6. Some Characteristics of the Blues
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6 - Some Characteristics of the Blues Rural blues in the Deep South is not a completely homogeneous tradition. Enough time has elapsed since pre-blues traditions crystallized into something toward the end of the nineteenth century that could be called "blues" to allow for early processes of divergence analogous to how a language splits into dialects, and subsequent processes of convergence, i.e., mutual influences and borrowings among the formerly divergent styles. In a comparative study of hand postures and thumbing patterns of blues guitarists—from Henry Thomas, born 1874, to Robert Belfour, born 1940— Andrew M. Cohen has come up with the following revised delineation of Blues Stylistic Regions. i. Eastern: I use this word as the equivalent of the more commonly used Piedmont, the rolling detrital hills that constitute tobacco country south and east of the Appalachians. We can expect black folk-blues guitarists from Delawareto Florida, east of a line connecting Knoxville and Atlanta and extending north and south from there, to extend their right thumbs when they play, and most of them play bass strings with an alternating thumb. A large majority of the black guitar players in the region play with their thumbs extended, as do most white guitarists in the region. The central part of this region—the Virginias and the Carolinas—is the part of the country where blacks and whites have lived side by side the longest. This fact may also help to explain why there is relatively more shared textual material in this tobacco country than in cotton country. . .. 2. Delta: The so-called Delta is not a delta at all but the lush swampy land, cleared of woods in the last century and a half, between the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers from Memphis to Vicksburg. Not to be confused with the delta at the mouth of the Mississippi River below New Orleans, this patch of land is a part, but not all, of the hearth area of Mississippi's blues culture. As a stylistic region the Delta is much larger, encompassing the states of Mississippi and Alabama and extendingto eastern Arkansas,west82 ern Tennessee, and northeastern Louisiana. In this region thumb use shows little overt patterning; instead thumbed notes are struck as needed within melodic guitar figures. I call this "utility-thumb" playing. 3. Texas: Another stylistic area can be identified between (roughly) Houston and Dallas and over to Texarkana, Texas, and Shreveport, Louisiana. . . . Most of what the Texas and northwestern Louisiana players do melodically (that is, on the treble side of the guitar) they do in conjunction with a "dead thumb," playing four beats to the measure on the same string. (Cohen 1992: 458—59) From an Africanist perspective it appears that the Mississippi "Delta" (in Cohen's extended geographical sense of the term) is the most important core area for the more African stylistic traits in the blues. Africanists such as myself and Moya Aliya Malamusi, revisitingthe area in August 1997, have had difficulty detecting any significant "European" musical components in this style, aside from the use of Western factory-manufactured equipment. For us, this observation includes chordal structures and preferences. After a joint visit with David Evans to bluesman Robert Belfour's present home in Memphis on August i, 1997, Moya, himself a guitarist and one-string bass player—although rooted in a different tradition—made this comment: He said that what had struck him most was that at least in one of Belfour's tunings, the open tuning he called "Spanish" (high to low: E—Cl—A - E—A—E), he would always let the fift string vibrate unfretted. At the same time he would carry out elaborate fingerwork on the upper strings. As a result the fifth string functioned like a drone, like a constant reference tone permeating the tonal-harmonic process. Here Moya had hit at the nerve center of Belfour's tonal-harmonic world, the world by implication shared with many others in the "Delta" or "Deep South" blues style, the presence of a virtual bourdon with a powerful central tonal gravity. Interrelated with this primary concept is the use of "riffs" (short repeated melodic -rhythmic figures) as a song's underlying building blocks (cf Belfour's recordings on TheSpirit Lives On, Hot Fox HF-CD-oo5). It is, of course, natural for everyone to interpret a sound event in terms of the culture with which they are familiar. This is why Western-trained musicians will always detect European chord progressions in the...