Monday, March 19, 2012
Peter Muir's Fascinating Consideration of the Long Lost Blues
Peter C. Muir
2010: University of illinois Press
A new book has been published examining the emergence of blues in popular American music prior to the face race records recordings of the music. Peter Muir, described as “an internationally recognized pianist, composer, scholar and conductor,” provides the reader with a musicological analysis of blues that was published and sold in sheet music form as well as a textual analysis of these published songs that supplement what we know about the emergence of blues as a song form and as a musical idiom. There are many musical examples included. The extensive use of musical examples is also accompanied by recordings by the author that can be downloaded on the books website and Muir also provides verbal descriptions to facilitate those who are not able to read musical notation.
It is a study of the emergence of the blues industry and Muir brings to our attention a number of interesting facts including the fact that on January 12, 1912, a piece of sheet music was registered for copyright by the Library of Congress entitled The Blues, and was authored by two African-American writers, Chris Smith and Tim Brymn, who had been active in the popular music industry for over a decade, and had collaborated before. Muir observes that while essentially a ragtime song, The Blues contained much that was blues related including a scenario of a woman grieving for a deserting lover but most telling the chorus when the singer declares “I got the blues, but I’m too blamed mean to cry,” which music that makes striking use of blue notes, represented by a musical example as well. Muir further notes that it was the second publication to describe itself as a blues, the earlier composition was I’m Alabama Bound, subtitled The Alabama Blues. But by 1912, four more songs described as blues would be copyrighted and he then traces and shows the increasing number of such sheet music over the decade, as well as shows the links with black and white vaudeville. In 1916, blues compositions were published with an aggregate through 1916 of 92, and in 1920, when blues recordings for Blacks started to become available, there were 147 published and an aggregate amount of 457 published.
His analysis involves distinguishing folk from popular blues, which includes describing some of the elements of popular blues (which I suspect many would not consider blues, but rather vaudeville) as well as discusses the performances of such music. He furthermore considers the origins of the word “blues,” and postulates that blues was in a sense a cure for the condition that was a theme of many blues songs and then categorizes songs as either homeopathic and allopathic, a distinction between a singer singing a depressed song to drive his blues away, as opposed to employing a lively tempo number to cure the blues. He suggests that most folk blues are homeopathic while popular blues is in the latter category. He accompanies this discussion with a history that goes back to Greek times of music as a cure for melancholy and depression.
There is also a discussion of several notable composers of blues, including a full chapter of W.C. Handy, as well an overview of such important early blues as Dallas Blues, and Baby Seals Blues. and such other notable composers as Euday Bowman, Perry Bradford and George Washington Thomas (Sippie Wallace’s oldest brother). The final chapter on Proto-Blues of the 18th Century examines some of the published parlor songs and minstrel that use the phrase I Got the Blues, as well as the evolution of the twelve-bar sequence that is found in some of blues ballads such as Frankie and Johnny and Boll Weevil, as well as compositions of ragtime pianist Hughie Cannon, the most famous song associated with is Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home. He also shows how the blues ballad musically was distinguished from the blues song.
This is a fascinating book which will bring to light an aspect of blues in American musical life that has not been given attention, and helps our understanding of how blues emerged in the early 20th century, and got disseminated to become so influential in wide areas of American culture.
I believe I received a review copy from the publisher.