The 4 Hour Blues

(for Langston Hughes)

We start work at 6,
break at 8,
go again till 10,
then spread thin,

straining hoom
across the street,
pay to park the horn
in the barn.

4 plus 8 hours of bars:
menus, bibs, gases, and books.
We buy these blues,
coughing up blue stained bills,

so our blues may change
to greens.
We play the 4 hour blues.
We play the 4 hour blues.

78 RPM Saturday Night

Three new short pieces up over at SoundCloud with The Variable Trio. “Little Richard” and “Easy on the Blues” were attempts to recreate the shellac 78 sound, using aged vocals recorded open microphone into a portable recorder on tape cassettes then playing them back through a boombox into GarageBand, using the laptop open microphone and the “telephone vocal” setting with increased reverb. “Coffee House Scramble” was recorded using six tracks of GarageBand settings (Wide Wide Wah, Spring Theory, Alien Waves, Echolalia, Old School Punk, and Swampland), using the Fender Telecaster played unplugged acoustically into the laptop open microphone, and adding tracks of Yamaha Bass, hand claps and thigh slaps and slides, and acoustic piano.

Blues Bus at Berfrois

Berfrois waves down the Toads’ Blues Bus.

Blues Bus to the Blues Fest; or, The Blues Concert as Lecture

“I am here, and there is nothing to say,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1961). “If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.” So we boarded Line 15, ancient music now turned summer, for the 2011 Portland Blues Festival. The bus in summer is different than the bus in winter. The bus in winter is a lecture on nothing; the summer bus is a lecture on something. Yet Cage also said, on the flip side “Lecture on Something,” “This is a talk about something and naturally also a talk about nothing.”

We went down to hear a lecture by Lucinda Williams, who sings in a laconic voice, lips tight but arms open, looking like some hair-tired but blessed mom who’s just thrown a gutter ball. Singing on an outdoor stage close by the river spotted with yachts, Lucinda appeared to be glancing at notes loose on a music stand, and during “Born to Be Loved,” a breeze up from the water blew the notes off the stand and onto the stage, reminding us of a paper we recently read on the Norm Friesen blog: The Lecture as a Transmedial Pedagogical Form: A Historical Analysis.

Friesen, whose publication set-list rivals a Dylan discography, and whose research funding rivals a branch of the military, argues that the lecture is “a remarkably adaptable and robust genre that combines textual record and ephemeral event.” Thus Friesen tries to save the lecture as a meaningful pedagogical tool: “The lecture, I argue, is most effectively understood as bridging oral communication with writing, rather than as being a purely spoken form that is superseded by textual, digital, or other media technologies….”

Lucinda first appeared to want to rescue the fallen notes, then turned to face the born to drum Buick 6 drummer Butch Norton in cowboy hat and Bermuda shorts and banged a clinched fist against a desperate hip, for, as Friesen explains, “…the ideal for the lecture is to create an illusion. Parts of the lecture may be memorized, but in a long-standing tradition, it is generally read aloud. And in reading aloud, what the lecturer strives to create is the illusion of spontaneity and extemporaneity.” I started to jot down some notes, Joe Mitchell style, and the woman next to me (we were standing at a beer garden table behind the seated crowd, with a panoramic view of the Hawthorne Bridge to the north, the river, the water turning from blue to silver as the evening spread, dappled with the playful yachts, and Lucinda’s serious stage to the south) asked me if I was working on a set-list.

When we were in school, pre-e-hysteria, pre-WeakPoint, there were two kinds of teachers, those who lectured and those who ran discussion classes. Discussion classes were often popular for their freewheeling possibilities, yet many students avoided them, for they often filled with students who themselves seemed to want to lecture. My favorite lecturer was Abe Ravitz. There was never a syllabus, just a list of books we’d be reading, a set-list. Dr. Ravitz walked purposefully into class, book in hand, and started talking. He had no notes, just the text, which he referred to, quoting frequently. We took notes. This was not an illusion. We wrote in-class essay exams, in blue books.

Larry Cuban, commenting on the Friesen paper, asks, “if lecturing is so bad for learning and seen as obsolete, how come it is still around?” Amiri Baraka explains in his groundbreaking lecture on the blues, Blues People (1963): “With rhythm & blues, blues as an autonomous music had retreated to the safety of isolation. But the good jazzmen never wanted to get rid of the blues. They knew instinctively how they wanted to use it, e.g., Ellington.” This is in the chapter titled “The Blues Continuum.” Just so, the best lecturers are part of a continuum, and don’t want to get rid of their roots, and know how they want to use them, and the worst lecturers are those who are self-satisfied, and who might lose their cool if they lose their notes. Yet there are always breaks in the texts, as we learned from the French scholars (Barthes, for example). Lucinda’s notes blowing off her stand was a break in her text, revealing that she is a blues lecturer, but not a self-satisfied one.

Schopenhauer’s Blues; or, On Jazz & Folk Music, from Hoedown to Hootenanny: A Happening Post

Over at JazzWax, jazz journalist Marc Meyers pulls out an old discussion, with Stan Kenton trying to explain a depressed jazz market. Marc focuses on Kenton’s suggestion that the emergence of folk helps explain the jazz recession, but finds Kenton’s explanation historically inaccurate: “I find this entire folk-as-jazz-killer thing a hoot,” Marc says.

Hoot of course is the folk mating call, suggesting hootenanny, a down-home “happening.” Yet the etymologies of both hootenanny and its precursor, the hoedown, suggest that folk and jazz have common ancestral roots in Blues People.

A flat note of interest in the Kenton comments transcribed by Marc suggests an adulteration of jazz through the commercialization processes: “The jazz we have known, explained Kenton, from 1890 to the late 1950s, has spent itself and has become absorbed by American music in general.” But, by definition, we might argue that jazz is that music which absorbs every other musical form without losing its own identity. Jazz is, at its roots, a folk music, and to suggest that folk music isn’t now or wasn’t ever popular is a self-contradictory proposition.

In any case, foraging through the OED this morning, researching the etymology of hootenanny, hoedown, and happening, I culled the following hoots, displayed below:

1963 Daily Mail 11 Sept. 8/4 Hootenanny. …is to the folk singer what a jam session is to the jazzman. 1964 Mrs. L. B. Johnson White House Diary 13 Jan. (1970) 44, I love folk music, but the name ‘Hootenanny’ rather repels me. 1967 ‘J. Munro’ Money that Money can’t Buy ix. 114   Two more cowboys appeared. …They played hoe-down music. 1969 Guardian 2 Sept. 8/2 The atmosphere was that of…a hoedown in—well, perhaps in Hibbing, Minn. 1970 Daily Tel. 29 Dec. 10 Tomorrow the 1,600 delegates will see a ‘happening’ called ‘Thank God We’re Normal’ performed by 70 boys and girls from…comprehensive schools in London.

Music is a language of feeling (as opposed to a language of thinking), though it might sound illogical to think of music as a language, since music not being a language is what gives it its universal character. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “with respect to the theme of achieving more peaceful and transcendent states of mind, Schopenhauer believes that music achieves this by embodying the abstract forms of feelings, or feelings abstracted from their particular everyday circumstances. This allows us to perceive the quintessence of emotional life — ‘sadness itself,’ ‘joy itself,’ etc. — without the contingent contents that would typically cause suffering. By expressing emotion in this detached or disinterested way, music allows us to apprehend the nature of the world without the frustration involved in daily life, and hence, in a mode of aesthetic awareness that is akin to the tranquil philosophical contemplation of the world.”

As good a definition of the blues as I’ve ever heard.