Friday, September 21, 2007

Preaching Blues - Robert Johnson

Preaching Blues (1936) by Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938) is generally acknowledged to be one of the most influential, personal, and creative of the country blues singers. He has plenty of competition in this, including from Charley Patton, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Skip James, Son House, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

But still... Johnson is the true legendary bluesman of the Mississippi Delta, and there is a genuinely amazing quality to this record - to most of his recordings. It was recorded relatively late, considering that the first recordings of such blues artists as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton were made in the early to mid-twenties.

Robert Johnson died not long after this song was first released. It was only in the 90s that a couple of photographs of him surfaced. His life and death are obscured in the mists of time and blues legends, though recent scholarship has brought much to light. He died young, probably at the hands of a jealous lover who poisoned his drink. Someone said he died on his hands and knees, barking at the moon, but then there were always legends about his life. One of his songs (Crossroad Blues) led to the suspicion that he had sold his soul to the Devil at a country crossroads in exchange for the power he achieved as a musician. (This, of course, is a stupid lie. That was apparently somebody else. )

Robert Johnson’s collected output, finally released on CD, shot to the top of the charts in 1990.

There is good reason for legends to have accumulated around this astonishing singer and performer. There seems to be here all the authenticity, all the raw power, and all the emotion, of several lifetimes. Robert Johnson holds back nothing. When he sings of walking with the Devil he makes it real; that's a quality we appreciate in any recording, whether the performer talks of love and heartache or, as here, more existential matters. Francis Davis (History of the Blues) calls Johnson “the greatest of the Delta transcendentalists” (p. 124). In this song, the singer-songwriter Robert Johnson embodies the blues, taking this mysterious state of mind and compelling musical form and putting them together in the shape of a man walking. This occurs both in the music and, in some mythic way, in us, as we listen.

I don't dance, so I can't talk about dancing to this, but I do walk, and walking to this song makes good sense.

Now listen. Johnson’s work is clearly a forerunner of rock music - far more than of most other blues recordings - and several rock artists have covered his work, notably Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zepellin. However, unlike the work of these artists, there is nothing especially popular or very easy about this number. Robert Johnson here does not invite the listener in, but rather seems to challenge us, to confront us with a peculiar vision of a nightmarish world. My students are generally unimpressed, which is a shame. Clearly, they are not listening; many think its a woman named Robert. The challenge, I suppose, is too great for them, so they turn back to whatever they have on their ipods.

There are at least three major shifts in rhythm in the first 5 seconds of the song, and then a wailing, almost unearthly moan as if from some twisted soul to open the vocal.

Introduction Minutes/Seconds 0 – 2

First Chorus 6 - 48

A 6 – 25 Mmm mmmm—I’s up this mornin’, ah, blues walkin’ like a man.
A 25 – 37 I’s up this mornin’, ah, blues walkin’ like a man.
B 38 – 48 Worried blues, give me your right hand!

Second Chorus 49 - 1:17

A 49 - 58 And the blues grabbed mama’s child, tore him all upside down.
A 59 - 1:06 Blues grabbed mama’s child, and it tore me all upside down.
B 1:07 - 1:17 Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you ‘round,

Third Chorus 1:18 -1:50

A 1:18 - 1:29 The blues, is a low-down shakin’ chill (Yes, preach ‘em now)
A 1:30 - 1:37 Mmmmm mmmmm Is a low-down shakin’ chill
B 1:38 - 1:50 You ain’t never had ‘em, I, hope you never will.

Fourth Chorus 1:52 - 2:23

A 1:51 - 2:07 Well, the blues , is a achin’ old heart disease (Do it now, you gon’ do it? Tell me all about it)
A 2:08 – 2:15 The blues, is a low-down achin’ heart disease
B 2:16 – 2:23 Like consumption, killing me by degrees

Fifth Chorus 2:24 - 2:52

A 2:24 – 2:34 I can study rain, oh oh drive, oh oh drive my blues
A 2:35 – 2:41 I been studyin’ the rain and, I’m ‘on drive my blues away
B 2:42 – 2:52 Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry, stay out there all day

The wailing voice and that extraordinarily percussive guitar are so compelling, so vivid, so dramatic, so expressive, that both - voice and guitar - seems to claim a kind of autonomy, each off doing its own thing as it were, almost spinning out of control, making their coming together in this recording all the more remarkable. Yet however independently voice and guitar seem to operate, each relies on the other, picks up from each other, challenges each other. This is typical in the blues, and in many other recordings, but here the challenges seem more confrontational, more edgy, and more dangerous. In this song the guitar does not so much accompany the singer as to compete with him for attention. They remind me of those stories of the ventriloquist's dummy taking over the show. There is something unearthly here—in a purely secular way. And it is a little scary.

Consider the second chorus in terms of its presentation of self - the self of the author and performer. First there is a “mamma’s child,” And the blues grabbed mama’s child, tore him all upside down. So we are in the third person here. (The good lyrics here say that the word at second #51 is me, as in the following verse, but I don't hear that at all.) We definitely hear me in the next verse, Blues grabbed mama’s child, and it tore me all upside down. He winds up the chorus talking directly about himself in the third person: Travel on, poor Bob, just can’t turn you ‘round. Johnson also refers to “poor Bob” in his Crossroads, begging the Lord to have mercy now, save poor Bob if You please.

The fear Johnson evokes in his songs, and which appears to be so real, derives in part, I think, from the creation of this persona, which he then proceeds to destruct, to tear apart. It is as if during this song he loses himself - literally - and never gets it back together, except of course that the control of the performer over the entire song itself belies our sense of someone out of control, and is testimony to the fact of an integral self, a paradox.

Nothing in his music dissembles, or goes half way. This is, of course, not always the case with his imitators and followers - even the very good ones.

One O'Clock Jump - Count Basie can jump to a stomp and swing; stomp to a jump and swing; or swing to a jump and a stomp. - Albert Murray

Count Basie and His Orchestra:
Buck Clayton, Ed Lewis, Bobby Moore, trumpets
George Hunt, Dan Minor, trombones
Caughey Roberts, alto sax,
Jack Washington, alto and baritone sax
Lester Young, Herschel Evans, tenor sax, clarinets
Count Basie, piano, orchestra leader
Freddie Green, guitar
Walter Page, string bass
Jo Jones, drums
Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, arrangers
Recorded: July 7, 1937

This is the swing anthem - Basie's theme song - and to most people a familiar and fun piece of music, as are most all of the pieces found in the Complete Decca collection of Basie's recordings. [But, see below for some sad history.]

This is a head arrangement, deriving from and encouraging improvisation around its 12-bar blues pattern. It was a common number for this band - they called in Blue Balls until asked its name on the air and Basie looked at the clock. It is, above all, a riff number, based on a repeated melodic phrase. The repetition in this case becomes infectious and exciting as the soloists take turns improvising from chorus to chorus. And it becomes more than that, as repetition gives way to variation, building up layer upon layer of interactions and relationships. The marvel is that it remains as simple and as fun as it is, given the underlying complexities of its performance.

Don't look to me for explications of those complexities, as they are far beyond me.

Just listen.

Intro 1 - 10
The first ten seconds have Basie vamping a riff for 8 bars, with Jo Jones whispering on drums in the back.

First Chorus 11 - 27
Basie takes the first chorus, soloing on the piano, a very solid rhythm section - the best rhythm section of its day - accompanying.

Second Chorus 28 - 43
Basie takes the second chorus - a head arrangement will kick things off with a two chorus opener - starting with a few trills or tremolo in the upper register and finishing by modulating to a new key.

Third Chorus 44 - 1:02
Herschel Evans on tenor sax enters for his solo, accompanied by riffs from the brass section. Evans plays in the style set for the tenor sax by Coleman Hawkins, a big, almost gruff sound, powerfully elegant, rich, dark, romantic. Note the contrast - typical for big band swing numbers - between the soloing reed voice and the brass accompaniment. Their timbres are distinct, and used to set off one from the next.

Fourth Chorus 1: 03 - 1:17
George Hunt on trombone enters, and the timbral contrast shifts from the previous chorus so that now the brass is soloing up front and the reeds accompany in the back. It is this kind of thing, all very simple and clear throughout the performance, that contributes to the increasing levels of complexity in the communication, with each chorus adding layer upon layer of patterns.

By this chorus we notice that however fine the soloist is up front, the sax riffs in the background are beginning to insist. Lester Young on tenor will pick up what he is doing here with the accompaniment and play around with it in his solo next chorus.

Fifth Chorus 1:18 - 1:34
Now comes a high point, the entrance of Lester Young on tenor sax, whose playing contrasts markedly with both George Hunt's trombone from the previous chorus - their instrumental timbres are obviously distinct - and - notably - with the tenor sax of Herschel Evans from the third chorus. Though Lester and Herschel play the same instrument, the contrast between them is as telling as that between the reeds and the brass. Young's style of playing introduced a new and highly influential approach to the tenor sax, emphasizing its lyrical, sly qualities over the aggressive squawk of the Hawkins approach.

Anyway, Lester Young begins this chorus playing a single note using false fingerings, a method of finding alternate ways of hitting the notes on a sax with different fingers. This technique contributes to another sense of contrast and variation, albeit subtly. Done right, as here, playing a single note over and over again, with false fingerings for variation, builds intensity into the experience of listening in ways that echo other parts of the recording. In fact, Lester Young's solo here picks up stuff he was playing as riff accompaniment beneath Hunt in the previous chorus.

Sixth Chorus 1:35 - 1:52
This is Buck Clayton's trumpet chorus, with - as you would expect - the reeds riffing in accompaniment. Buck's first two phrases repeat exactly - reminding us of the difference between repetition and variation. On his third phrase he then starts the variation.

Looking back, we can see that after the two chorus opening on piano we have heard a sax solo with brass accompaniment followed by a brass solo with sax accompaniment, and then the same pattern repeated. Typically, the trumpet leads the ensemble, as the most commanding - brassiest - of instruments. Here, though, Buck is just one soloist among others. Notice how the sax riffs take on another tone in their support of this solo.

Seventh Chorus 1:53 - 2:09 Bill Basie returns for what some might call a piano solo, but sounds more like a duet with bassist Walter Page who walks the bass around the chorus, punctuated by Basie's high register chords. Walking bass lines are when the bass fiddle plays arpeggio accompaniment hitting every beat by ascending or descending the scale, keeping regular time. (Arpeggio means playing each note of a chord over time rather than all at once; so the chords are broken, as it were, and played as on a harp.)

This chorus brings out the piano-like qualities of Page's bass playing, while Basie's piano seems like its trying out some minimalist form of piano expression. The two voices sound incredibly good together.

Eighth Chorus 2:10 - 2:26
The ensemble kicks in for this and the remaining choruses - riff choruses, to be exact - in which the sax and brass sections trade twos. Trading twos simply means that one player or section plays two bars and then another player or section plays two bars in response. Given the range of effects derived from creative repetitions, variations, and contrasts thus far in the recording, it is appropriate that these final choruses give way to this unadulterated riff expression. In this and the remaining two choruses the brass section will play pretty much the same riff, though with varying degrees of intensity, while the saxes mix it up a bit. This is basic call-and-response communication.

Something we can easily lose sight of in this particular recording, though it is apparent once we see through its simplicity, is the intense competitive streak revealed by the trading-twos format. What the first player or section sets up, the second echoes, repeats, varies, and at the same time challenges - or perhaps a better way to put it would be to say responds to the challenge set up in the first voice. Thus the parallel phrasing of trading twos has built in to it an instinctive competition, further elaborating the layers of relationships set up throughout the recording.

Ninth Chorus 2:27 - 2:42
Here the saxes play the basic melody of the piece in the upper register as the brass section keeps to its riffing, now playing lower than the reeds.

Tenth Chorus 2:43 - 3:00
The reeds and the brass continue to riff it up in call and response, increasing the intensity to the end. Listen for Jo Jones on drums pounding out an emphatic beat from time to time as the record comes to a close.


Here is the story of the Decca recordings. John Hammond, whose claim to have discovered Basie has some validity (unlike some of his other claims, I fear) wrote in his autobiography of how Basie got cheated in his first contract, with Decca.

Basie showed me the contract. It called for twenty-four sides a year for three years for $750 each year. To Basie, it seemed like a lot of money. To me, it was devastating- for both of us. There was no provision for royalties, so that for the period when Basie recorded 'One O'Clock Jump', 'Jumping at the Woodside', and the rest of those classic hits, he earned nothing from record sales. It was also below the legal minimum scale demanded by the American Federation of Musicians for recording.
Back in New York, I called Local 802 to protest these outrageous terms, and did manage to raise the per-side payment scale, but there was nothing the union could do to break the contract. Jazz Piano Online
Basie, of course, is not, alas, the only Black artist to have suffered in this way. He seems to have pulled out of it alright. His career was long, his success well-deserved, and his music brilliant.

Basie's the guy playing Vernon Duke's April in Paris with his band in the desert in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.