STEVE POND: Hello. I'm Steve Pond. I'm an assistant professor in the music department at Cornell. And I want to talk to you about a really fascinating moment in the nation's history in the 20th century. Think about the 15 years, immediately after World War II. So many things happening, socially, culturally, politically, and musically. So today we want to talk about rhythm and blues, what forces brought that into being, and what it pointed to.
When we think about rhythm and blues rising in the late 1940s, usually we think of iconic performers, often jump bands, like Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, Amos Milburn, Roy Milton and his Solid Senders, Lucky Millinder. But there are several other streams that contribute to this. Former Big Band performers like Billy Eckstine, Big Joe Turner who had sung with the Count Basie Orchestra. And singers whose style seem to be a reframing of the 1920s classic blues tradition, people like Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington, Charles Brown, and LaVern Baker. Also former gospel singers like Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Johnny Taylor. And also the doo-wop groups, the sidewalk quartets, like the Ravens, the Orioles, all the bird groups, the Cadillacs, the Silhouettes, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. And urban blues stylists like Lowell Fulson, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and onward. So there's a huge conglomeration of people that contribute to this style that we tend to think of as this one style called rhythm and blues. It ain't like that.
This it's really not the place to go into a long discussion of the beginnings of down-home blues, but just to reconsider when it began as a solo tradition, being played in a rural setting for one or two people or for one's self. The structure was very, very loose in the late 1800s, when we believe that the blues began. But when it came into a larger venue and people needed to play with more volume in a cabaret or a cafe or on the stage, people needed to have a more structured style so that they'd know what was going to happen with each other and be able to play with somebody and have it work out. So the style sort of coalesced into a particular set of forms.
There are three or four common forms in blues, but the sort of paradigm is 12 bar blues. Twelve bar blues is both a lyrical form and a musical form, with three lyrical lines, one that's repeated, comprising the first two lines, and then an answering line. And there's a call and response aspect to this. So you have one statement that's said lyrically, and then a guitar or instrumental answer to that, sort of a neat call and response tradition. That is something that develops over time. And so when we hear something like Fred McDowell's "Old Original Blues," which is recorded in the 1930s, but really refers back to a very early style of blues, you see it takes a long time for him to get around to finishing that lyrical line, it takes him almost a minute.
[MUSIC -- FRED MCDOWELL, "OLD ORIGINAL BLUES"]
STEVE POND: Now compare that to the urban blues tradition, where in the 1940s and into the 1950s, the electric guitar has become sort of the solo instrument of choice Elmore James' "Dust My Broom," from 1951, is a great example of this, where he's playing with a small combo now, and everybody needs to know how this is going to work. So the lyrical style, the verse style, is much more fixed, much more predictable, and it's important that it be so, so everybody is on track with each other.
[MUSIC -- ELMORE JAMES, "DUST MY BROOM"]
STEVE POND: So this small group format starts to become a paradigm. It starts to become a model that is commonly used. And that paradigm starts to grow. More instruments are added, because part of the idea here is to add lots of different sounds, different sounds that are different sounding from each other. There's a heterogeneity here that is very much at work. So when you have something like "Reconsider Baby," by Lowell Fulson, 1953, now he's a featured guitar player, playing solo in a blues idiom, but backed by a rhythm section and horns. The whole atmosphere is much more expanded.
[MUSIC -- LOWELL FULSON, "RECONSIDER BABY"]
STEVE POND: Now focus on the instrumentation here, because what you have is drums, bass, guitar as a solo instrument and rhythm instrument, the horn section, and the voice, always foregrounding the voice. But that saxophone section, that saxophone sound, becomes a very important aspect of rhythm and blues, and in fact becomes the secondary solo instrument of choice. So that, when you have two songs that sort of demonstrate this, one, "Choo, Choo, Ch'Boogie," by Louis Jordan, this is 1947, and I'm going kind of juxtapose that with Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," of 1957, you get a sense that these are very similar forms, but with a difference in solo instrument.
[MUSIC -- LOUIS JORDAN, "CHOO CHOO CH'BOOGIE"]
[MUSIC -- CHUCK BERRY, "ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC"]
STEVE POND: So we've come from a very down-home, rural, sort of amorphous way of playing, into a much more structured, much more urbane, venue-driven kind of music. Now, "Old Original Blues," by Fred McDowell talks about going to getting a mojo hand so that it'll make his woman stay in love with him, and make sure that he's in the driver's seat in that love relationship. A mojo hand is something that only somebody from a tradition that understands those mythologies and vernacular traditions would have a handle on, would understand what the reference was.
But as we go into rhythm and blues, as they develop into the city, as they start to enlarge and become more urbane, the themes become more universal. And so even though they tend to assume still a working-class kind of mentality, and often give veiled or sometimes explicit references to black life, still the themes start to become more expanded.
This becomes even more important as the style starts to coalesce, because now the third class starts to emerge, teenagers. So rhythm and blues, you can see is growing out of a black tradition foremost, out of an emerging urban tradition, which we'll talk about in a second, but soon starts to capture the imagination and frustrations and worldview of teenagers, which become their own class, emerging into rock and roll.
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In this study room, Steve Pond explores the musical roots of Rhythm and Blues - from the influences of jazz, early blues and gospel music, to the Jump Bands and "Boogie-woogie" music of the forties. Learn how the societal, political and musical changes after World War II shaped the record industry and the emergence of modern day Rhythm and Blues music.
This video is part 1 of 6 in the Where did Rhythm and Blues come from? series.