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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Blues, pt. 2: From the Country to the City

Once again, your humble correspondents made the (marginally shorter) long, lonesome (well, not particularly lonesome, as we were together, to say nothing of the millions of close friends) drive northward for the second part of the Oakton Community College's Emeritus Program on the Blues.

This week's featured person who needs to be killed on the grounds of being too fucking talented was the Old Town School of Folk Music's very own Eric Noden, a quantity previously unknown to me. (Note: I am claiming him as ours because he is and was there by virtue of skip; however, at the moment he either does not appear to be teaching anything, or he has been one in a long series of victims of database maintenance by a well-meaning, yet underskilled volunteer army.) As advertised, he talked about the movement of the Blues from the Bayou, where we had last left our intrepid musical form, to the city. The second city, actually, as he talked almost exclusively about movement of the Blues into Chicago and some of the evolution that took place there.

Eric's approach was to play more and talk less, which is not to say that his session was less information heavy than Chris's. Chris was just more casual and balladeer-ish than Eric, who played several songs from beginning to end by way of demonstrating styles. In addition to teaching at Old Town, he works with the Blues in the Schools program in Chicago. (Eric's site has a button for this under education, but it unfortunately doesn't go anywhere.) As you might have guessed, this involves teaching the Blues to, in this case, elementary-school-aged kids. However, it culminates in something far cooler than I could have imagined: They get to take their act to the Blues Fest.

He used his approach to Blues in the Schools as a jumping-off point for this session. He opened with "Tear it Down, Bed Slats and All." This is an early blues---or proto-Blues with lots of rag-time influence---song famously recorded by The Memphis Jug Band. His version of this was for acoustic guitar and kazoo. Yes, kazoo---in fact, his kazoo was ingeniously mounted around his neck with duct tape and wire. In part, this is naturally an homage to the "found instruments" dear to the jug band, but it is also born of the fact that programs like Blues in the Schools are not traditionally rolling in money. Thus, when he shows up to work with a classroom of 30 or more students, they have to get creative about the instruments they include. Blues both goes around and comes around.

From there, he talked a bit about the timing and motivation behind the migration of Blacks, in general, and musicians, in specific, to northward and eventually to Chicago. In part, they were drawn in by a labor shortage caused by World War I. But the lines of force pulling Black men and women into Chicago were particularly strong because of an explicit campaign to support the "Great Northern Migration" (from about 1915-1925) by the publisher and editorial staff of The Chicago Defender. The story of The Defender is an interesting one in its own right, but with regard to the Blues, the tie-in with music is exceptionally so. In the south, most ditributors refused to circulate the paper. Thus, its main mode of distribution in the south was in the hands of entertainers (who moved around more freely) and Pullman porters, all of whom were Black, of course. And in those pages, sandwiched in between the editorials urging Blacks not to go gently into the good night of segregation, were ads looking for musicians to make 78s.

Jumping ahead just for a moment, there was a guy sitting behind us who seemed to be asking a series of leading-the-witness type questions to get at the fact that many of these musicians were exploited. However, he began his questioning badly by asking (in tones implying that he already knew the answer) whether the songs these artists were recording had been popular. Of course they were popular. They sold in droves. Sensing that what the questioner was really getting at was who profited from the sales, Eric mentioned that what survives from the teens and twenties is not always the best stuff of the musicians, who were often paid by the recording. This gave them strong motivation to simply crank out similar tunes with different lyrics, or the same lyrics over different styles in some vain attempt to get ahead.

Again, the issues of ownership, coopting, and exploitation are interesting in the extreme, and I really hope they actually get some play at some point in the series. However, the tactic of interrupting aggressively to broach the topic, as though the speaker had been pussyfooting around it (which he wasn't), is frustrating. That said, I don't know much about these ads. I'd have been interested to learn in who was placing them and whether or not they might have been the result of Whites publicly shunning The Defender, yet quietly cashing in on the talent that was heading northward.

In any case, Eric's main subject was the migration itself and the evolution and fate of the Blues during and after it this period. As this coincides with some of the earliest recordings of the Blues---and definitely marks the beginnings of the "commercial success" of the blues---he led off this section of his talk with Mumsy Mumsy Blues and Shake that Thing by Papa Charlie Jackson. Given that Papa Charlie was the first commercially successful Blues artist, it is probably no surprise to learn that he played in a style called "Hokum," which is all about the sex. More than that, it's all about ridiculous euphemisms for sex, like "Please wrap my hot weiner in your tight bun."

Even when someone asked about the origin of the term Hokum, however, Eric kept an admirably straight face and focused on the aspects of Hokum style that were more presentable for the assembled company, mainly the fact that this style is very well suited to the singer accompanying himself. In Papa Charlie's case, this involved playing a banjar, which is either a banjo strung like a guitar or a guitar with a banjo body, depending on whether you are a Hatfield or a McCoy, banjoically speaking. I am Switzerland with regard to banjos, and I decline to comment. I will note, however, that the banjo has many properties similar to the steel guitar that made it ideal for increasingly large venues in the preamplification era. Whether that excuse is sufficient to the existence of the banjo is between you and your local folk authorities.

I really can't communicate the coolness of the playing typical of the Hokum style, although both those pages linked above take a stab at it. Eric was still using his acoustic (which was some kind of wickedly cool Gibson---in fact, unless there was a repro run of which I'm not aware [very possible, I'm not exactly a vintage guitar whore {but I'd like to be}], I think it's actually a 1940s-era J-45 judging from the use of the old, nearly illegible logo on the headstock [I have late-breaking stalker-derived news {and an unprecedented second opportunity for triply nested parentheticals in the same parenthetical. I need a cigarette.} on this issue---it is in fact a newer Gibson jumbo, which is nearly identical to the J-45s. Tricksy logo.) for this and in the most literal sense of the word, watching as I listened was stunning. If I had not been sitting about 3 feet from him, I would have sworn that at least three incredibly well-conducted instruments (a bass, rhythm guitar, and a separate guitar doing these incredibly fast fingerpicking leads) being used. In fact I think I now have some insight into what Christian Kane's odious cousinwas trying to accomplish on stage in 2004. Boy howdy, was he not ready for the Big Kids' table.

Despite the versatility and talent (which, frankly, I'm convinced is the result of alien visitation and/or very early gene splicing) of solo acts like Papa Charlie Jackson, combos were up and coming in the world of jazz and the Blues. Even within the Hokum style, people like Tampa Red were teaming up with other musicians, and many of the great Blues vocalists were backed by jazz bands on their recordings. Here, Eric pulled out his trusty National steel guitar to demonstrate a bit of Tampa Red's style with the slide by playing "It's Tight Like That." Although the song is a, shall we say, overly fond and faithful homage to "Shake That Thing," the steel guitar and slide technique (for the previous numbers, Eric used two fingerpicks and a thumb pick on his right hand, nothing on his left) give it a very different feel, and he talked a bit about the different techniques of reaching the much-sought-after blue notes via bending vs. sliding (and again mentioned the relationship between voice and instrument in this regard).

After this, he moved over to the piano for a bit and ended up building on something Chris had talked about last week. This is fortunate for me, because despite the fact that said some very nice things about my memory in response to my last blues post, I completely forgot to talk about Chris's excellent demonstration of Delta and Piedmont piano approaches (primarily what you're doing with the left hand differs quite markedly in these styles, yet I'd never registered it until he pointed it out) and how the guitar follows the piano in both styles of Blues. Interestingly enough, Eric's take was that the piano offers the Blues musician more freedom in certain ways. In the first place, the piano, like the steel guitar, bajo, and the anathema---I mean banjar---, suffers less from the lack of amplification. But from a stylistic standpoint, he said he also feels it has it going on over the guitar, because it gives the musician 10 independent (or nearly so) note attacks.

I thought this was strange coming from someone who had played the guitar all his life and only come to piano in the last 7 or 8 years. (Not that you would know about the latter part of that from his playing. Bastard.) However, I do have to say that the finger issue has been among the more difficult ones for me in learning to play the guitar. First of all, you might as well cut off the thumb on your fretting hand, because it doesn't really exist. Second, even when you're using the thumb on your right hand, they count in UNIX. Thumb is 0 or "thumb" and your index finger is 1. That is just whack.

But anyway, he sat down at the piano and played a piece with a very strong Boogie Woogie influence. This prompted the latest in an interminable series of etymology questions. This time, the guys at the back of the room with their TiBook were able to look it up and the undocumented source attributes it to a word meaning "dance" in the native language of Sierra Leone. I was about to berate myself for not remembering the piece or the artist (I knew he talked about Pinetop Smith, but this wasn't Pinetop Smith) when suddenly I remembered that it was called "Chi-Town Breakdown," it had terrific lyrics, and it seems that HE is the artist. (It's off his cd Midwest Blues and a preview is available at CD Baby.)

Heading back to his guitars to come full circle and to talk about someone coming full circle, Eric played "Key to the Highway," by way of introduction to Big Bill Broonzy. As Chris mentioned last week, Big Bill has deep roots at the Old Town School. (Rather, the Old Town School is deeply rooted in musicians like Big Bill, but that sounds slighly gross, probably illegal, and definitely unsanitary.) So I've always thought of him as a guitarist, and it was not until this very minute that I learned that he started out fiddling for Papa Charlie Jackson who may or may not have taught him to play guitar.

In any case, although Big Bill's early recordings were in the solo-acoustic style (if not the true Hokum style from which he is denied on account of lack of weiner talk), he was one of the earliest Blues musicians to incorporate a much wider variety of melody instruments, including horns and harmonica. In addition, he farmed out much of the rhythm work to the bass, freeing him up for the fingerpicking leads for which he became famous in the 30s and 40s. Although this style would then become the meat and potatoes of the electric blues of the 50s, Big Bill returned to his acoustic roots in the years before his death in 1958. And because it's all connected, this Unplugged: Round 0 (again with the UNIX counting) phenomenon may have been genuine musical recanting, or it may have been influenced by the shift to audiences that were almost exclusively white later in his career, bringing us back to authenticity, ownership, coopting, and commercial success.

Someone asked for a demonstration of late Big Bill to contrast with "Key to the Highway," which predates much of his fingerpicking madness. Again, I note that all who lecture are, at some point, Matilda, because Eric looked genuinely blank and flustered for a minute as he could not think of a single thing to demonstrate. He pulled it out admirably, though, by playing something late-Broonzy-esque by Jimmy Reed (who, for the record, is the kaaaaang of rock and rowowoowowolll), namely "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?"

My internal timeline was somewhat befucked by the devolution into the "everyone pretends to ask a question so that they can say something they think is important, and no one else cares" portion of the proceedings when the attention spans really broke down around 11:00 AM. I do know that we wound up with Howling Wolf and that we somehow got to Howling Wolf by way of Tommy Johnson's "Canned Heat Blues" (a reference to drinking sterno-derived alcohol-y goodness during Prohibition or in case of Blue Laws), which he also played for us. He had a request for another piano number at the very end, and he obligingly returned to it; here, unfortunately, my memory truly fails, because I cannot remember what he played, only that he had added in some very cool and funky Cuban flairs in the bass.

However, a factoid that I recall about Howlin' Wolf (and not just that he triiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiied) himself does remind me that, in the course of some off-the-cuff commentary, Eric had touched on some facets of this period in Blues that were gradually wrung out of the genre. Specifically that, although we'd currently sneer at the kind of homages and "borrowing" of the sort that Tampa Red was doing, it was an accepted feature during the early days of recording that artists would draw from a common well of "Blues poetry" as he put it (in much the same way that we frequently experience "You have reached the end of folk music and found yourself across a set of mountains that may be the Blue Ridge or the Smokey. In any case, please turn back."), as well as taking familiar musical forms and playing with instrumentation and style. In terms of lyrics, formal songwriters like Willie Dixon didn't come until much later. When they did, Willie has famously said, Howlin' Wolf found himself on the wrong side of a new lyrical divide. Whereas people like Muddy Waters were more adaptable (or more prone to abandonment of their roots, depending on your perspective), Howlin' Wolf was never all that good with words, particularly ones he didn't already know.

And thus we end poised on the edge of the electric era. As we were discussing on the way home, we're intrigued by whether or not that era will actually be represented in this series, given that the next talk is "From the Bars to the Folk Clubs." Que sera sera. We're having good fun.

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