there is enough to get a feel for the differences between the texts of the blues and the ragtime song.

Frankly, there is no better place to begin with than All Coons Look Alike To Me[6]:

Verse 1.

Talk about a coon a having trouble

I thing I have enough of ma own

Its all about ma Lucy Janey Stubbles

And she has caused my heart to mourn

Thar's anotherer coon barber from Virginia

In soei'ty he's the leader of the day

And now ma honey gal is gwine to quit me

Yes she’s gone and drove this coon away

She'd no excuse, To turn me loose,

I've been abused, I'm all confused

Cause these words she did say


All coons like alike to me

I’ve got another beau, you see,

And he’s just as good to me

As you, nig! ever tried to be,

He spends his money free

Verse 2.

Never said a word to hurt her feelings

always bou't her presents by the score

And now my brain with sorrow am a reeling

Cause she won't accept them any more

If I treated her she may have loved me,

Like all the rest she's gone and let me down

If I'm luck-y I'm a gwine to catch my policy

And win my sweet thing way from town

For I'm worried, Yes I'm desp'rate

I've been Jonahed, And I'll get dang'rous

Repeat Chorus

Hogan’s song does make one attempt to lift itself up, I've been Jo-nahed, And I'll get dang'rous, with the biblical reference and the sense that the story is not over yet. Furthermore, he is clearly sufficiently prosperous to have established a life-insurance policy. This puts it outside the mainstream of ragtime coon songs where even a narrative is jettisoned, and the song serves simply to stereotype. Other songs clearly tip the balance in favor of white supremacy. For example Coon! Coon! Coon![7], published in 1900 by Gene Jefferson and Leo Friedman with the completely unedifying lyric:


Although it’s not my color

I'm feeling mighty blue

I've got a lot of trouble,

I'll tell it all to you

I'm certainly clean disgusted

With life, and that's a fact

Because my hair is woolly

And because my color's black

My gal she took a notion

Against the colored race

She said if I would win her

I'd have to change my face

She said if she should wed me

That she's regret it soon

And now I'm shook, yes, good and hard

Because I am a coon


Coon! Coon Coon!

I wish my color would fade

Coon! Coon! Coon!

Morning night and noon

I wish I was a white man

'Stead of a

Coon! Coon! Coon! Coon!


I've had my face enameled

I've had my hair made straight

I dressed up like a white man

And certainly did look great

Then started out to see her

Just shortly after dark

But on the way to meet my babe

I had to cross a park

Just as I was thinking

I had things fixed up right

I passed a tree where two doves

Sat making love at night

They stopped and looked me over

I saw my finish soon

When both those birds said good and loud


Repeat Chorus[8]

The first year of the 20th century can fairly be said to represent a nadir in the fortunes of African-Americans and no better social commentary than “Coon! Coon! Coon!” could be found to illustrate the point. With the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy vs. Ferguson, racial discrimination was legalized, and local governments on Southern states lost no time in disenfranchising African-American citizens of their voting rights. Jim Crow laws codified endlessly humiliating forms of discrimination, and lynch mobs and the growing Ku Klux Klan terrorized and murdered. In 1900 alone, 107 African-Americans were killed by white mobs[9].

Ragtime coon songs persisted well into the new century, but as the years went by, some of the more vicious language was moderating. A new genre, the “jungle song” emerged to rival the coon song, most prominently Under The Bamboo Tree by Cole & Johnson:

Down in the jungles lived a maid

Of royal blood though dusky shade

A marked impression once she made

Upon a Zulu from Matabooloo

And every morning he would be

Down underneath a bamboo tree

Awaiting there his love to see

And then to her he’s sing


If you lak-a-me, lak I lak a-you

And we lak-a-both the same

I lak-a say, this very day

I lak-a-change your name

Cause I love-a-you and love-a-you true

And if you-a love-a me

One love as two, two live as one

Under the bamboo tree[10]

Another later and perhaps less celebrated example is The Aba Daba Honeymoon by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan “as featured by Ruth Roye, The Princess of Ragtime”.[11] This, at least, had the good graces to shift the subject from African to simian:

‘Way down in the Congo-land

Lived a happy chimpanzee

She loved a monkey with a long tail

(Lordy, how she loved him!)

Each night he would find her there

Swinging in the cocoanut tree

And the monkey gay, with the break of day

Loved to hear his Chimpie say


Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab

Said the Chimpie to the Monk,

Baba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab

Said the Monkey to the Chimp

All night long they were happy and gay

Swinging and singing in their hunky, tonkey way

Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab

means “Monk I do love you”

“Baba, daba, dab” in monkey talk

means “Chimp, I love you too”

Then the big baboon, one night in June

He married them, and very soon

They went up on their

Aba, daba honey moon, moon

And they say they don’t write ‘em like they used to…(Flintstones excepted)! The lyrics of both these songs are infantile – these are practically nursery rhymes, but, and perhaps as a consequence, became widely known. So much so, as Berlin points out, that T.S. Eliot parodies the style in his poem “Fragment of an Agon”[12] – although this seems hardly necessary given the element of self-parody already present in these songs. Coon ragtime songs did not die out under with the new fad for “jungle” songs, but, again, there was strong evidence of moderation in tone. Consider Herm Siewert and E. Gil Perry’s The Coon-Town Rag[13](1913)

Down across a border lives a ragtime coon

Who plays upon a banjo such a ragtime tune

We slides and sways as he sings and plays

Such a syncopated trance

And I’m gone, that’s all

When that man does call

Oh that Coontown Rag, Coontown Rag

Don’t you want to come and dance that Moontown Rag

First you wiggle then you giggle, dance it now

If you don’t know how it’s done

Come to me, I’ll show you how.

Dance it here, dance it there

Make you think you’re doing a ‘Bear’

Spoontown , Loontown

Oh that Coontown Rag

Oh that Rag

Here we have the crazy loon who makes music to put you in a wonderfully altered state. Presumably a white authored song, one can sense the yearning to partake of this magic, underscoring the ambivalence of the white man who senses attractive qualities here beyond his natural understanding. This may not seem like much, but the change from downright derision to a kind of admiration is a long step.

Ironically (or perhaps not), having reached this level, the craze for ragtime song faded away. The later high water mark was a song that is perhaps the most famous ragtime song of all, Alexander’s Ragtime Band - a song that is really ragtime in name only. By this time the term ragtime had spread to cover all swinging popular music[14]. Including early blues songs. W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues is subtitled A Southern Rag, and his Yellow Dog Blues was originally titled Yellow Dog Rag. So it would be instructive to examine these early songs, rags in name only, to see how they compare lyrically with what we have seen so far.

The Memphis Blues:[15]

You want to be my man, you got to give me forty dollars down

You want to be my man, you’ll give me forty dollars down

If you don’t be my man, your baby’s gonna shake this town

Mister Crump don’t ‘low no easy riders here

Crump don’t ‘low no easy riders here

We don’t care what Mr. Crump don’t ‘low

We gonna bar’lhouse any how

Mr. Crump can go and catch hiself some air

I'm goin' down the river goin' down the river

Goin' to take my rockin' chair

Goin' to the river goin' to take my rockin' chair

Blues overtake me, goin' to rock away from here

Oh de Mississippi river, Mississippi river so deep and wide

I said the Mississippi river's so deep and wide

Man I love he is on the other side

The Yellow Dog Blues (Yellow Dog Rag)

E'er since Miss Susan Johnson lost her Jockey, Lee

There has been much excitement, more to be;

You can hear her moaning night and morn.

Wonder where my Easy Rider's gone?

Cablegrams come of sympathy

Telegrams go of inquiry

Letters come from down in "Bam"

And everywhere that Uncle Sam

Has even a rural delivery.

All day the phone rings

But it's not for me,

At last good tidings

Fill our hearts with glee,

This message comes from Tennessee.


Dear Sue your Easy Rider struck this burg today

On a south bound rattler side door Pullman car

Seen him there an' he was on the hog.

(The smoke was broke, no joke,

Not a Jitney on him)

Easy rider's got a stay away

So he had to vamp it but the hike ain't far.

He's gone where the Southern 'cross' the Yellow Dog.

I know the Yellow Dog District like a book,

Indeed I know the route that rider took

Every cross-tie, Bayou, burg and bog.

Way down where the Southern cross' the Dog,

Money don't zactly grow on trees

On cotton stalks it grows with ease;

No race horse, race track, no grandstand

Is like Old Beck an Buck shot land,

Down where the Southern cross' the Dog.

Every kitchen there is a cabaret

Down there the Boll Weevil works

While the darkies play

This Yellow Dog Blues

The live-long day.

What we notice here? Well, firstly there is absolutely no mention whatsoever of the word coon! The only descriptive noun for the black man is the relatively neutral darkies. Consequently, neither song is condescending nor patronizing, and the protagonists are described in terms that reflect their real status as human beings. In many ways, this is the most important and significant difference of all, for everything else that follows in the blues relies on the deep seriousness with which the songs treat the humanity of the African American. Not that the blues cannot be humorous, deprecatory or afraid to reveal the darker side of living, but in every case the sentiment is grounded in real life.

Secondly, the lyrics reveal in much richer detail the minutiae of African-American life. W.C. Handy is probably a songwriter more akin to A.P. Carter than a truly original spirit – both artists were sensitive to the music around them, and then slightly distilled it to produce their songs. Thus, with Handy we first come across much of the terminology that fills blues songs – the easy rider[16]of Yellow Dog Blues is a good example here. The famous St. Louis Blues[17] introduces jelly-roll[18] (below)

I hate to see de ev’nin’ sun go down,

I hate to see de ev’nin’ sun go down,

'Cause ma baby, he done lef dis town.

Feelin’ tomorrow, lak ah feel today,

Feel tomorrow, lak ah feel today,

I'll pack my trunk, make ma git-a-way.

St. Louis woman, wid her diamon’ rings,

Pulls dat man roun’ by her apron strings.

‘Twant fer for powder and fer store-bought hair,

De man ah love would not gone nowhere, nowhere.


Got de St. Louis blues, jes as blue as ah can be,

Dat man's got a heart lak a rock cast in the sea,

Or else he wouldn't have gone so far from me.

I loves dat man lak-a a schoo-boy loves his pie

Like a Kentucky Col’nel loves his mint an’ rye

I’ll love ma baby till the day ah die


Been to see the Gypsy to get ma’ fortune tole

To see the Gypsy to get ma’ fortune tole

Cause I’m most wile ‘bout ma Jelly Roll

Gypsy done tole me, “Don’t you wear no black.”

Yes she done tole, “Don’t you wear no black,

Go back to St. Louis, you can win him back.”

Help me to Cairo, make St. Louis by ma-self

Git to Cairo, find ma ole friend Jeff.

Gwine to pin ma-self close to his side

If ah flag his train, I sho’ can ride


A black-headed gal makes a freight train jump the track

Said a black-headed gal makes a freight train jump the track

But a long tall gal makes a preacher ball the Jack

Lawd, a blonde-headed woman makes a good man leave the town

I said a blonde-headed woman makes a good man leave the town

But a red-headed woman makes a boy slap his papa down


You ought to see dat stove-pipe brown of mine

Lak he owns di Di-mon Jos-eph line

He’ll make a cross-eyed o’-man go ston blin’

Blacker than midnight, teeth lak flags of truce

Blackest man in de whole St. Louis

Blacker de berry, sweeter am de juice

About a crap game, he knows a pow’ful lot

But when work-time comes, he’s on de dot.

Gwine to ask him for a cold ten-spot

What it takes to git it, he’s certainly got


Oh ashes to ashes – and dust to dust

I said ashes to ashes – and dust to dust

If my blues don’t get you, my jazzing must

The subject matter is diverse - lost love, gambling, magic, trains, sex, alcohol, the boll weevil, death, women, men, the Mississippi river, Southern towns and cities, the telephone, the morning, the evening, the sun and most importantly of all, pride in being black. All of these are touched upon in these three songs forming virtually a blueprint for almost every blues to follow, and Handy deserves great credit for his perception of the essence of the form. Musically, Handy’s blues are more complex than the 12-bar, no chorus, archetype that was to eventually define the form, but the structure is clear. These are true blues songs.

Thus from the very beginning it is important to realize that the blues is not just about being blue. The form implies a melancholy and a lamentation, but is flexible enough to convey completely opposite sentiments. What it does do is to radiate meaning through the prism of the African-American experience, and that, with its history of slavery, bigotry and condescension, projects a unique colored spectrum.

I could go on to introduce a number of other early blues songs, but it would not change the message already so clearly broadcast in these three progenitors of the form. The style and substance of the blues song and ragtime song, although ostensibly drawn from the same African-American culture, could not be more different as I think has been clearly shown here. There is good reason why, for example, St. Louis Blues is as renowned today as it was then (although perhaps less well known than in its heyday), and there is good reason why All Coons Look Alike To Me is forgotten outside of the history books. The former song is an affirmation of humanity, the latter an awful artifact of a time when it was fashionable to deny people with different colored skins the respect due to them.

[1] Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985

[2] Harney, Ben All Coons Look Alike To Me quoted in Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 72

[3] Berlin, Edward in Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 74.

[4] Cole & Johnson Bros. Under The Bamboo Tree from Fremont, Robert A. (ed.) Favorite Songs Of The Nineties Dover Publications 1973 pp.330-33

[5] e.g Henry Thomas – see the Blues Guitar project.

[6] Harney, Ben All Coons Look Alike To Me complete lyric at:

[8] There is an online recording of this song, sung by Glen Orhlin, Mountain View, Arkansas on October 7, 1969, in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection archive

It is sung in the, flat, unexpressive manner of an Anglo-American folk song, creating a weird disconnect between the lyrics and the performance.

[9] Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 9

[10] Cole & Johnson Bros. Under The Bamboo Tree from Fremont, Robert A. (ed.) Favorite Songs Of The Nineties Dover Publications 1973 pp. 330-333

[11] Field, A and Donovan, Walter The Aba Daba Honeymoon collected in The Saint Louis Blues And Other Hit Songs of 1914 Sandy Marrone ed. 1990 Dover Publications p. 1

[12] Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 79

[13] Siewert, H and Perry, E. Gil The Coon Town Rag

[14] Berlin, Edward in Hasse, John Edward (ed.) Ragtime: Its History, Composers and Music Smithsonian Institute 1985 p. 77

[15] Handy, W.C. The Memphis Blues (1912) from Handy W.C. (ed.), Blues, An Anthology McMillan 1926,1949,1972 pp. 70-73

[16] Typically a woman of easy virtue or sexual prowess – or both – although in the context of this song it could equally well apply to a man. See Oliver, Paul The Meaning Of The Blues Collier Books 1963,1969 pp.144-145.

[17] Handy, W.C. St Louis Blues from Handy W.C. (ed.), Blues, An Anthology McMillan 1926,1949,1972

[18] Although the meaning is still somewhat ambiguous at this stage, jelly roll as a term for sexual intercourse became popular and much less ambiguous – particularly in the songs of Bessie Smith and other early blues singers. See Oliver, Paul The Meaning Of The Blues Collier Books 1963,1969 pp.146-147.