Around the turn of the 20th century, guitar-based music with hard livin’-based lyrics developed in several parts of America’s South. Ny the 1920s, African-American artists like W.C. Handy found themselves as the torchbearers of a new genre, performed by African-Americans and mainly marketed to African-Americans, though, through a revolutionary new medium radio, the music became accessible to everyone. One of the earliest blues musicians — and most dynamic performers of all time — was Ma Rainey, “Mother of the Blues.” Enjoy this recording of Ma Rainey singing “Prove it On Me Blues.”
The Blues is a globally-rooted, American-born genre of music that, while it has developed a very particular set of musical parameters and technical requirements, ultimately is about how that song you’re singing makes you feel. The original blues didn’t rise from just one source, but most music historians acknowledge that blues artists owe a great debt to musicians from Africa. Not only did early blues instruments originate in West Africa, but the terrible heartache of African slavery clearly provided blues musicians with a reason to feel sorrow. That said, the blues music is not always serious or sad. Blues lyrics are often bawdy but also might be silly or sarcastic.
Over the next week we’ll keep sorrow in check, stay away from the bawdy and sarcastic, though I really hope we find a way to be silly.
A “honky tonk” was slang for a bar in the Southeast, Deep South and Southwest that provided musical entertainment along with the alcohol it served its working-class patrons. Though early “honky tonk” music was a rhythmic cousin of ragtime, in the early ’40s musicians such as Earnet Tubb transformed it into a hard-driving form of country music that became the soundtrack of these mainly urban establishments. In the late ’40s and early ’50s Alabama-born Hank Williams had a string of honky tonk hits like his “Honky Tonk Blues,” taking the genre to a mass audience. Unfortunately Williams lived the rough life of which he sang; Williams died in 1953 at the age of 29 as the result of heart failure due to alcohol and drug abuse.
In the 1940s Kentucky-based mandolin player Bill Monroe pioneered a form of music that came to be known as “Bluegrass.” He and his band, “The Blue Grass Boys”–a band that eventually came to include extraordinary musicians like guitar player Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs–used “mountain music” as their foundation but played it faster and with virtuosic vigor. Bluegrass included melodies and rhythms from gospel, country music, blues and laborers’ work songs. A bluegrass band’s banjo, fiddle or mandolin would play melody, while guitar and upright bass would keep the rhythm bounding forward. Monroe’s nasal, plaintive vocal style, known as “high lonesome” and is still a staple of the genre. Let’s listen to the classic, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
In 1923 Okeh Records, which helped popularize both “race records” and “hillbilly music,” introduced Appalachian banjo players and other “mountain musicians” who became popular with a string of so-called “old-time” hits. Old time music is still a dynamic and expanding genre, though we can all find great joy in older old-time musicians, like Enoch Rucherford, who we see in this video, playing banjo as if he’s been playing for a hundred years.
Yesterday we fawned over the fiddle. Today, let’s marvel at the mandolin. Though the mandolin, Italy’s regional variant of the ancient and widespread lute, started to appear in the United States as early as the 1850s, many Italian immigrants brought their mandolins with them when they immigrated to America in the 1880s. At the turn of the 20th century the mandolin was a familiar Vaudeville instrument, and also became popular among the middle class youth on college campuses and in towns throughout the South, though inthe ’30s and ’40s bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who you can see tearin’ it up in this video, was the first mandolin virtuoso to take the instrument to the country music-loving masses.
Folk music was formed by fiddles. English and Irish immigrants brought their fiddles with them when they came to “the Colonies,” and as early as the mid 1700s you’d be hard pressed to find an American folk ensemble without one. “The fiddle” was always a bit less reputable than its classical cousin, “the violin”–in fact, the two instruments are exactly the same, the only difference is the approach of the musician. American fiddle players diverged from their European and even their Canadian fellows as they picked up African-American phrasing and syncopation. Watch this 2003 performance of “Orange Blossom Special” by Vassar Clements and the Del McCoury Band for an example of great country/folk fiddlin’.
In the early days of genres we now know as folk and blues, much of the difference between the genres lay not in the themes of the songs or the way singers used songs to express their struggles, but in the race of the singer. The first recordings of American folk and blues music became widely available in the 1920s — enjoy the Mamie Smith hit, “Crazy Blues.” Folk records essentially fell into two camps: “race recordings,” which was the term for records featuring African-American musicians, marketed primarily to African-Americans (though musically-aware whites did seek them out), and “hillbilly music,” which was music performed by Appalachian whites, and marketed to a mainly white audience.
This week we’re going to focus on some of the earliest American folk music — folk/blues, folk/country and old time. The term “folk music” is so very vague; basically it could refer to any music folks from a particular place make, concerning pretty much any topic, created by the “folks” who live there. In America, early “folks” who settled (the already-settled) “New World” came from many places, including European countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany, and, usually unwillingly, Africa. Life in America was far from easy for any of the colonists, let alone for their African slaves. These folks sang about their struggles as a way to share them. They sang about their struggles as a way to survive.
We end this week of jazz explorations with an imporant genre of jazz that may not exist. Is there such a thing as “Third Stream Jazz?” In 1957 composer Gunther Schuller proposed the term to refer to the fusion of jazz and Western classical music but the idea of blending these two genres didn’t seem to satisfy either jazz or classical purists. In 1981 Schuller tried to clarify what Third Stream Jazz is by proposing this list of “What Third Stream Is Not”: It is not jazz with strings, It is not jazz played on “classical” instruments, It is not classical music played by jazz players, It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between bebop changes—nor the reverse, It is not jazz in fugal form, It is not a fugue played by jazz players, It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another option amongst many for today’s creative musicians. If Third Stream jazz is none of these things, what is it? Hmmm. Well, this page in the Jazz Music Archives points you to some examples, including this video of The Westerlies performing “Robert Henry.”
I hope you enjoyed this week’s jazziness. You can spend a life immersed in this extraordinary music — you’ll never run out of jazz.