Friday, November 27, 2015

The Blues

No. 211 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at https://archive.org/details/pcast211



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This month’s podcast montage concludes our November homage to artists we have lost – and anniversaries thereof – with a focus on three of them and a common thematic link.

The three honorees this week are guitarist B.B. King, singer-songwriter-artist Gerry Boulet and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein (who was already featured earlier in the month). And the “glue” that binds them together is the Blues.

What is the Blues? Some would say it’s a form of musical expression, others a musical genre, and I think both are right in their own way. It’s about worry, broken hearts, despair and it’s also a musical genre with its own “code” and “patterns”. A key ingredient is the Blue Note – or the worried note - sung or played at a slightly different pitch (typically between a quartertone and a semitone). Like the blues in general, the blue notes can mean many things. One quality that they all have in common, however, is that they are lower than one would expect, classically speaking.  A great example is the Elvis Presley hit Heartbreak Hotel

Ever Since my baby left me… “my” here is sung as a blue note.

We associate the Blues with North America and Afro-American music, but English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "A Negro Love Song", from his The African Suite for Piano composed in 1898, contains blue third and seventh notes.

African American composer W. C. Handy wrote in his autobiography of the experience of sleeping on a train traveling through Tutwiler, Mississippi around 1903, and being awakened by:

... a lean, loose-jointed Negro who had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. ... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly... The singer repeated the line ("Going' where the Southern cross' the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.

This account, if you ask me, is the first recorded instance of a tradition we call the Mississippi Delta Blues, epitomized – and recorded for posterity – in an odd recording session held on November 23, 1936, in room 414 of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. The artist, Delta Blues guitar artist extraordinaire Robert Johnson, set 16 tracks to vinyl that day, including "Come On In My Kitchen", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom", "Cross Road Blues" and the classic blues anthem "Sweet Home Chicago".

The melody of "Sweet Home Chicago" is found in several blues songs, including "Honey Dripper Blues", "Red Cross Blues", and the immediate model for the song, "Kokomo Blues". In his rendition, Johnson succeeded in evoking an exotic modern place, far from the South, which is an amalgam of famous migration goals for African Americans leaving the South:

But I'm cryin' hey baby, Honey don't you want to go / Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago

Last time I checked, Chicago is nowhere near California… To later singers this contradictory location held more appeal than obscure Kokomo, which is probably why this stuck. And it is also fitting that Chicago is, to many, the home of the Blues, and of the Blues Brothers. It also is where conductor Seiji Ozawa was introduced to the Blues, while music director of the Chicago Symphony’s summer festival in Ravinia.

In 1966, after hearing a local group - the Siegel–Schwall Band - perform live at Big John's in Chicago, Ozawa conceived the idea of combining blues and classical music. The following year, Ozawa conducted a performance of William Russo's Symphony No. 2, Titans, at the Ravinia Festival. Shortly after that, Russo was commissioned to write and orchestrate the composition that became Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra.

Each “part” (or movement) of the work introduces one of the handful of easily recognizable “riffs” (or patterns) we all associate with Blues performance. While the orchestral parts are fully delineated, the blues band parts are more broadly outlined, leaving significant room for musical improvisation.

Ozawa famously apprenticed under Leonard Bernstein in the early 1960’s, and so it is a fitting segue to continue our exploration of Symphonic Blues under Lenny’s able penmanship. We all remember the film On The Town which starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors enjoying leave in the Big Apple. The film, and musical, was set to music by Bernstein and was based on Jerome Robbins' idea for his 1944 ballet Fancy Free, which was also composed by Bernstein.

The scene is a bar and the outside sidewalk in New York City, in wartime. Three sailors on leave boisterously arrive, have a drink and head outside looking for female companionship. A beautiful girl passes by and the three sailors vie for her attention. She demurs and escapes, pursued by two of the sailors. The Third, having been left in the dust, encounters another beautiful passer-by, and invites her to have a drink with him. He impresses her with a pantomime of his military exploits, and they dance a passionate pas de deux. This musical number – and indeed many of the numbers – uses the theme of a blues song that Bernstein composed especially for the ballet, “Big Stuff”. 

So you cry, “What’s it about, Baby?”
You ask why the blues had to go and pick you.

“Big Stuff” was conceived with the African American jazz singer Billie Holiday in mind, even though it ended up being recorded for the production by Bernstein’s sister Shirley. At that early point in Bernstein’s career, he lacked the cultural and fiscal capital to hire anyone as famous as Holiday. A few years later, she did record the song, and it is that rendition that I included in the montage, followed by significant highlights from the ballet.

In May 2015, American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist B. B. King passed away. An undisputed icon of the Blues -the King of the Blues to many - Rolling Stone magazine ranked King No. 6 on its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Where Robert Johnson is recognized as a master of the “acoustic Delta blues guitar”, King on his “Lucille” Gibson guitar eintroduced a sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that influenced many later electric blues guitarists. King was known for performing tirelessly throughout his musical career, appearing at more than 200 concerts per year on average into his 70s. Today’s montage includes a few tracks recorded by King, including his great standard “The Thrill is Gone”.

Gerry Boulet, who died 25 years ago this year, is the iconic voice of French Canadian Rock and Blues. Most famous as vocalist for the Quebec rock band Offenbach, he is considered one of the innovators of rock music in joual, the plain talk French Quebec dialect. His musical style and raspy voice are both unique and unforgettable.

Offenbach’s original members had long debated what language they should sing in. Boulet held strongly to the custom of singing in English, but Pierre Harel felt that French would be more natural. While the band members sat around waiting on Harel’s arrival, they started playing around a good “walking boogie” lead by bassist Michel Lamothe. When Harel arrived, Gerry was singing “That’s why, that’s why I’m singing the blues”. Harel then composed French lyrics on a paper place-mat that became the chorus

L’aut’soir, l’aut’soir, j’ai chanté du blues / L’aut’soir, l’aut’soir ça l’a rendu jalouse

Thus was born Câline de blues, a song now revered as a classic in the Quebec blues-rock repertoire.
Set to vinyl several times by the band, Offenbach’s first gold album, “Offenbach en fusion” (a jazz-rock hit), contains another edition of the song, and it is that version that concludes our montage.


I think you will love this music too.