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!

History Of A Passing Chord

Today I’m investigating variations of a parallel chord movement targeting bar 9 of a 12-bar blues: III- bIII- II-. I think it’s been somewhat written out of history. Although I am just a bass player, I’ll talk a bit about harmonisations of the movement, and finally look at some melodic inventions over it.

I’ll start with Satchmo. “West End Blues” (1928) is harmonically old-fashioned by our standards, with two bars of V7 at bars 9 and 10. Although there are hints of the III- bIII- II- movement at 1:10 and 1:46, it only emerges fully in Earl Hine’s piano chorus (1:59). From bar 8 of an Eb blues he plays:

Satch

Although he plays some extra weird bass notes (like E to F#), we can discern a chord progression: I VII7/#II II-, very similar to the better-known I bIIIo7 II-. How does this relate to my III- bIII- II-? They all share this parallel shift of a minor 3rd:

Passing 1 3rds.png
In the key of C

Does this mean anything? Well, I suggest you play just that minor 3rd shift in that spot (last 2 beats or last 4 beats before bar 9) of a blues. It sounds extremely bluesy and, as best I can express it, world-weary. Voice-leading-wise, it can land on the 1st and b3rd of a II- but equally the 5th and b7th of a V7. It’s parallel movement, which, as I suggest in this post, harks back to blues’ basis in overtones, which always move in parallel.

 

More evidence, please! you demand. Let’s look at recordings from two Delta bluesmen.

Skip James uses the chromatic minor 3rds in “Yola My Blues Away” (1931). This amazing song is in his characteristic open D minor tuning. It’s an unusual elaboration of a 12-bar blues, with a V7 on bar 2 and a bVI on bar 6. In the lyrics verses, the V7 is substituted by a bVII targeted with our parallel minor 3rds, e.g. at 0:35 after “in the morning”.

Passing 2 Skip
We’re getting away from my theme here, but out of interest… Skip James’ “Special Rider” uses a similar coloration but with a V root note. I think Skip James used this combined V- and bVII sound as a single modal area with vocal melody influenced by both I and V blues scales, not easily translatable to Western or jazz harmony.

In Robert Johnson’s slicker, almost pop idiom, we also find III bIII II, in his case as a bassline targeting a standard V7 on bar 9. (“Malted Milk” was recorded in 1937.) Actually, it’s not a bassline – the tune mostly doesn’t use bass notes – but rather a single-line movement to the 5th of a V7 which then uses a low open A string as a strong bass note. You can perhaps see what I mean better if I notate it:

Passing 3 Johnson
Okay so we’ve seen the movement in early jazz and early(ish) blues. What about performers straddling that border? Nat King Cole’s lovely “Easy Listening Blues” (1944) is a great jazzy instrumental blues, that features the III bIII II movement from piano, bass and guitar – but at different speeds, leading to clashes.

Check out 2:16 – the guitar and bass imply the movement over the last two beats of the bar, but Cole gives two beats of the bar to III- and bIII- respectively (using some syncopation). A similar thing happens in the first chorus between bass and piano at 0:23. Are the clashes a bad thing? Not at all in my opinion. We’re merely seeing the dominance of directionality – as long as the paths converge on the same goal, it’s fine to use different paths or the same path at different speeds. The moments of tension are a consequence of three players navigating the form together, and contribute to the blue feeling of the piece. Note as well that Cole plays |II-7 V7|II7 V7 |, similar to Earl Hines’ progression, with a tasty inner voice movement to #4 during the II7.

Charles Brown’s classic “Driftin’ Blues” (1945) is harmonically simpler. Here the whole band agrees on a one-chord-per-beat III- bIII- movement targeting II-, for example at 1:46, in the 2nd chorus of guitar solo. Even soloist Johnny Moore outlines the movement. He superimposes some really hip clusters in the rest of the song, for example the descending idea at 2:09, or this outside, but very bluesy, superimposition of 9th chord upper structures on top of the bass’s III bIII II movement.

Passing 4 Charles
Top staff chord symbols show guitar’s implied harmony, bottom staff piano/bass’s implied harmony

Note the trickiness: the chromatic movement seems like it will land on A9, not the usual chord but one with a strong blues identity and also somewhat related to the expected F#-7 subdominant (A6)… in any case, instead of A9 the third chord leaps to form the upper structure of an F-6!

Moore also uses the exact same basic descending minor 3rds idea we’ve been finding all along as an approach to an implied V-7 (II chord of IV) in bar 4 of the blues form, at 1:30.

Both of these performances, as well navigating the form with elegance, navigate the idioms of jazz and blues with ease. Nat King Cole uses grace notes and drone notes to create blues effects in the lead while using sophisticated harmony below. Charles Brown contrasts simple minor pentatonic fills with Johnny Moore’s hipper guitar (which still depends strongly on ultimately African-influenced parallelism/timbralism)!

Okay I want to finish now with some classic Charlie Parker blues to show how the III- bIII- II- movement worked in bebop. Our first example has Dizzy Gillespie playing a literal A-7 Ab-7 G-7 every single time on bar 9 of the form! The bass player gets it after the first chorus.

Finally, a composition whose progression is now named after Parker… but we know now that the A-7 to Ab-7 to G-7 movement has a long history. Parker takes the III- bIII- II- progression that we’ve previously seen at the rate of two beats or one beat per chord, and gives four beats to each chord. (On the recording, they’re not played as II Vs by the pianist).

 

Passing 8 BFA Chords.png
Harmonic sketch of “Blues For Alice”

Check Parker’s melody in the head and in the first two choruses of his solo on bars 7-8:

BFA All

He doesn’t sequence downwards or baldly state the chords. His solutions are far more melodic, guided by diatonic-ish intervals and simple guide tone movements. To my ear, the one in the head seems to imply a negative dominant resolution to V (so, Ab- to C), the next one implies a negative dominant resolution to II- (A- C- to G-) and the next a different minor 3rd colour switch from A- to A major (or F#-) before settling as an Ab-9.

I’d love to hear about your own ways of navigating the blues form! Sorry for the late post and see you next weekend!

The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

 

In part 1, I talked about blues melody and how it relates to timbre/overtones. Today I’ll look at blues harmony and its relation to timbre. Rather than presenting any grand thesis, I’ll go through a bunch of timbre-harmonic techniques, with examples, and make some tentative connections.

I also thought as I was making this how odd it is to approach music in such an analytic way. My main motivation here is that these are really beautiful songs, in case you were wondering!

Drone
Delta blues commonly features guitar notes that function as a constantly sustained drone. This tends to pull away from tonality and towards modality and timbralism (explained in part 1), for a few reasons. The dominant V7 chord function (i.e. the tendency of G7 to resolve to C) is obscured because the droned tonic note obscures any seventh-to-tonic voice movement. Notes tend to be heard in the context of the drone rather than as forming chord progressions – this means that certain notes, and certain intonations of those notes, will be much stronger than others.

In Skip James’ “Cypress Grove Blues”, the drone note, D, only stops briefly for a switch to a V root (e.g. at 0:30). And even there, James doesn’t use a full V7 chord and the drone note slips back in after three beats of the V root. During most of the verse, the accompaniment consists only of the drone and a simplified version of the vocal melody.

Here, in Bukka White’s “Fixin To Die Blues”, the tonic and fifth (F# and C#) are both used as drones. The pull of this home key is so strong that there is only a suggestion of the standard IV7 and V7 chords – the roots of those chords are sounded against the continuing tonic and fifth drone notes. If you’re familiar with blues, you’ll notice that the melody implies the IV7 and V7, not with chord tones but with standardised pentatonic movements with cliched meanings.

Boogie Riff
The boogie riff is a basic element of blues. In downhome guitar styles I think the simple root-and-fifth to root-and-sixth alternation is most common. This riff fits neatly into Kubik’s blues scale concept: the root-and-fifth (and root-and-flat-seventh if used) parts are from I harmonics, and the root-and-sixth part is from IV harmonics. Robert Johnson provides a canonic example in his famous “Sweet Home Chicago”. Listen to the vowel sounds as well – I’ll be talking about those in a bit.

(If you’ve heard Robert Johnson before, notice how much more natural the voice and tempo sounds in these speed-corrected versions compared to the faster ones that have always been circulated on CDs etc.)

Compared to Robert Johnson’s almost pop arrangement, it’s much harder to discern the boogie riff here. It’s not literally played, but the feeling of the I to IV alternation is there in the guitar comping, and at times an actual IV chord appears on those alternate beats, for example at 0:36 or 1:10.

De-emphasising the V7
Like Skip James and Bukka White, ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s “Black Pony Blues” avoids the conventional V7 chord at the 3rd phrase of his blues verses. (Instead he uses a sparse shape with first, fifth and blue/neutral third tones). Gerhard Kubik, in his book Africa and the Blues, claims that the V7 chord is widely de-emphasised in African-American music. He claims that African-derived pentatonicism and use of overtones fit well with the I and IV chords from the European system, but not with the V. Kubik advances this as an explanation for the replacement/substition of V7 sounds in bebop.

This track, “Left Alone Blues” by Ishman Bracey, is a really interesting example. Bracey plays a full V7 at 1:49 and quite possibly elsewhere in the tune – however a variety of strategies de-emphasise its sound. The second (lead) guitar and voice play V blues scale melodies, not V7 chord tones. The V7 chord is quiet and tends to get overlapped by surrounding chords. The root note of the V is chromatically voice-led upwards to the 3rd of the IV, a non-cadential movement. The result is that it doesn’t matter whether a V7 chord or some other partial chord (say fifth and flat seventh tones off the tonic) is played.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” shows that even on a non-12-bar form, Delta players avoided the V7. Melodically, bar 4 of each verse is clearly a V function. Blind Willie Johnson plays a skeletal I chord there instead. A V triad is used in the slide guitar break, however. This underlines that these players could and did play V chords – but the functional requirement for its voice-leading 3rd and 7th has been completely undercut.

Tommy Johnson’s classic “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” demonstrates all of the tendencies I’ve mentioned so far. The tonic note and the neutral 3rd (between minor and major) have a drone-like presence throughout the whole piece. Often there is a strong alternation on every beat between the fifth and sixth note in the low register, e.g. at 0:34 – an echo of the boogie riff. And we note that the V7 is not used at all, not even suggested melodically in this case.

Parallelism
Contrary motion, suspension and key modulation don’t have much of a role in Delta and Chicago blues, but parallelism is quite common. I can think of a few different types: harmonica effects, slide guitar, guitar moving with a vocal melody, and (typically more urbanised & in standard tuning) guitar comping patterns.

At 1:11, the turnaround of his first solo chorus in his hit “My Babe”, Little Walter repeatedly bends the third and fifth of the key simultaneously (B and G), for distinctive wailing sound. This is possible because the draw (sucked) notes on a 10-hole harmonica form a chord and can be bent downwards by altering air pressure. So, if a player has the ability to bend a note, unblocking an adjacent hole very simply adds a parallel voice to to the bend. This limited form of parallelism is a basic sound of downhome and Chicago blues.

The first chorus of “I Feel Like Going Home” is a masterclass in the timbre-harmonic possibilities of slide guitar. Minor 3rds then major triads are used in parallel. Muddy Waters does some cool stuff with the upper notes in his timbre-harmonic clusters, giving them a heavier vibrato at 0:04 or re-plucking them at 0:16. It reminds me of how great blues singers hone in on particular overtones in their long notes, and has a similarly beautiful, ghostly effect. I’ll come back to that at the end of this article.

Okay I’ll try be quick in describing the third kind of parallelism – guitar comping patterns. Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Chess recordings are an absolute goldmine for these. In “Fattening Frogs For Snakes” the guitarist plays minor 3rds that are part of the standard blues 7th chords, but he uses a double chromatic approach to each one.

Fattening Frogs Minor 3rds Parallelsim

I really like that sound.

In “Decoration Day” we get chromatic parallel shifts of an entire C9 chord at 0:23 and 1:08 (played by Buddy Guy). I think harmonically-oriented music education can make us disregard these effects as trivially simple – yet in this context it sounds amazing.

Here’s a great example of parallel chords… white blues-rockers Canned Heat build a burning version of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” over Alan Wilson’s deeply-researched guitar shapes. I think what fascinates me about these sounds is how, emotionally speaking, they embody blues’ paradoxical mix of cool and sad and sensual, and, technically speaking, they have a simultaneous melodic, harmonic and a groove role.

Like Alan Wilson, I believe that “the blues essentially is vocal and various instrumental simulations of [vocals]“. And I think this is down to the huge timbral possibilities of the human voice.

This stuff is hard to talk about, even though, along with microtiming, it’s the main expressive channel in blues – and one without which electronic dance and rock wouldn’t exist (i.e. without wah wah, bends, power chords, parallelism and distortion – all timbral techniques popularised by blues).

How can something that influential be so hard to discuss? I’d say:

  1. Our hearing system automatically assembles harmonics into the impression of a “tone quality”, meaning we usually don’t consciously perceive them.
  2. In the Western world we are typically acculturated to focus on the fundamental tone of a note rather than its overtones.
  3. Jazz and rock/pop education tends to focus on the more easily measurable chordal and melodic aspects of music over microtiming, group interaction and timbre.

Well, I won’t get into a rant about this, but suffice to say our vocabulary for describing timbral music is inadequate. But I’ll try anyway.

Muddy Waters’ “Country Blues” is a really, really fine track. The vocal displays remarkable control of harmonics throughout, but I’ll point out some identifiable techniques. Muddy Waters has a mannerism of letting his lyrics break down completely into an open-voweled wordless expression, and he uses it at the same point in each verse, 0:22, 0:56 and 1:29, and elsewhere, e.g. “child” at 1:32. This effect creates a trembling 3rd harmonic (which is an octave and a fifth above the sung note). But actually this kind of expression is present throughout the song, for instance the whistling accentuated harmonics in the words “ole” and “now” in the line “well that’s a misery ole feeling now” at 1:08.

Muddy Waters also uses breaks into a higher register of his voice, e.g. in the very next line at 1:12. This technique is taken to a yodeling extreme in Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, embedded above.

There’s loads more to say about that Muddy Waters track but I should wrap up now. Listening to all these tracks really brought home to me that there’s a whole other way of listening to blues, which, despite a lifetime’s exposure to the music, I never really did before. It is to listen to the overtones.

Doing this helps to explain bending, melisma, use of vowels, use of vibrato, and more. I even think it may connect with the widespread use of parallelism. Slide guitar and harmonica allow parallel notes to follow the same exact microtonal contour – just as an accentuated harmonic in the voice follows the microtonal contour of the fundamental.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the holidays! As always, comments and criticisms are very much appreciated.