What I Learned from Hollering Blues for an Hour

What I Learned from Hollering Blues for an Hour

Last week I mentioned my growing interest in the kind of melodies I might naturally sing. So I decided to sit down (in a soundproofed area) and record myself singing freely.

I soon realised there were no original “natural” melodies inside me waiting to be mystically released. Everything I sang was familiar. I ended up using one basic pentatonic melodic skeleton:

Blues Singing Skeleton 1

Which tended to grow into something like this:

Blues Singing Skeleton 2

What “I felt like singing” turned out to be often unnotateable: blues material relying on fast, gliding ornaments, flexible pitch areas and emphasis on overtones.

What’s more, these effects were all highly reliant on the physicality of my voice, i.e. they combined:

  • switching between head, throat and chest voice
  • use of vocal fry (growling)
  • yodelling-type leaps
  • nasal tone
  • humming
  • breathiness

I’m no singer of course, but if you’re curious what I was sounding like here’s a fragment:

My conclusion – and this is a familiar theme here – it’s just as meaningful to understand these blues phrases as body movements (i.e. in your throat, lungs and mouth) than as melodies.

That’s all very well to say, but the nice thing about doing this exercise just once is that I can feel a new awareness of this physical basis. When I was singing I imitated some familiar sounds: John Lee Hooker’s “hey hey”s and Andy Bey’s hiccup-y pentatonic noodlings. Now I know how those sounds feel to perform.

Also, since doing the exercise, melodic fragments have been coming spontaneously to my mind together with an impression of how they feel to sing. Seeing as melody has been a weak point for me in the past, it’s cool to have little ideas springing to mind fully formed (heard and felt) like that.

It was also nice to grapple a bit with the different registers of the voice. That’s a singer’s bread and butter, but it was novel for me to feel different parts of the blues scale as inhabiting different registers of my voice, e.g. everything above the octave was in my head voice when singing in B, and I could use this to create breaks and yodels.

I noticed one really interesting thing trying to sing these blues phrases. A lot of the mannerisms I’m imitating clearly signify emotion: wails, groans, fall-offs. However, to make them work, they have to be practised till they’re in muscle memory. So they’re practised patterns and not spontaneous outbreaks.

This invalidates the (completely patronising) myth that blues was a direct, naive expression of the pain of the black folk. Emotions in blues are only as sincerely felt as an actor’s performance. Although the performer may completely inhabit the persona, he/she can snap out of it at will.

This explains how ostensibly depressive blues has always been party music. The performer makes a game of its seemingly dark emotions – ambiguously either lampooning them them through exaggeration and stylisation, or seriously inhabiting them. Weariness, sickness, defeat are turned into stylisms subject to slick manipulation. Thus, the bluesman or woman can both conquer them and yield to them. (Albert Murray makes a similar point in Stomping The Blues.) That keeping-in-tension of alternate mindstates recalls Dubois’ “Double Consciousness”. (African Americans’ survival ability to simultaneously navigate white and black cultural values.)

The use of dark emotions has sometimes confused outsider fans of black music. For example, in the awesome slide-guitar blues I discussed a few weeks ago, by white rockers Canned Heat, we can hear singer (and blues collector) Bob Hite call for a “real quiet and ghostly” vibe from the band. This phrase comes from a white record collector tradition of interpreting deep blues as “eerie”, “ghostly” or “weird”. But performers like Skip James, Tommy Johnson or Robert Johnson – who did indeed use wailing, plangent sounds and sing about death and the devil – did not think of their songs in these terms, as far as I know. To them it was probably mostly about sex: “sinful music” was its well-documented reputation.

I think certain rappers in more recent decades generated a similar confusion. For example, Big L’s lyrics seem depraved and appalling on their own terms. However, in context, I believe they were mostly a stylistic innovation to keep Big L ahead of the competition.

Well, this week’s post was mostly just re-emphasising some ideas. But this kind of thing helps me form my artistic direction. For example, if I was to start a new art music project now (say along the lines of my old band Nature) I would immediately ask myself – should the vocal lines be notateable as written music? Or is there another way to create them that would suit me and the singer better, and afford more expressivity in the areas I like? Or, for instance, why not base the melody around the singer’s range, using the breaks between registers as part of the music? And why feel the need to deviate from one mode/scale? What if I wrote write in my key, and then transposed so that the same effects happen in the singer’s preferred key?

Interesting stuff. Pretty basic too, of course, but trying to sing for myself hammered it all home nicely!

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