Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bessie Smith - Jailhouse Blues

Former City Jail, Chillicothe Texas. photos by Theresa Byrd

In this song, Bessie Smith makes it sound as if she's been everywhere and done all of it.

Introduction Minutes/Seconds 0 – 30

Bessie starts this one out with a rousing warning to the assembled audience: “Lord, this house is gonna get raided! Yessir!” With this she establishes rapport with the audience, or, pretends to, and says, in effect, “We are all having such a good time - perhaps breaking the law in some unstated fashion, we might think illegal drugs or illicit sex, though its probably some racist rousting for disturbing the peace - and now the cops are bound to show up and put us in jail.” Her announcement is reminiscent of the kind of thing Jelly Roll Morton would open some of his pieces with. Live, such pronouncements would certainly quiet the audience and get them ready for what comes next.

Accompanying her the honky tonk piano helps establish atmosphere, helping us to visualize the scene. This introduction, of course, sets the scene of the performance; the scene in jail is taken care of by the lyrics and tone, and may be implied as the consequence of the raid - in which case, 30 days have passed...

First Chorus 31 - 1:08

She starts to sing about time in jail:

A 31 - 44 Thirty days in jail, with my back turned to the wall (turned to the wall)
A 44 - 56 Thirty days in jail, with my back turned to the wall.
B 57 - 1:08 Look here, Mr. jail keeper, put another gal in my stall.

This is the standard 12-bar blues form. Listen and you may notice the chord changes as they make their appearance, the tonic at the beginning of the song, to the subdominant at the start of the second A verse, back to the tonic in the middle of the second A phrase and then to the dominant at the beginning of the B and back to the tonic before the chorus comes to an end.

Easier to find without having the music before one at the moment is the basic structure of the blues lyric: the first line repeats, albeit with significant variation. Each line consists of two parts, sometimes known as call and response, but more technically the line and the fill (which Gunther Schuller calls the "interpolated half-phrase"). The fill in the first line is when Bessie sings turned to the wall for the second time, indicated in parenthesis above. Each line has a fill, and though most are instrumental, the vocal embellishments of the fill can be especially engaging in the way they relate to other parts of the song.

It seems to me there are two implications to these lyrics. One is that the singer has been thrown in jail and is being sexually abused, presumably by the jailer and others, and she’s getting tired of it. She wants them to let some other girl take it for a while. The other implication is that she wants another girl in her cell so they can have sex together. Both may be suggested without negating the other. As secular as these lyrics are, however, their intonation and delivery seem to come straight out of the church.

In any case, it is clear that in this chorus she is addressing the jail keeper. Notice how in subsequent choruses the question of who is speaking to whom is broached, and it is not always easy to tell. It seems as if she shifts to speaking to herself in the second chorus, to the jail keeper's wife or girlfriend in the third, and to the blues personified in the last chorus. This disruptive effect is highly suggestive, in many blues, of larger stories that lie behind this one.

Gunther Schuller (Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1968) writes a close musical analysis of this song:

As early as Jailhouse Blues (September 1923) we can hear the embellishment traits that form the essence of Bessie’s style. In the first line after the scene-setting introduction, “Thirty days in jail with my back turned to the wall,” the importance of the words in the sentence determines the degree of embellishment each receives. Almost every word is emphasized by an upward scoop or slide, but each one differently. The words “thirty,” “jail,” and “wall”—the three main words of the sentence—are also those most modified by slides. “Thirty” starts with a relatively fast upward slur from approximately e flat to g flat. (The piece is in the key of e flat. All pitches are approximate, since Bessie moves fairly freely within the microtonal subdivisions of the scale.) “Days” slides more slowly from the blue flat-third to the major third, g. The next word, “in,” is a slightly flat g, in preparation for a large major-third upward scoop on “jail”: the most important word, ergo the strongest embellishment. (Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz, p. 231)

After another page in which he continues his analysis, Schuller says:

Bessie also had a unique ability to break phrases into unexpected segments and to breathe at such phrase interruptions without in the slightest impairing over-all continuity, textual or melodic. In the repeat of the “Thirty days” line, Bessie breathes twice at unexpected places: between the words “my” and “back” for a break in the phrase; then again between “turned” and “to the wall,” a smaller interruption. The reason for these breath breaks is the . . . interpolated half-phrase, “turned to the wall,” which prevented her from going to the end of the second repeat line without breathing. Thus the over-all partitioning of both lines is as follows (* is an incidental breath mark, ° is a more pronounced interruption):

Thirty days in jail * with my back turned * to the wall * (turned ° to the wall) •
Thirty days in jail, with my ° back turned to the wall.
Look here, Mr. Jail keeper, put another gal in my stall.

Note that in the one place where one might have expected a breath, marked •, Bessie goes right on, bridging the natural division of the sentence. (Schuller p )

Second Chorus 31 - 1:08

A 1:09 – 1:22 I don’t mind being in jail, but I got to stay there so long, so long.
A 1:23 – 1:34 I don’t mind being in jail, but I got to stay there so long, so long.
B 1:35 – 1:47 Well every friend I had has done shook hands and gone

As before, Bessie sings the fill, so long, on both lines. In both she stretches out the word long, so as to emphasize the word and the length of time it takes to say it, expressively conveying both the meaning of the word and the feeling that she's been there a long time. This effect is reinforced by the repetition of the first line. Since it happens in all blues songs, the effect of the repetition is easy to neglect, but repetition, and repetition with variation, is critical to the form. In every blues song, something happens as a result of the first line repeating in the second. The effect is very different than if the line would not repeat.

Also, every blues song depends upon the relationship between the AA section, in which one line repeats, and the B phrase, which contrasts with the earlier material. Here the first section, where rather than emphasizing and reinforcing the statement its repetition seems to call the sentiment into doubt - in fact, she minds very much being in jail - contrasts with the gloomy but perfectly straightforward statement of loneliness. Friends have abandoned her - shook hands and gone being an especially effective locution. Loneliness is a key theme of blues lyrics. The blues are not all sad or depressing - not by any means - but the themes do frequently derive more from the troubling aspects of the human experience rather than the pleasant ones.

Third Chorus 1:48 - 2:24

A 1:48 – 1:59 You better stop your man from ticklin’ me under my chin, under my chin
A 2:00 –2:12 You better stop your man from ticklin’ me under my chin, under my chin
B 2:13 – 2:24 ‘Cause if he keeps on tickling I’m sure gonna take him on in.

Many blues lyrics seem to revel in suggestiveness, as here, suggesting the close affinity between innocence (“ticklin’ me under my chin”) and straight sex (“take him on in”). You will hear how when she talks of “tickling,” the pianist, Irving Johns, makes a deliberate point of “tickling the keys” of the piano. This doubling effect - her singing the word tickling while Johns tickles the keys - demonstrates that the word has multiple meanings. It is probably a metaphor for sex.

Fourth Chorus 2:25 - 3:13

A 2:25 - 2:38 Good morning blues! Blues how do you do? (How do you do?)
A 2:39 - 2:50 Good morning blues! Blues how do you do?
A 2:51 - 3:13 Well I just come here to have a few words with you.

Typical of the blues, the final chorus (though its not always the final chorus) steps out of sequence and presents another voice, introducing a new context. Here we meet, much earlier than Robert Johnson’s celebrated lyrics, or the songs of Leadbelly or Count Basie, the blues personified. Blues lyrics are frequently interchangeable from song to song. Far from making them less effective, the use of such stock phrases now and then, as here, gives a certain authority and dignity to the song.

Presumably, the blues Bessie greets here represent the blues as sadness or depression. Conceivably, they might be the song itself - she is singing a blues - making a rather elaborate turn, so that the singer addresses the song, and the few words she has come to have with the blues turn out to be the song itself, which is over.