Delta Blues

I recently started reading a fascinating book about the origins of the blues, “Delta Blues” by Ted Gioia. I’ve always been intrigued by this chapter in music history, which to a large extent will forever be shrouded in mystery, inspiring endless debate and conjecture and stirring the imagination.

The Delta blues is the original blues; the proto-blues, which inspired all the other offshoots and changed the course of music forever. “Delta” here denotes an alluvial plain found alongside the Mississippi river in northwestern Mississippi (not the actual mouth of this great river) and has been called ‘the most Southern place on earth’.

Although no one knows the precise origin of the blues, the Delta is the place where it flourished like in no other. This raw and powerful music, which would revolutionize and reinvigorate music the world over was developed by the impoverished black rural population of this region. These musically untrained farmers and manual laborers sang and used mostly stringed instruments, like the guitar – often constructing them out of everyday objects.

The sound they developed turned traditional music theory, scales and aesthetic on its ear, introducing into music a hitherto unknown mode of expression, equivalent to the introduction of a new primary color or a new dominant strain of DNA into the world. This blue hue of the blues is now present in some concentration in most of the popular music we hear.

Yet it originated simply as a way of expressing the peculiar woes of an oppressed people, who had been practically forgotten by history and by mainstream American society. The sharecroppers who lived on Southern plantations really had little apart from their call-and-response work songs to mitigate their plight of endless toil and racial subordination. On some plantations that served as penal institutions, the blues as well as chants, work songs, hollers and spirituals flourished with even more fervor, literally becoming a means of survival.

So apart from the musical specifics of the blues, with its blue notes, dominant chords and twelve-bar forms is this purely human aspect. And Ted Gioia does a wonderful job of narrating the lives of the legendary and colorful pioneering masters of the blues. All these guys - John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and many others – each left their indelible, trademark stamp on the blues, shaping our definition of what the blues ought to be and inspiring some of the most enduring stereotypes of the rambling bluesman as well.

These people of the soil, who worked the land until they were finally set free by their music, were often elusive, disappearing after recording sessions until tracked down again by scouts. Some were in and out of jail (often for shootings and other violent crime), with serious drinking or drug problems; with affairs and illegitimate children all over the South. Some died in suspicious circumstances, never really being able to shake their underworld entanglements. In some ways, these blues biographies foreshadowed the lives of future rappers and hip hop culture in general.

The blues (the music, the history and the culture) is an endlessly fascinating subject for music lovers, stirring and reinvigorating the imagination (musical or other) with its direct and raw, earthy power.

Charlie Chaplin – Composer

Although Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) is remembered as one of the greatest and most iconic comedians of the silver screen, it is not common knowledge that he was an accomplished composer, scoring the films he starred in. This is hardly surprising, though, since the fact that he was a true auteur – writing, directing and editing his movies – is also largely overlooked.

He was a peerless film scorer – maybe the most melodic film composer ever; or at least of the first half of the 20th century. A self-taught musician who never learned to read or write notation, Chaplin had a prodigious grasp of mood, character and situation – introducing another dimension to films he made in the silent movie era almost a hundred years ago. He seemed to effortlessly evoke pathos, irony, romance, abandon, delight, mischievousness or trouble.

Chaplin’s colorful melodies ascend and descend, hop along, jump and dive in a lively and ornate style uniquely Chaplinesque. His leitmotifs could tell the entire emotional side of his stories without the images. He could write waltzes and tangos, marches and ballads with sublime, haunting and indelible melodies often harkening back to his vaudevillian roots.

One example is the song “Smile”, which was taken from his score for “Modern Times” and supplied with lyrics. It has become a standard sung by countless performers, such as Michael Jackson, yet its authorship would come as a surprise to most. Other famous melodies include the theme from “Limelight” or “This Is My Song”, famously sung by Petula Clark (also featuring in Chaplin’s “The Countess from Hong Kong”).

And far from being predictable and just complementing or illustrating the moving images, Chaplin would create irony by countering the action with a different mood. A great example is the iconic scene in “The Gold Rush”, where Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, after being stranded in the Klondike, is forced to eat his shoe out of starvation. Instead of underscoring the humor and absurdity of the situation with a quirky, off-beat tune, Chaplin supplies us with a charming little waltz; pointing instead to what the Tramp is fantasizing about instead of reality.

At the end of the day, Charlie Chaplin was a great composer of music, whether accompanying a film or not. He’s my favorite composer, hands down. It has been suggested that greatness is best measured by the number of great melodies a composer wrote and how ubiquitous they have become. And Chaplin is one of the most melodic… Still, he is simply not as well remembered as a king of melody like Tchaikovsky. It’s undoubtedly because this immense talent of Chaplin’s was overshadowed by his many other talents…

Some other music to check out:

Suite from “The Kid”

A waltz from “The Kid”

“Bitter Tango” from “Monsieur Verdoux”

Music from “Pay Day”

A tune from “City Lights”

The Big Easy vs. The Big Shots

“Get Funky Jazz Performers” by Renie Britenbucher

“Life without music is unthinkable, music without life is academic. That is why my contact with music is a total embrace.”

- Leonard Bernstein

In early 20th century Western classical music, there was a growing, conscious effort to move away from ‘the confines’ of diatonic harmony and create a ‘modern’ approach to music. Ever-growing disdain for consonance and tonality was a hallmark of this period, and atonality – the ultimate musical ivory tower – the inevitable result. Touted as the most important musical development of the century, atonality has had almost no real impact on the music people actually listen to – unless we’re talking about ear-grating horror movie scores.

At the same time, New Orleans, Louisiana (including, to a large extent, the Mississippi River Valley all the way up to St. Louis, Missouri) had become perhaps the most potent musical hub in the world. As opposed to the official music capitals Vienna and Paris and the big Western universities, The Big Easy’s influence was undeniable and enormous; yielding the most influential musical styles of the last hundred years, including ragtime, jazz, blues, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk and disco.

Even if conservative, diatonic harmony were indeed starting to sound hackneyed to some, these offered solutions. For example, the blues employed blue notes (flatted 3rd, 5th and 7th notes) as well as adding 7ths to the tonic, subdominant and dominant chords, while maintaining their original functions in the harmony. Jazz involved unconventional improvisation, with harmony- and melody-bending interpretations of existing music that also moved away from, yet remained in the orbit of tonal music.

African-Americans such as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton and all sorts of intriguing characters of early rhythm and blues or jazz directly or indirectly shaped the destiny of of 20th century music. What is interesting is that the progenitors of these lively and groundbreaking styles weren’t at all interested in pushing the envelope; they just loved playing music. If the mainstream musical culture of the time had reached a self-wrought dead end, this explosion of unabated, raw creativity provided the escape route.

And it’s not about classical vs. popular music or high brow vs. low brow. Western classical music isn’t snooty or self-indulgent by definition; it had become subverted, beginning with bigheaded Romantic ideas. The same thing eventually happened to jazz. Its creators and proponents realized its sublimity and in the second half of the 1900s it became equally contorted and stale. Art, it seems, must remain a means to an end (that of enhancing the human experience); it must not become the end itself.

And it’s not just pomposity, (Romantic) solipsism or excessive refinement that result. It’s the self-conscious creative process whereby one strives to consciously be original or groundbreaking; observing oneself and attempting to tame and direct forces that are beyond one’s control. Truly fresh and imaginative songs and styles are born when this result is the last thing on one’s mind.

This touches on the general principle: On cause mieux quand on ne dit pas «Causons» (“One converses better when one does not say, “Let us converse.”) It’s like the children in C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, who couldn’t enter the magical world of Narnia when they consciously wanted to. Art arises from just doing one’s job well and hopefully enjoying it. It comes from adversity and accidents and not conscious planning.

Romantic Amadeus?

Most people who have seen Milos Forman’s classic film “Amadeus” realize the artistic licence taken with its portrayals of both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his ‘rival’ Antonio Salieri. When Peter Shaffer wrote the original play, historical accuracy was doubtless the last thing on his mind. The story was more of a retelling of the Cain and Abel story; of the resentment arising from perceived Divine favoritism (or at least undemocratic distribution of talent…).

The film is laden with blatant historical inaccuracies such as Mozart’s buffoonery and alcoholism, his apparently unmerited talent (even though a prodigy, Mozart studied the works of masters endlessly), the cause and circumstances of his death, Salieri’s second-rate compositional ability, not to mention his diabolical scheme to destroy Mozart, right down to meticulous homicidal plans. These attract all the attention because they constitute central themes and a foundation for what is probably one of the greatest cinematic studies of morbid jealousy in the character of Salieri.

What is taken for granted, however, is the anachronistic inclusion of peculiarly Romantic perceptions and concepts, which appeared at the tail end of the 18th century and only started gaining ground in the 19th. Of primary concern is the fictional Salieri’s obsessing about the importance and grandeur of music; deeply resenting the immortality guaranteed Mozart by his music.

But Mozart and his contemporaries didn’t even think of themselves as artists. The concept of writing for posterity was completely alien to them. They considered themselves skilled craftsmen supplying a commodity, nothing more. Any forward-thinking a Mozart or Salieri would have done during composition most likely revolved around their paycheck. Yet this theme of eternal glory is even more central to the plot than all the other historical inaccuracies in the film.

And this isn’t confined to “Amadeus”. The achievements of composers like Mozart are often reframed in an imaginary progressive scenario. For instance, a well-known modulating passage in the 4th movement of Mozart’s 40th symphony is often labeled as ahead of its time; a precursor of the Schoenbergian 12-tone system. But suggesting that Mozart would have, consciously or not, been striving towards 20th century atonalism is fantastic and silly. Just as perceiving creativity as some sort of endless forward march is. It seems that it is better when it is for here and now; for the purpose at hand.

But these sorts of misconceptions are hallmarks of contemporary thinking about the past. It seems to come as a surprise to many that history’s great and influential minds weren’t thinking in the same categories as us or aspiring to the same things. It was, perhaps, for the better.


Secondary Dominants – part 2

A great example of an effective application of the secondary dominant – and of masterful songcraft in general – is the perennial Latin classic, “Perfidia” by Alberto Domínguez (1911–1975). It has been performed by some of the most renowned entertainers, like Nat King Cole (above), but versions by Trio Los Panchos as well as Xavier Cugat’s legendary orchestra serve our musical purpose better here. The chord progression for the section discussed is as follows:

Dm, D7, Gm, A7, Dm

D7____, Gm, E7,  A7

After a brief introduction, the song proper commences with a wistful melody over the tonic D minor chord, which then transforms into the corresponding D7 secondary dominant. This pulls the melody nicely into the ‘away’ feel of the subdominant G minor, D7′s tonic. It’s far more poignant than a simple Dm, Gm progression would have been. The phrase ends with a perfect A7, Dm cadence.

The melody then repeats, but now it commences already on the D7, intensifying this part of the phrase even more. And then, also, the cadence is modified by inserting the secondary dominant, E7, which resolves to the primary dominant, A7. This again adds a pleasant tang to the melody and shifts the harmony back a step so that the phrase now ends on the A7 instead of Dm.

A7 then takes the song into the parallel D major chord (and key) for the exquisite ostinato accompaniment of the chorus…

In part 1, I mentioned the possibility of using a series of dominants in a cascade of perfect cadences, often for the main melody of a song. This is the case with Elvis Presley’s “Today, Tomorrow and Forever”, where he sings a captivating duet with Ann-Margret (the melody is actually taken from Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum No. 3 in A flat”).

The progression (originally in C# major) is as follows: C, E, A7, D7, G9, C. All but the first chord are part of a sequence of perfect cadences – E, A7, and D7 being nondiatonic secondary dominants (E could have a 7 but doesn’t need one to function as a dominant).

Another, less prominent application of this same idea is found at the beginning of the B part in Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. Here, there is a truncated, descending version of the main motif over F#7, B7, E7, A7, D7, G… all dominants of dominants down to tonic G.

Obviously, the examples aren’t derived from contemporary music and this reflects a general shift away from this harmonic device in favor of different (eg. plagal) sounds and cadences.