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- Jus call up Central in Heaven, Tell Jesus to come to the phone | MyBlues

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MyBlues The way I feel about blues

- Jus call up Central in Heaven, Tell Jesus to come to the phone


Posted on September 1st, 2011

I would like to start with a little anecdote that a French blues aficionado, Rene Malines told me, quoting Eric Bibb at a press conference some ten years ago in France, during a Cognac Blues Passions-festival. Eric Bibb had heard an album produced by Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Tour (whose music is regarded as representing a mix of the traditional Malian music and the blues) and thought : This is it! This is the proof! The blues came from Africa! and decided he wanted to record with Tour too. So he payed him a visit in Mali and told the African musician about that enlightning he had. Tour smiled, maybe he laughed too, and he showed Bibb his record collection, filled with blues records, including a lot of John Lee Hooker albums. A similar story is told by Samuel Charters in his contribution to Cohns sublime publication Nothing but the blues (1993), when he narrates about Tour whose friend from his village gave him an album from John Lee Hooker. He trusted his friend that the album had greatly influenced him when he started singing These stories caution us to be very careful when tracing the roots of the blues to the (sole) African culture. It can be very challenging (and exotic) to draw parallels between the blues singer and the African griots: the masters of word and music, or the keepers of history as Joanna Lott has called them. There is without any doubt a real intellectual and musical pleasure in the search for melodic resemblances between (early) blues and the traditional songs of the griots. A similar exercise has by the way been made with regard to the supposed roots of blues in Muslim chants (J. Curiel). But, at the end of the day, what does that tell us, what does it add to our knowledge? The sources on which we have to rely are very often too weak (and doubtful) to come to anything more than pure speculation. Of course, the lean, loose-jointed Negro who W.C. Handy heard playing in the Tutwiler station in 1903 had not been inspired by the African griots. He was influenced by what he had heard from his family, friends and neighbours, who at their turn had been formed by some two centuries of cultural development on the North American continent. From the very first day that Africans were deported to America and set foot on the plantations, an acculturation process had started in a society which was multiracial/multi-ethnic. When we want to understand the blues, it makes thus more sense to narrow our historical horizon to this acculturation process, rather than to focus on the germs in the African culture. For those who are sceptic about the impact of the white culture during this acculturation process, let me entrust you to another amusing quote. In his paper Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs, Brown cites a slave singing a Negro Folk song which includes the line : In London town where I was born, a line which he traced back to an old Scotch English ballad But let us be more serious now. In what follows, I would like to make a parallel between certain characteristics of the blues and a number of formal traits of the slave songs on the American soil and which have been well documented. This parallelism does not explain the blues in any way; it only indicates a genetic alliance; it demonstrates that the DNA of ancient slave songs and the blues share some genes.

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- Jus call up Central in Heaven, Tell Jesus to come to the phone | MyBlues

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The blues song is a song which comes to live during its performance. Both in its generic concept as in its individual presentation, it lends its meaning from and to the context in which it is put forth and played. It displays a forceful power of creative energy through its on the spot improvisation, much like Keith Jarretts Kln Concert, which builds and extends upon only a few chords (1). To this end, the blues artist has at his disposal a vast body of tunes and lyrics which he can use and adapt to the particular context in which he performs. Komara (2005) names a number of techniques (call them: skills) on the textual and melodic level which the blues artist deploys. On the level of the wording for instance, he defines a.o. the borrowing of phrases (catchphrases or formulas which are frequently used over different songs by one or more artists), the paraphrasing (restatement of conceptual subjects with different words), the appropriation (transfer of complete choruses from one song to another..) and telescoping (adding or suppressing of words of an existing phrase). The changing content of blues classics as for instance Sweet Home Chicago forms an example of another technique whereby the locale is changed to produce a new song (see my earlier article : Kokola Blues : From Baltimore to Sweet Home Chicago). By means of such techniques, a vast body of lyrics can be generated, and lyrics may be chosen at any moment by the blues singer to suit a particular setting or occasion. The more lyrics a singer knows, the more valued he or she may be to their audience and cultural group (Komara, p. 107). Personally, this is also what continues to amaze me about the blues and which makes me admire it profoundly: each artist gives his very own expression, each time again and again, of his/her and the groups emotion using a given set of lyrical and tonal instruments to produce a new musical play. If that is not art in his purest and most creative form! No two songs sound alike even if they draw from the same lyrical and melodic source.

Based on a careful analysis of a broad range of documents, White and White (2005) unearth evidence that similar techniques were already engaged in the antebellum slavery period by the African American population. Keywords that typify their sonic techniques were : mixing, adding, improvisation and spontaneity. Songs were created in a spontaneous way, mixing different elements from both the sacral and secular realm to express emotions in reaction to the immediate and daily circumstances of life. The improvisation was done on the spot; the song could commence with some lyrics which were familiar, with a number of lines which were ready-manufactured, but words and lines were added as the song went on, inspired by the emotion of the moment. The dynamical singing testified of a huge creativity : an existing song served as nothing but a frame which was filled in the hic and nunc- context in which it was performed. As each context and moment were different, no two songs were ever the same. There existed what White and White called a free floating stock of lines, couplets and stanzas which could be combined by the needs of the moment. Sometimes only words were dropped or added, sometimes whole lines or phrases or choruses were replaced.

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- Jus call up Central in Heaven, Tell Jesus to come to the phone | MyBlues

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This patching happened not only on the lyrical level but was also applied to the tunes. They were freely embellished, and tempos were changed according to the contextual frame, often to an extent that the original tune was hardly recognizable. This created a large scope for improvisation and personal expression. The lyrical patching created amazing mosaics which were based on the combination of existing formulaic expressions that were transported from one song to another. Central in this technique was the association between images displayed in one song which were carried over to another song, performed in another context. One image evoked connotations to other images and were combined to make a new sonic entity which fitted the actual context. This mode is typical for an oral society where no pre-written scripts of songs exist but where the sound is born out of the immediate needs and feelings. Improvisation requires that both the performer and the audience (which at the end constitute a single body) also are allowed to pause; hence the repetitions that are common in this style: they create the possibility to digest the words and emotions already evoked and at the same time create the necessary space for the emergence of new words and emotions. This leads to a non-linearity in the performances which is very different from the European idiom which has accustomed us to linearly developed melodies and lyrical structures. It explains also why the white observers of the early slave sounds and their later spirituals often expressed their incomprehension, though they might at the same time have been impressed with the emotional power that radiated from them. What those early observers failed to notice is that not the individual words and phrases as such were important, but rather the emotion that was moulded and the images which were constructed. As Michael Taft has observed correctly, the potential for emotion is increased when phrases out of one context are inserted into another song: one creates a cocktail of lyrics and stanzas which each on their own can carry associations to strong images. The simple use of a phrase coming from another song also imports along with it the emotions that are attached to this phrase (2). The art was in the skillful joining of words and phrases to provide for the emotional release of the moment. A formula therefore gains meaning and significance beyond its immediate semantic components (White and White, p. 136). The sources for the combinations of images, phrases and words could be plentiful and of different nature. Biblical texts and sacral imagery could be combined with fragments of the daily life, even with references to modern inventions, as is shown in a spiritual which is quoted in Sterling Browns 1953 essay on Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs amongst the African American population : Jus call up Central in Heaven, tell Jesus to come to the phone, If the outline of song was at the start of the performance a mere framework which needed to be filled up, what was essential was that the filling up was done in a communal setting. Its construction was a co-construction : songs were the result of interactive events, a result of an unfolding conversation which was impossible to script in advance. Images and recalled impressions were mixed together in a group dialogue giving shape to a whole that was not an orderly arrangement of events and ideas but before all a field of meaning. It was the way that the African American in (t)his sonic space made sense of his world.

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He perceived this world as a unity, with no clear line of demarcation between the sacral and the secular. In his songs elements of both secular and sacral nature were freely mixed to evoke the meaning of the moment. What was crucial was to keep the beat and the emotion as an expression of the unity of work, worship, leisure and play. There was an indifference to the supposed sacred-secular divide. A song could begin as a spiritual but along the way elements of the daily life and work condition could be mixed without a problem. It would be interesting to follow the evolution of the split that occurred between the sacred and secular dimension of the African American culture along the lines dictated by the substitution of their religious belief systems by Christianity. By the time that it spread the blues was more and more considered as the devils music; the unity that existed in the antebellum period had made place for divided cultural spaces of sacred and secular nature between which it was often (though not always) difficult to commute. This topic however deserves more attention in perhaps a later article. The combining of elements also crossed the colour line and was not limited to lyrics and tunes, but included also techniques. The lining out a form of a cappella hymn-singing in which a leader gives each line of a hymn tune as it is to be sung, usually in a chanted form giving or suggesting the tune provides us with a striking example. This technique was introduced by the whites (it has been first documented in England in 1644 for congregations with an insufficient number of literate members) and was adopted by the African American slave population as it reverberated their call-and-response style of singing. It was however not adopted and transposed as such. In black hands, (), lining out often changed its character, becoming not so much a device for helping those who lacked the ability or opportunity to read, as part of the hymn itself, the lined-out calls having melodic and structural characteristics of their own. The typical slow tempo of lined-out hymns threw the improvisational and richly ornamental styles of black singers into sharp relief (White & White, p. 63). On the sideways, it is interesting to note that the lining out style of singing not only shows a Gaelic-African American link, but that recently it has been shown by jazz musician and Yale University music scholar Willie Ruff, that native Indians of the Oklahoma tribe practice(d) it. (3) I find it no less than thrilling to observe how people of such different origins can gather around the same musical table.

I have concluded from reading White & Whites study of documents on the Sounds of Slavery that much of what they said is readily applicable to the (early) blues. In this, I adhere to the observations from the American folklorist and anthropologist Roger Abrahams who finds a remarkable continuum from the great African bardic traditions through work songs to the present. He refers to Houston Baker, an American scholar specializing in African American literature, quoting him : Like a streamlined athletes awesomely dazzling explosions of prowess, the blues erupts, creating a playful festival of meanings. Rather than a rigidly personalized form, (the songs) offer a nonlinear, freely associative, non-sequential meditation. There is to the early slave songs and to the blues a striking circular character also: there is no determinate beginning and ending to the song. As White & White say : songs continue until the performers have finished. The blues singer does not want to give a (linear) account of an event, he wants to express and share an emotion, evoke a meaning rather than convey a pre-ordered set of feelings or events. His

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- Jus call up Central in Heaven, Tell Jesus to come to the phone | MyBlues

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song continues until he feels that he has accomplished in giving a sense of his experience and emotion. Can you thus feel the frustration that the early blues performers must have felt when they entered those first studios where after 3 minutes recording a red lamp signaled relentlessly the end of the waxing!? When John Hurt recorded his Stack-o-Lees blues in 1928, he had to stop at 2:57; luckily he was able to express more amply his feelings about this hero-bandit some forty years later when we could enjoy his immortal version for almost six minutes _________________________ FOOTNOTES _________________________ (1) If you listen carefully, you will by the way hear some very bluesy parts in this masterpiece in musical (piano) history (but that is just a remark I give you as a sideways reflection). (2) cited in White & White, p. 136 (3) My acknowledgements go to Michael Hawkeye Herman for drawing my attention to this finding (see also : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/20/AR2007042001918.html and the Second Conference and Concert of Line-Singing at Yale, April 19, 2007. _____________________________________________ SOURCES _____________________________________________ http://blindman.15.forumer.com/index.php?showtopic=41943&hl=farka%20tour&st=15 http://www.rps.psu.edu/0205/keepers.html http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lining_out Sterling Brown, Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs, 1953 Shane White & Graham White, The Sounds of Slavery, 2005 Jonathan Curiel, Al America, Travels Through Americas Arab and Islamic Roots, 2009

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