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High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Friday, June 09, 2006

12 Bars of Heartache, pt. 1: Blues and the Bayou

I am not a morning person. Really, seriously, truly, madly, deeply, NOT A MORNING PERSON. And yet, my ass was in the car and on the road to fucking Skokie at 8 AM yesterday. Here's the deal: A north suburban community college is doing a four-part serieson the Blues. Each session is meant to be part lecture, part performance. To pull this off, they've wisely enlisted four people from The Old Town School of Folk Music. This week's offering was hosted by Chris Walz playing a little national steel geetar and some piano.

I admit, when we were walking with the coordinator toward the correct room, I laughed a hearty laugh at her being flummoxed by Chris's request for a piano. "I thought he just played guitar!" she says. HA! For the record, a simple search on Chris's name in the adult classes reveals that he is currently teaching Guitar 1, 2, 3, & Beyond Guitar 3; Bluegrass Banjo 1; Bluegrass Classics; Bluegrass Ensemble 2 and Bluegrass "Rhythm Guitar; Delta Blues Fingerstyle 2 & 3; and Flatpicking 2 & 3. At the second half (where players of all instruments at all levels get together in the auditorium to play together for half an hour or so after classes each night), he tends to oscillate between his steel guitar and the piano, but it doesn't surprise me that he plays banjo. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that he played pretty much anything. We hateses him.

Lecturewise, Chris kept things relatively informal, but still managed to cover a lot of ground and content. He started with what I like to think of as a classic me moment: He had decided to use "Amazing Grace" to illustrate a point about the relationship between blues instrumentation and vocals. So he starts out by mentioning that Amazing Grace was written by a white man who had run a slaving ship, and subsequently found religion (which somewhat belatedly led him to abandon the slave trade). And has he launched into this story, I could see him begin to panic for some reason. His face went blank and he said, "I can't believe this. This is terrible for someone who works at Old Town . . . but I cannot remember his name!" (I was tempted to whip out this very laptop and save the day, but I was afraid someone might hit me with his walker. [But for those of you who have to know, it's John Newton.]) Of course, this fun factoid has nothing to do with anything, but by god, when you've gone to the trouble of strapping your onion on your belt, you're by gum gonna go to Shelbyville to get a new heel for your shoe.

Having returned from Shelbyville, I communicate his actual point, which is one that seems obvious in retrospect. He sang a bit of "Amazing Grace" in white man's overbite style (which still had a lot more funk to it than any version I remember hearing in a Catholic Church). He then contrasted this with how a blues singer might attack it, incorporating a lot more dips, slides, and vocal flourishes. He connected this with the instruments that freed slaves were most likely to pick up, which became the primary instrumentation of the blues: the fiddle (which is fretless and therefore can mandate some groping for the note); the guitar which is built for slides, bends, and other slow boats from one note to another; the bass and banjo, ditto; and then the piano, which, although not bendy has bend-adjacent capability in the form of grace notes, etc. Not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship (for certainly, as he pointed out, the voice comes first), but as Blues has evolved, vocal approaches and instrumentation are sort of an ourouborus.

From there, in recognition of the overwhelming Whiteness of his audience (have I mentioned that this was at the Skokie campus of a very ritzy community college?), he talked a little about---well, not the origins of the Blues, which are lost in the mists of time---but the first time that the Blues start to show up on historical radar. In particular, he talked about the post-Civil War experience of Blacks who'd been given their freedom and nothing left to lose. Again, with a nod to our Whiteness, he talked about the origins of the Blues being rooted in the experience of slavery, reconstruction, segregation, and so on, but noted that having the Blues is a universal phenomenon, quoting a Bluesman (sorry I've forgotten who and the quote is vague enough that it defies googling) saying that the Whitest man in the world, with the finest car and the finest house can still come home and find his woman gone, along with all his stuff. (This, of course, reminded me of a song on Webb Wilder's "It Came from Nashville" re-release that ends with the Last of the Full-Grown Men saying, "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought this was my house. I thought that was my dog.") It's not the most profound reflection on artistic ownership, coopting, etc., but again, this was just about the beginnings, and I have hope that we'll get there.

Someone then asked where the term "Blues" came from, which short circuited my brain somewhat as I realized that I had no idea why poor Blue is so maligned and associated with melancholy (in other words, Hippo Dignity, to the white courtesy phone [which could be any color, really]). Chris claimed to have read something (which, of course, sets off my etymology UL alarms) about it coming from 18th century England, when someone experiencing misfortune was said to have a blue devil causing the problems.

To talk about the codification of the Blues, he turned to W. C. Handy and to the piano. He played a bit of the St. Louis Blues through first. He then explained Handy's concept of the shared structure of Blues songs and how he worked that up into the form we now know as 12-bar blues. He then played the same section over again, this time dissecting it for us as he went along. Given that I've been playing guitar for a few years now, it's not like this was new to me, but it did click more firmly and a new way, which is always a good feeling. (I think part of that is hearing it through piano, which is my first "musical language." In much the same way that the German word for something always pops into my head when I can't remember the Spanish, my road to guitar knowledge is an ugly one because of all the piano switchbacks on it. I'm going to put some ointment on that metaphor and step away. I advise you to do the same.)

Still at the piano, he moved on to Jelly Roll Morton to shift things from general Blues origins to the role that Lousiana played in the evolution of the genre. To kick things off, he told the story of Jelly Roll's time working in "sporting houses" playing piano, during which he met a Madame named Mamie Desjeunes. By the time Jelly Roll and Mamie crossed paths, she was down to (ha, I almost said a handful) just a few fingers on each hand. But she'd still sit in the parlor of her brother, playing a very slow-paced kind of Blues. Jelly Roll wrote "Mamie's Blues," a really haunting, hollow-sounding tune, in the style of her playing. (I'd heard Chris play this back in October at the Katrina benefit and really loved it, so I was glad to hear it again.)

After this, he talked about the history of New Orleans and its role in the development of the Blues. The first important factor was that it drew such diverse people together: American Blacks who could own land and get education there; all kinds of people who arrived there via the Caribbean, etc. Amid a lot of diversity of background and musical styles, though, there was an essential dichotomy among the musicans who were suddenly thrown together. First you had a group of Black people whose music was extremely free form, driven by the voice (which is inherently innovative) and home-made instruments (e.g., Othar Turner's famous cane fifes) that defied any kind of standardization of tuning. Second, there were the Creoles who had stronger ties to European music and placed strong emphasis on education and formal musical training. When the Jim Crow laws divested the Creoles of land, property, and economic opportunities, the informal and the formal met and changed one another for good.

At this point, he shifted over to his guitar (have I mentioned how hot that guitar is? Go on have another look. I'll wait.). As you might imagine, one cannot face such a fine piece of muscial machinery naked as the day one was born. Accordingly, Chris geared up, which involves slipping a glass slide on the left pinky and donning a full set of fingerpicks on the right hand. I'm also pretty sure there's some pixie dust or voodoo shit involved. He started off with a bit of Jelly Roll's "Buddy Bolden's Blues," and then talked a bit about Bessie Smith while almost absently demonstrating some things on his guitar. This hearkened back to discussions about how most Blues instruments just beg you to bend and slide the notes, which is a gateway drug to the infamous "Blue notes" (flatted thirds and sevenths where Baal never intended them to be).

This, of course, is just an elaborate set-up for a joke. It goes like this: You give people just a little taste of steel guitar. You use the slide to make it cry, and you let that shiver along the spine a while. Then you start in with the finger picking, thumping hard on the bass strings while you alternate some nerve-wracking pinches with really nasty, drawn out bends. THEN back to the slide again, only this time, you let it wail. And invitably someone, looking vaguely stunne, says: "How do you make it whine like that?" And Chris doesn't quite smile and says: "It's just 'cause I treat it so bad." M has yet to stop laughing over that.

But seriously, folks. He then fed my inner nerd a hearty meal by talking about the structure and origins of the steel guitar, including lots of shit I did not know. It basically goes back to the preamplification days when Blues was gaining enough popularity that musicians might be playing to large, noisy crowds. Not only does the metal body amplify the sound, but its also filled with a metal cone that acts like a speaker to make howl even louder. Neat! He spent most of the rest of the time (and he talked for half an hour longer than the scheduled session time) on the guitar, doing songs about the three major Blues of New Orleans: Rain, Drought, and Mr. Bol Weevil. On each of these, he apologized for "cheating," because he had some lyric sheets to which he occasionally referred. The audience was appropriately stunned by his m@d 5k1llz, I'm glad to say.

As M and I did the postmortem on the drive home, we agreed that the first part of the series was awesome. There were a lot of questions we would have liked to ask, but the nature of the gathering gave things an odd pace that we didn't want to disrupt further. Likewise, we tried to remain cognizant of the fact that these questions and many others will hopefully be answered on the next episode of: Soap!

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