STEVE POND: When I was talking about the progression from downhome blues to a more urban style, one of the things we talked about was lyrical trends. Another thing that happens about this time is a shift-- not so much a shift, but an emphasis of novelty lyrics and lyrics with deep sexual innuendo. This is something that actually has a reference point to an earlier intersection of traditions back from the turn of the century into the 1920s.
Now, we're all familiar with minstrelsy in the 19th century. By the late 19th century, the typical minstrel show had sort of grown, evolved, into a larger, vaudeville, variety show kind of format, with people like Ma Rainey and her Rabbit's Foot Minstrels making some of the very early recordings of blues. Now, the kinds of blues that they were doing tended to be the blues form as we've discussed, joined with a jazz band, because jazz, remember, was developing at the same moment. So the idea of a singer backed by performers in a jazz combo, a jazz group, became sort of a paradigm of its own.
As the recording industry in the 1920s started to grow-- we're going to talk about this in more depth a little bit later. But as it started to grow and become solidified into a large market, one of the ways of appealing to a large black market called the race market was to have female singers in front of a jazz band singing lyrics of very sort of baudy, innuendo kind of style. It actually had a name called Bluebird style, because Bluebird Records was sort of the main propagator of that style.
I want you to listen to Ida Cox doing a song that really exemplifies this, called "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues."
[MUSIC - IDA COX, "WILD WOMEN DON'T HAVE THE BLUES"] I hear these women raving about their monkey men. About their fighting husbands and their no-good friends. These poor women sit around all day and moan, wondering why their wandering husbands don't come home. But wild women, don't worry. Wild women don't have the blues. Now--
STEVE POND: Now, another outgrowth of this minstrel tradition was something developing in the late 19th century, especially in large urban centers like New York, of black musical theater, sort of a specialized theater audience and appealing to these audiences. So they're a variety show format with a loosely pasted together narrative.
This morphed into a cabaret style that would feature a small band, or very often, a singer with a piano player, or a singer combination piano player, singing novelty lyrics, love songs, Tin Pan Alley songs, but with a very characteristic kind of delivery, very expressive, taking lots of liberties with the melody style, as it was written in sheet music.
I want you to listen to this example of it by Fats Waller. This was recorded in 1941, called "Your Feets Too Big."
[MUSIC- FATS WALLER, "YOUR FEETS TOO BIG"] Say, up in Harlem, at a table for two. There were four of us-- me, your big feet, and you. From your ankles up, I'd say you sure are sweet. From there down, there's just too much feet. Yes, your feets too big. Don't want you because your feets too big. Can't use you because your feets too big. I really hate you because your feets too big.
STEVE POND: Now, in the 1940s, this was starting to take on sort of a new life. So people like Louie Jordan started doing songs that were essentially a jazz band, again, fronted by a singer, in this case Jordan himself, doing songs that were either sexually charged or novelty, kind of funny sorts of lyrics. "Choo Choo Ch'boogie" is a great example of this. "Caldonia," "Saturday Night Fish Fry."
Female singers, like Ruth Brown, for example, or Lavern Baker, started doing songs that were, again, kind of a combination of this fun, lyrical theme, but with a very strong sexual charge underneath it. So talking about relationships in much the same way that classic blues artists would have done.
This song by Ruth Brown, 1953, "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." There's two things we'd like to hear here. The first is the lyrical theme itself, but the second thing is her delivery of that theme. It's not a matter of singing the melody. [SINGING] Mama, he treats your daughter mean.
[MUSIC - RUTH BROWN, "MAMA, HE TREATS YOUR DAUGHTER MEAN"] Mama, he treats me badly. Makes me love him madly. Mama, he takes my money. Makes me call him honey. Mama, he can't be trusted. Makes me so disgusted. All of my friends say they don't understand what's the matter with this man. I tell you, Mama, he treats your daughter mean. Mama, he treats your daughter mean. Mama, he treats your daughter mean. He's the mean, meanest man I've ever seen. Mama, this man is lazy. Almost drives me crazy.
STEVE POND: When you hear Ruth Brown do it, she's singing "Mama, she treats your daughter mean." Right, so it's not a matter of the melody as it was originally written. It's much more playful. It's much more expressive. It's much more personalized.
Here, another example. I'm going to play you two very short clips. The first is Kay Starr doing "What a Difference a Day Made." Has two names-- "What a Difference a Day Made" and "What a Difference a Day Makes." It's been published under both names. Listen to the way Kay Starr sings the melody fairly straight, without too much added stuff.
[MUSIC - KAY STARR, "WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MADE"] What a difference a day made, 24 little hours.
STEVE POND: Here's Dinah Washington, 1959, singing the same moment, or a parallel moment in that song. Yes, it's slower. Yes, it's more contemplative. Yes, in that way, it becomes more romantic and more personally expressive.
But that's part of what's enabling her to do what she does best, which is to play with the timbre, to make it personal, to make it expressive. And by doing that, and not adhering to the melody, doing a much more personalized, playful version of it. Make it all the more powerful.
[MUSIC - DINAH WASHINGTON, "WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MADE"] What a difference a day made, 24 little hours. Brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain.
STEVE POND: So we've heard that this music comes out of a historical trend that's much earlier. Rhythm and blues is not a self-contained style that only happens in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. It's part of a continuing development-- social, musical, cultural. We're going to talk about the social aspects of it and the industry aspects of it next.
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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 2 of 6 in the Where did Rhythm and Blues come from? series.