Research Notes 2– A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream

Part Two

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The language of blues music is extemporization, a conversation between the instruments, musicians’ and audience.  Adrian Keating performs electric violin with Geoff Achison on Classically Blue DVD.  Adrian’s day job is Principal Violin at Opera Australia.   When describing the dichotomy between classical and blues, he suggests that blues music is “speaking in tongues” his analogy of when you join a cult you learn to speak in tongues.  “Classical musicians are taught to look for that creativity but never quite achieve it.  Blues music is that creativity.” (Keating Interview 29/03/2018)    Music sociologist, Pamela Burnard (2012) draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s “thinking tool” on Habitus, Field, Capital and Practice in Musical Creativities In Practice.  Burnard suggests that historically, improvisation “was regarded as a viable alternative to the performance of compositions”.   She cites L Solomon’s (1986) description of improvisation as “The discovery and invention of original music spontaneously, while performing it, without preconceived formulation, scoring or context (224)” (p11)

2018 marks Chain’s 50th Anniversary, Matt Taylor (Taylor Interview 27/11/2017) and Phil Manning (Manning Interview 02/02/2018) of Chain, state that this was the way they wrote their music.  Usually in the van on the way to gigs and while performing on stage.  Burnard characterises this style as an independent and liberating approach from the pressure of conformity.    A myth about music creativity is that it is produced by an “individual prophet” (p24)  Alan Lomax debunks the Robert Johnson myth being that he was a lone troubadour making deals with the devil.   Lomax speculated that Robert Johnson was a disciple of Blind Lemon Jefferson because they had similar styles.  When he met Son House his speculation was correct although it was Son House who had played with Blind Lemon and had taught and mentored Robert Johnson.  The reality about Robert Johnson’s music was that he was “exceptionally gifted […] a remarkable singer as he was a lyricist and arranger.” (p13 – p16)   The story of Chain’s Black and Blue created through improvisation by Matt Taylor (harmonica and vocals), Phil Manning (guitar), Barry “Big Goose” Sullivan (bass guitar) and Barry “Little Goose” Harvey (drums) was a trail of collaboration by a succession of many blues musicians across Australia over two or three years. From 1967 – 1971 when ‘Black and Blue’ became one of the few mainstream blues hits

Improvised music is unstable and highly artistic.(Burnard 2012 p27)  Winner of 2003 International Blues Challenge in Memphis Tennessee, Fiona Boyes states;

“Blues is a dynamic and constantly evolving music – from its early beginnings the music has found form in a large range of distinctive regional styles, embracing different ‘feels’, modes of playing and even instrumentation… I love these different regional styles and find them intriguing. From a solo musician wailing on a single string diddle bow, to a large ensemble West Coast swing blues band with horn section, and so much more in between. One of things I am passionate about, is the notion that Blues is a much wider genre than a lot of people might think, and that the music comes out of a tradition.  There is a wonderful creative tension between writing and playing something that is firmly recognisable as Blues, yet finding your own unique voice in the music. That’s the key.  It is something that I find fascinating, both as an improv musician and a songwriter”

For blues music to evolve, adaptations of traditions must be valued (Burnard 2012 p98) Bruce Bongers’ plays harmonica, saxophone and is a singer.  His “Road to Damascus I saw the light event” happened at age ten when he heard Muddy Waters Honey Bee.  Music that attracted him, “I liked [the] jazz kind of syncopation and bluesy quality of the melodies, it had the power of the rock n roll”. Bruce describes blues music as “exotic”

 “using sounds that I hadn’t heard before, so specifically the implied multiple rhythms in its syncopation, the use of micro-tones, slurs and bends of notes, […] the vagueness of the third note in the scale, which could be minor or major or in-between and using the flat, the sound of the flat seventh etc.  […] and the lyrics were poetic in a way”

Citing Pressing (1984), Burnard describes improvisation as “habit hierarchies” whereby “learned behaviour” is informed by the musician’s habitus (p151)  I suggest that the musician’s cultural ancestry, the music they are exposed to during childhood would have an enormous influence on creativity.  “The need to feel a return to paradise” (L Oakes Interview 29/03/2016)  Burnard discusses an aspect of audience participation with the music and the power audiences have on the field of music.   Similarly, Len Oakes’ (1997) argues the power the followers have in shaping the ideology of a charismatic group as analogous to the leader

Weissman (2005) questions white artists’ interest in blues music, given the volatile and “racist” landscape of the American South, in Blues: The Basics.  He cites Tony Russell in the documentary Black, White and Blues stating that [blues music] was liberating from the images and feel of country music.  Weissman also adds that white artists had respect for the creators of blues music. He details the instrument’s voice and role they play within the music. (p76-p80) Listing the guitar, piano and harmonica as stand out instruments. I add that singing voice is also considered an instrument.   There are different styles of guitar playing within the blues genre.  Most of these styles are categorised by Region, for example: Piedmont – Country Blues – is a finger-picking acoustic style that ‘Dutch’ Tilders mastered.   Chicago Blues – Electric guitar – the foundation of The Foreday Riders music

Proficient in harmonica playing are a number of Australian blues musicians among them; Ron King, Matt Taylor, Jim Conway, Bruce Bongers, Chris Wilson and Ian Collard.  Kim Field (1993) in Harmonicas, Harps and Heavy Breathers, states that the harmonica is the “quintessential” blues voice, “the note bending available in cross harp allowed players to achieve the minor thirds, flattened fifths and minor sevenths that characterise the ‘Blue’ scale.”  Field attributes the perfecting of the harmonica’s blues style down to African Americans giving it a voice of a language beyond words (Field 1993 p157)

Cont.  Part 3 – Research Notes – A Conversation About Australian Blues Music: Life Beyond The Mainstream

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