The Blues

The following is the Blues Ethnography I wrote for my World Music course. I told the band I would post something a little less formal, but I really like the way the ethnography came out, so I’m posting it as is. If you get a chance to see these guys, you won’t be sorry.

Initially, I chose to do my ethnography on Blues because it seemed easy. There were plenty of performances to choose from on different days at different times. This was very convenient. However, being born and raised in Chicago, I had an affinity for blues music as well. I found out that liking a style of music and method of performance is not all there is to music. I learned a lot about the blues, which I am thrilled to share.

The style of blues in the United States emerged from West African origin because of the slaves being brought to America from that region. For that reason there are some similar characteristics.

The technical side of the blues as they are heard today include “a vocal and instrumental form of music based on a pentatonic scale and a characteristic twelve-bar chord progression.” But the blues cannot be discussed without talking about blue notes. These are the flatted third, fifth and seventh scale degrees. They are experienced as the unequal pitches from African origin.

The blues tends to be very folk-like mimicking the praise singers of West Africa, in addition to the use of call-and-response patterns found there as well. The slaves of the south sang the blues, but it really wasn’t considered music at that time. Plantation workers used the call-and-response system for communication and work calls.

This eventually moved into a more solo style of music. While the call-and-response element remained, it shifted from being between two or more people to just one person by the singer taking on both components. Through more evolution this turned into a very personalized form of song.

As freed men moved north, they brought this music with them. In the migration from the south to the north, changes in style were made. The blues went from being either unaccompanied by musical instruments or accompanied by very few instruments and being improvised, to including instruments such as the harmonica, slide guitar, electric guitar, etc. and being completely composed. Soon the musicians that played the blues were filling nightclubs, dance halls and theaters in places like Chicago, Detroit and New York City. The music offered them a career of sorts where the only other options were manual labor; work they had done for too long.

In the 1920s, blues music became widely popularized and began drawing “white” crowds to see these artists perform. Styles became more delineated and record companies “began to record African American music.” As this increased, so did the popularity of the music.

Blues continued to grow and change and has affected many other types of music including, but not limited to, jazz, folk, rock, country and even club music. Because of this, there are many different flavors of blues music. I chose to attend the concert of a blues band that has a rock, jazz & soul influence.

I went to a local club called The Thirsty Ear to hear a band called Johnny Reed and the Houserockers. The venue was fairly small, but from the moment I hit the door, people were very friendly. I told the man inside the door, taking cover charge for the band, what I was there to do. I gave him my money but received more back than expected. I told him that I thought it was more expensive and he said, “Well, you’re here for a reason and I’m being nice.” This was such a nice gesture considering the planning of seeing another band earlier in the quarter had gone so terribly. I asked what the chances were of being able to speak with the band in person was. He told me that they were sitting in the back of the bar and that I could probably talk to them immediately. Thankfully, I was there about a half an hour before the show. I approached them and asked if I could interview them and they were more than happy to talk with me. They asked me to sit down and I began my interviews.

Johnny Reed and the Houserockers have four members, playing four different musical instruments (five, if you include voice/vocals as an instrument). Johnny Reed plays the harmonica and sings. Rolly Rayman plays the drum kit. Together, they both pioneered the band. Ian Soper plays electric guitar and Lokey plays bass guitar. They all have incredible stage presence and work together with a solidarity that is easily visualized by anyone who is even partially paying attention.

From their website:Johnny Reed & The Houserockers are an eclectic blend of talent, charisma and professionalism. The Houserocker’s unique and fresh style of blues and their obvious camaraderie offer audiences dynamic shows that are non-stop fun from start to finish! They offer an exciting stage-show for all venues! Johnny and the boys get the crowd on their feet and keep them there!

The first person I spoke with was Johnny Reed himself. Since a large portion of information is available about all of the band members on line (their bios), I concentrated on things that weren’t there…things that were more personal in nature with regard to their history of being a musician. Growing up, Johnny’s mom was always into Motown music, so that’s where his first influences arose. As a teenager he listened to classic rock and British rock, but still found other types of music interesting as well. He currently listens to all types of music, but mentioned soul, gospel and country. He began playing harmonica as a competition with a friend, and to see if he could do it. He never thought he would be in a band. He remembered being under age, outside a bar listening to Art & Roman Griswold of The Griswold’s, and playing the harmonica. One day they heard him and asked him to come inside and on stage. He would later join them in the band. That was the best feeling in the world to him and suddenly felt like it was his calling.

I spoke with Rolly Rayman, the drummer, next. He admits that his family probably would have preferred for him to be an orchestra musician, but that they were incredibly supportive of what he does. He got his start by watching Sammy Davis Junior on television. He was so taken by the way he played multiple instruments, danced sang and just generally entertained. Someone told him that Sammy had never taken any formal lessons to play any of the instruments and he said, “Well, if he can do it…so can I.” Yes, Rolly is completely self-taught on the drums, but if you heard him you would never know it. He too listened to a lot of rock in his younger days, but feels like he grew out of that. Blues just feels right to him as something that is heart felt and to which he is drawn. He ended with saying that he felt that blues was misunderstood.

Johnny jumped in and continued that sentiment by saying that he felt that blues was like the Jewish or Muslim faiths, where there is no separation of nationality, culture and religion. It’s just all tied in together. I could see the other band members out of the corner of my eye nodding their heads in agreement. He went on to say that a lot of people know the BB King kind of blues style and that they are caught up in a stereotype. He said that if you have soul, you have the blues.

I moved on to Ian, the guitarist. Johnny wasn’t the only one who thought that blues was like a language. Ian did too. However, Ian went on to say that it was like language in the sense that it had rules and structure. He said it was like a dance; an exchange that you have with the audience. Ian’s mom was a piano teacher, so he grew up in a musical household. He likes folk music and feels that the blues is part of who you are; you’re makeup. He’s been playing guitar for 10 years and explained the guitar in terms of a piano turned on its side and the geometry of playing. I adored the way Ian intellectualized an artistic process and later went on stage and performed as if he never gave it a thought. While most musicians have a connection to their music emotionally, Ian had that mind connection that isn’t often observed. He loved playing with Johnny because he described Johnny as having a relationship with the audience as if he was speaking to them with his harmonica. He said that Johnny had a way of building a crescendo that was like a tornado. I would later learn that was true.

The final band member, Lokey the bass guitarist, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to speak with since the band was going to play soon and I would not have the time to speak with him later. He did concur with Ian’s assessment of “the tornado” and thought that was a brilliant description. But, mostly, I remember what he said about blues being misunderstood. He said that the misconception people have about blues is that they feel it should make them feel blue. He said it’s really designed to make people feel better and to liven them up. The reason for this is because when they’re listening to someone sing the blues they’re thinking, “I’ve got it bad, but I don’t have it that bad.”

My interviews were over and it was time for them to go on stage. The place was full, but not yet crowded. The lighting was dim and it was a perfect, cozy atmosphere with which to enjoy their show. They started out fabulously with a balanced blend of harmony and rhythm that didn’t indicate anything remotely resembling depression. Believe it or not, they just got better. The first few songs seemed to warm the audience up and then it became a wonderful exchange between the band and the audience. Johnny’s harmonica playing had a way of making people move. He played off of the audience quite a bit, especially when things really got going, so there was an element of improvisation in addition to some clearly orchestrated pieces. By the time they had played four songs, the place was getting close to being packed. By the time they took a break it was packed.

I would have to say that while this wasn’t an example of classic blues, I’m not sure that all the personality can be found in classic blues as much as it could in a blues band that mixed in a few other sounds. They certainly didn’t seem to be participating in this music in a classical western music kind of philosophy. This was much more an organic process that affected them so much that they have no choice but getting it out. Without a doubt, I would see them again and would recommend everyone else do the same.

If for no other reason, I am glad to have spoken with each and every one of them to have a better idea of what blues is really all about and the large spectrum of possibilities that are included.

I’d like to thank the band for being so accommodating. I really appreciate it. I had a really great night out that turned into a lot more than just a school project.

Also, though they may never visit here, I’d like to thank Dr. Will and Joe (the T.A.) for an unforgettable experience. I learned a lot in class and actually find myself picking apart different pieces of music now. Plus, it gave me the opportunity to see this band and learn more about a style of music for which I just had a cursory appreciation.

One thought on “The Blues

  1. just read your account of the blues. interesting interpretation and they are right about the style being misunderstood. there are several ‘internal styles’ of the blues which are hard to pinpoint. the style has grown so much from guys like john lee hooker and muddy waters and taken in so much style like swing, boogie, gospel, etc that the blues now are definately a ‘melting pot’ of style and grace.

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