Discussion:
12-bar and 16-bar blues (response to old post which was response to ancient post)
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j***@msn.com
2008-01-13 19:40:51 UTC
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Hi all, I received this email today from Elijah Wald, who asked me to
post it here. Joseph Scott, I hope that you will read this since it
is a reply to one of your posts -- quite an old one, and I don't have
the original post.
Thanks. I just came across this today.

If you would like to get directly in touch with
Elijah, email me and I will send you his email address. Remove NOSPAM
from my email address.
Hi Suzy,
I'm responding to a very old post, on a list I've never read before--
which is probably ridiculous, but I just ran across it and found it
interesting. Also, I don't know how to reachJoseph Scott, and am
interested in how he might respond, so if you know how to reach him,
please send this along.
Scott does an excellent job of tracing the survival on early black
rural recordings of the AAAB song-form (which he calls 16-bar blues)
That list I gave (most of it reproduced below) was entirely 16-bar
songs that actually have "blues" in the lyrics or the title or are
clearly on the subject of having the blues:

"Stove Pipe Blues" by Daddy Stovepipe
"K.C. Railroad Blues" by Andrew and Jim Baxter
"Worried Blues" by Samantha Bumgarner
"C.C. & O. Blues" by Simmie Dooley and Pink Anderson
"Sadie Lee Blues" by Peg Leg Howell
"Blues I Got Make A New Born Baby Cry" by Lead Belly
"Dollar Bill Blues" by Charley Jordan
the 1931 "Pussy Cat Blues" by Bo Carter
"Lonesome Road Blues" by Henry Whitter
"One Way Gal" by Bill Moore (incl. "sometimes I'm broke and
blue as I can be" and "she takes the blues away")
"Farewell Blues" by Mance Lipscomb
"Nobody Cares For Me" by Gary Davis
"Going Away Blues" by Furry Lewis
"If You Want A Good Woman..." by Wiley Barner
(incl. "Waked up this morning blues all around my bed")
"Original Blues" by Bayless Rose
"Sabine River Blues" by Texas Alexander
"Cincinnati Blues" by Jesse Fuller
that pretty much all of us agree preceded the 12-bar blues form.
I believe that when the fad for songs about having the quote "blues"
caught on in "black" folk music, about 1908, 3- and 4-line repetitive-
lyric forms were both popular, both in "black" folk music more
generally, and specifically in the songs with "blues" in the lyrics.
My beliefs about this are partly based on what E.C. Perrow and Howard
Odum in their two independent and complementary projects showed us
about how "black" folk songs stood as of about 1908, including their
descriptions of the mere three songs, between the two of them, that
had the word "blues" in the lyrics.

There was never a significant tradition of combining AAB and AAAB
stanzas in the same song in published blues music or in recorded non-
folk blues music. There was, overall, over the whole South, a very
significant tradition of combining AAB and AAAB stanzas in the same
song in folk blues, as represented by recordings (made whenever in
life) by folk musicians who had been born in the South before about
1900 and generally didn't know each other. And also of the same lyric
being sung AAB by one folk musician and AAAB by another, and of a
single folk musician singing a particular lyric AAB sometimes and AAAB
other times (e.g. various recordings of Furry Lewis's "Judge ___").
And there was much less of all that among musicians born after 1900
(which translates to, very roughly speaking, musicians who listened to
radio and records).

So we have evidence that there was a time, some time, that some
musicians thought 3- vs. 4-line wasn't very important either way in a
blues song, and we have evidence those musicians were generally born
before 1900 (which generally means learned to play before about 1915)
and generally not very connected to pop music. In many cases we have
evidence that those particular songs date to about the 1910s. Also,
slang terms that did not become popular among Southern "blacks" until
after about the 1910s are generally rarer in 16-bar blues songs than
slang terms that were already around in about the 1910s. And specific
lyrics that are found in whoever's 16-bar blues tend to correlate with
the earliest blues lyrics that can (through other means) be traced,
generally speaking. For instance, lyrics like "... jail, back to the
wall" will tend to be found both collected before 1915 _and_ on 16-bar
blues recordings, while meanwhile other well-known blues lines will
not be traceable before 1915 _or_ tend to pop up on 16-bar recordings.

So I believe the time 16-bar blues peaked was the 1910s (not the
1900s, considering how small a proportion of Perrow's and Odum's songs
had "blues" in them), and they peaked among folk musicians.

Of course, the record companies weren't interested in Southern folk
musicians "black" or "white" as of the 1910s. And 12-bar was popular
with Handy, and among the songwriters who emulated him, and the record
companies were generally into recording blues by urbanish bands who
read sheet music some years before they were into recording blues by
folk musicians, so a tradition of record-cross-influenced urban stage
blues was underway as of the early 1920s in which 12-bar was very very
popular, which doesn't somehow mean 16-bar folk songs didn't have the
word "blues" in them before Year X.

I
believe that in my book I covered this as one of the clear roots of
later blues, and if I didn't I was certainly remiss.
But...my argument--which is obviously open to dispute--is that we have
no reason to think that this earlier form gelled into the later form
that became standard and was named "blues" until after people like Ma
Rainey andBessie Smithbecame stars.
We know that people were talking about blues music as of about 1910
(Abbott and Seroff's discovery of a reference to someone performing a
"blues" in IIRC FL about 1911, and Robert Hoffmann's decision to
describe "Alabama Bound" as a "Blues" in IIRC 1909), before Rainey or
Smith were stars.

[...]
This also fits the fact that there are so many more examples of this
particular 16-bar form (I tend to use the term "16-bar blues" to mean
something different than the AAAB style we're discussing, but that is
irrelevant here) preserved on white rural recordings of the 20s and
30s--which were openly nostalgic--than on race records.
I think roughly speaking rural "whites" who were playing in the 1910s
knew 16-bar blues because rural "blacks" who were playing in the 1910s
did. I don't think the total number of different 16-bar blues that
were recorded old-time by "whites" is all that large.
I suspect that Joseph would agree with all of what I've written so
far--though I could be wrong--and that our disagreement is less about
facts than about semantics. It seems to me that the evidence
overwhelmingly suggests that the older AAAB songs were called blues
only retroactively
I think some of them were and some weren't, and I think the same is
true of 12-bar songs ("McKinley" aka "White House Blues," for
example).

, because that was a good way to market them in the
1920s. They obviously are closely related to the 12-bar form, and
almost certainly became standard much earlier, but there is plenty of
evidence that they were not called "blues" until after the publication
and popularity of numerous 12-bar songs.
As I described above, I disagree.

Given that fact, I prefer to
call them "pre-blues."
Some 16-bar songs are literally "pre-blues." Others, such as "Trench
Blues" by John Bray, which he said he wrote in the late 1910s, aren't.

I don't insist that other people follow this
taxonomic choice, but can't see why anyone should consider it strange
or inappropriate.
It would be inappropriate to create a dichotomy between 16-bar songs
and blues songs, because many blues songs were 16-bar songs.
And I would maintain that we have no evidence that people like
Jefferson made the shift from this pre-blues to the 12-bar form that
makes up the overwhelming majority of his recordings until that form
had become a mainstream popular style.[...]
Southerners who were old enough to know and were asked, including Ma
Rainey and W.C. Handy, consistently reported that stage performers
generally learned blues from folk performers rather than the other way
around.

And the earliest music that can reasonably be considered in the "blues
music" tradition that can be traced -- e.g. the 3 examples between
Perrow and Odum --generally correlates with Southern ("black") folk
musicians, not with stage performers. If someone comes up with three
pieces of sheet music from 1907 that are repetitive-lyricked and
mention having the "blues," then I'll believe that the stage
performers influenced the folk performers re blues and not the other
way around. There was no shortage of sheet music published during
1890-1910.

Best wishes,

Joseph Scott
Joseph Scott
2014-10-02 16:13:35 UTC
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Elijah Wald and I are having a conversation about his Robert Johnson book and his claims in it about where blues music originated (he used _... And The Invention Of The Blues_ in his title, but doesn't understand who invented blues music) on amazon right now. Here is the conversation so far:

Scott:
The great majority of this book deserves five stars, and one of the main points it makes deserves one star. Wald is interested in Robert Johnson in his '30s context and does a terrific job of describing that context. Wald seems to have far less knowledge of blues music before 1920, and his suggestion that blues music did not arise as folk music goes against a mountain of evidence that it did, including from people who were old enough to observe it doing so such as W.C. Handy. (Of course that idea sounds interesting to any reader who is excited about blues music being demythologized. But it isn't true. Folklorists Howard Odum and E.C. Perrow independently collected black folk songs with the word "blues" in them _years_ before Handy's "Memphis Blues" was published. If song publications anywhere in the South or North and a consensus among Handy's peers don't satisfy you, read e.g. Abbott and Seroff's books and Henry Sampson's comparable book and notice when minor stage performers began taking up "Blues" at all. Peter Muir's book is important for context too.) When I corresponded with Wald about this, he forthrightly admitted that he couldn't defend that idea well. I hope it will be omitted from any future editions of the book.

Wald:
I would only note that Lynn Abbott (of Abbott and Seroff) read the chapters on pre-blues, contributed to them, and does not share Joseph Scott's opinion of them--which is not to say he agrees with every word, but he does not think there are substantial errors of fact. Whether blues was a form of folk music is a matter of interpretation, not of fact. My interpretation remains the same as in this book, though I thoroughly agree that other interpretations are possible.

Scott:
Where blues music originated is a factual issue. The New York Times online quotes you as saying in 2004 that "the blues was pop music -- it simply wasn't folk music. It was invented retroactively as black folk music...." That radical statement is simply wrong, and shows ignorance of the research that was done on early blues music during the 90-plus years before it. Howard Odum and E.C. Perrow, working independently of each other, both published black folk songs in the 1910s that were collected before 1910 and were specifically about having the "blues." This book claims on p. 32 that "[m]ost likely" folk artists did not have any more primacy than pop artists. If that's so, then according to you, Elijah, what similarly important role did pop artists most likely play before 1910 in the invention of blues music?

Scott:
I'm mystified what it is that Lynn Abbott agrees with Elijah Wald about that is supposedly relevant to the critical element of my review. From Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's "'They Cert'ly Sound Good to Me': Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, And The Commercial Ascendancy Of The Blues," emphasis added: "Clearly it was at the insistence of the southern vaudeville audiences that the blues, a previously submerged aspect of African American _folk_ culture, ascended the stage.... When southern vaudevillians embraced _folk-blues_ concoctions in their stage repertory, the audience shouted loud in recognition...." "Blues and other timber hewn from rural southern _folk_ culture had served as [black stage entertainers'] battering ram [into larger theaters]." "... John H. Williams specialized in the comic adaptation of the up-to-date Southern _folk_ idioms from which blues was gleaned." "String Beans, Baby Seals, Johnnie Woods [who is the first person documented singing blues on a stage, in 1910] and Little Henry, Willie and Lulu Too Sweet, Laura Smith -- these were some of the first 'blue diamonds in the rough' [quoting W.C. Handy, who said blues music originated as folk music] to rise above the anonymous street corners, barrelhouses, juke joints, railroad depots, and one-room country shacks of _folk-blues_ literature. They were the fathers and mothers of the blues on the American stage." "The implication is that by 1909 the term blues was known to describe a distinct folk-musical genre...." From Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff's _Ragged But Right: ... The Dark Pathway To Blues And Jazz_: "By mid-decade [of the 1910s], blues singing had begun to make a permanent home in tended minstrelsy [by black performers]. W.C. Handy's early blues publications [which started in 1912]... initiated the trend." "Prof. John Eason's Annex Band [a black band]... may have been the first circus band to include a blues song in its repertoire... [in] 1912...." Where is the evidence that pop music was contributing to blues music during the period 1905-1909? Because 1905-1909, that is the period when Antonio Maggio said he heard a black guitarist on a levee perform an "I Got The Blues" that served as the inspiration for the 12-bar strain in his own published "I Got The Blues," _and_ a black folk song with "blues" in the lyrics was collected that E.C. Perrow reported on in his _Journal Of American Folk-Lore_ article, _and_, independently of Perrow's work, Howard Odum collected more than one black folk song with "blues" in the lyrics (see his "Folk-Song And Folk-Poetry As Found In The Secular Songs Of The Southern Negroes": "I got the blues but too damn mean to cry/I got the blues but too damn mean to cry" in "Look'd Down De Road" and "I got de blues an' can't be satisfied/Brown-skin woman cause of it all/Lawd, Lawd, Lawd" in "Knife-Song"). When that collection of Odum's appeared in book form in 1926, the book said, "[These lyrics] are taken from songs collected in Georgia and Mississippi between 1905 and 1908..." and "There is no doubt that the first songs appearing in print under the name of blues were based directly upon actual songs already current among Negroes."
Joseph Scott
2015-01-08 00:34:50 UTC
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My conversation with Elijah in the amazon comments continued. Elijah (who in 2004 said blues music "simply wasn't folk music") acknowledged there on Dec. 1, 2014, "It is... clearly true that 'blues originated from old... folk lore songs.'" (The quaintly worded quote is from black pro songwriter Perry Bradford in 1921.) He acknowledged on Dec. 8, 2014, "I think that many of the folk songs [Howard] Odum collected before 1909 are what I now would call blues music...." On repeated requests, he didn't offer evidence for his notion on his website, "first [blues] was a black pop style...," because he can't, because it wasn't. The first publication of a blues song wasn't until 1912, by the black pro songwriters Chris Smith and Tim Brymn, copyrighted in January 1912, at least 3 years after Odum, according to Odum, stopped working on that particular collection of black folk songs. (There was a single "Blues" instrumental published before 1912, by a white guy who later recalled that he'd picked up its basic 12-bar strain and its title from a black guitarist on a levee.) As of now Elijah has not changed that inaccurate claim at the website.
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