Ever heard the stereotype that blacks in the United States talk too loudly at movie theaters? Needless to say, blacks aren’t the only folks to shout out phrases at the cinema like, “Don’t go in there, fool!” as one wonderful man hollered during a moment in an easily forgettable scary movie that I watched around Halloween last year.
Yet, these provocative participatory moments encode a terrific hallmark that I would like to highlight and, while these moments may annoy some people—yes, the very same people who become surreptitiously alarmed by even the sight of a group of blacks in public or who become fearful by just the sight of a lone black man around them when walking in the city—these moments indicate a remarkable formal hallmark of the blues.
Provocative participation is the first of six elements of blues form that I discuss today and tomorrow. Take in mind that, as with most artistry rooted in the centuries-old folkways of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the African Diaspora, there is no separation between sound, language, and movement in the blues. These spheres interpenetrate even while the blues manifest differently on the page, on the stage, in song, in oratory, and in dance. For definitional context, visit the Internet’s many encyclopedic entries to learn about the basic history of the blues’ origins in the rural American South and its adaption of spirituals, field hollering, work songs, and ballads by enslaved Africans and their descendants.
Often when devotees explain hallmarks of artistic forms rooted in the African Diaspora, respondents say comments like these: “But European music uses antiphony all the time!” or “But all music matters not just the blues!” Mind you: deflection is a kind of bias. Indeed, many artistic forms engage the hallmarks discussed here. This fact does not obscure the particular ways that the blues configure these formal characteristics or the specific manner in which the blues matters within the cultures through which it proliferates.
And one final caveat: discussing general hallmarks should in no way suggest that the blues are not diverse. On the contrary, these general characteristics are always varied and contested throughout centuries of development. But, that I and others can point to these formal traits indicates the cultural strength and distinctiveness of the blues.
Like the man who shouted out in the movie theater last year, the blues contain a variety of provocative participation that is more than static call-and-response. My students within the jazz dance and music class at the semi-rural university (mentioned in yesterday's entry) often heard the refrains within the blues as inert, meaningless restatements. Inviting them to see beyond this assumption and understand repeated phrases from a different cross-cultural perspective was often challenging.
Repeated phrases in the blues provoke a both tense (strained) and intense (excited) relationship with the previously established theme. This provocation can be insinuation, rebuke, or alarm—as if the repetition elevates the concern implicit in the preceding statement. Polite, high bourgeoisie cultures sometimes demand quiet acquiesce: don’t participate, don’t react, don’t protest, and don’t be too provocative. Not so with the blues.
In the blues, repetition provokes reassessment, redirection, or even critiques of prior statements in a way that enlivens a conversation. Repetitions also strike out against the suggestion that the original statement may not have been entirely or rightly heard or understood. That may be why repetitions in the blues are so often coupled with improvised riffs in the form of vamped interrogations, nods (recognizing or affirming phrases), invectives (snippets of curses), and invocations (parts of prayers) like “I’m tellin’ you,” “Sure enough,” "What you say?" "Night and day!" "Have mercy,” “Y’all hear me?” or “Amen!”
These refrains also set up the ironic twist in the closing line of grouping of phrases. On the page, the AAB rhyme scheme of three-line blues stanzas organize this set-up. This set-up creates the effect of the entire group of phrases turning in on one another. When understood as a whole, the phrases reveal unexpected shifts in meaning that are best expressed through cascading provocative participation—like many voices calling out at the screen in a cinema.
The second line in this three-lined blues stanza by yours truly performs the basics of this provocative participation:
She swears her feet are daggers & her body ain’t free
I tell you, she swears her feet are daggers & her body ain’t free
Have mercy, she sure feels vicious when she walks over me
A blues scale—a pentatonic scale—-runs counter to the traditional scale of European-descended music—or the diatonic scale. A blues note is sung or played in a bent way, with a nonstandard pitch, or a slurred, melismatic style. The counterfactual progression of the blues scale and the blues note comprise the bedrock of jazz, rock, R&B, and most of the way popular music is composed and performed, however cursorily.
Here is a seven-note blues scale in C sung by yours truly (and I will be the first to admit that I was never a “great” entertainer, just a good study and a serviceable performer, so don’t expect a miracle within this quickly prepared recording by a very exhausted night creature):
Compare this blues scale to the traditional do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do scale sung by Julie Andrews in the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "Do-Re-Mi" from the musical and film The Sound of Music.
One of the effects of provocative participation in the blues is that we are not always certain who is speaking to whom. Further still, we become uncertain as to whether the speaker is a unitary lyric voice, two voices contending against each other, or a chorus. Often these tensions rise in the blues quickly from one line to the next, creating a sense of heightened, ongoing dissociation. Refrains steady this shifting vocality, providing landmarks within the shifting voices. Later in the week when I talk about Bessie Smith’s blues song, “Gimmie A Pigfoot,” I hope to illustrate this formal attribute.
Tomorrow I will discuss three other formal hallmarks:
- Ironic Juxtaposition
- Fractious Allusion
- Improvisation As Composition.