Mar 19, 2015

Review: "Long Lost Blues: Popular Blues in America, 1850-1920," by Peter C. Muir

Long Lost Blues is a state-of-the-art history and analysis of early published and recorded blues, with an emphasis on blues published in sheet music form between 1912 and 1920. Muir presents a detailed, well-researched historical account and, for musicians, some perceptive musical analysis.

The book includes 98 musical examples; sound files for all of them can be listened to on the author's website.

For those who feel that “folk blues" is somehow more “authentic” than the published blues influenced by Tin Pan Alley, Muir makes the point that composers of early published blues often drew heavily from folk sources. In the absence of any sort of recorded documentation of early folk blues, and very little early field research, sheet music compositions can provide useful information on the early development of the “blues” genre. And in any case, published blues is an interesting genre in its own right, that strongly influenced the subsequent development of American music.

Here is a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of Long Lost Blues:

Chapter 1: The Popular Blues Industry - Details the early development of the popular blues industry (“popular blues” is here defined as music that was titled and commercially presented as “blues”), beginning seriously around 1912, and gathering momentum in subsequent years. By the end of 1920, 456 “blues” compositions had been published. Presentation to the public took the form of sheet music and recordings, as well as performances in musicals, minstrel shows, and vaudeville.

Chapter 2: The Identity and Idiom of Early Popular Blues - Early blues songs were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the “genes” of folk blues and Tin Pan Alley; instrumental compositions generally showed some ragtime influence. The author lists and explains five categories of vocal blues: Relationship Blues (the most common), Nostalgia Blues, Prohibition Blues, War Blues, and Reflexive Blues.

The relation of blues to the “fox trot” dance craze and to swing beat is explored. Five “distinctive components of the blues idiom” are listed and discussed: the 12-bar sequence, blue notes, the “barbershop ending,” the “four-note chromatic motif,” and the inclusion of the phrase “I’ve got the blues” or a variant.

Chapter 3: Curing the Blues with the Blues - This chapter is an investigation of the historical use of the word “blues,” particularly in regard to music, and the idea that blues (and other types of music) can be therapeutic. “Neurasthenia” was a fashionable disease in late 19th-century America. It was thought to be a sort of nervous exhaustion cause by the stress of modern civilized life, and was commonly called “the blues.” 19th century sheet music songs were presented as “a cure for the blues,” long before the appearance of the 12-bar blues form. The early 20th-century 12-bar blues tunes were generally thought of the same way.

The author proposes the terms “homeopathic” for slower blues with mournful themes (treating the player’s and listener’s “distressed state of mind with distressed music”), and “allopathic” for faster, more cheerful tunes (treating “a depressed mood with lively music”). By this measure, much folk blues is homeopathic, while the popular blues discussed in this book is generally more allopathic. Many specific examples are discussed. 

Chapter 4: The Blues of W. C. Handy - Muir discusses Handy’s 26 blues tunes from both a historical and an analytical perspective, focusing particularly on those written between 1909 and 1917.

Handy was probably the most prominent figure in the world of early popular blues, influential enough to deserve a chapter devoted to his compositions. His “Memphis Blues” (1912) was what we might call a “breakout hit.” In Muir’s words, “it was this work more than any other that introduced the genre of blues to mainstream popular music.” Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (1914), though initially slower to catch on, did much to codify the elements of what we know as “blues” today.

Chapter 5: The Creativity of Early Southern Published Blues - Southern published blues were “geographically and culturally closer to the folk sources of blues.” Muir examines the melodic and harmonic makeup of several of the earliest published southern blues in some detail: “Baby Seals Blues” (1912), “Dallas Blues” (1912), and “1913 Medley Blues” (1912). A number of other southern blues up to 1920 are also discussed; sections of this chapter also cover the blues compositions of Euday L. Bowman, George W. Thomas, and Perry Bradford. 

Chapter 6: Published Proto-Blues and the Evolution of the Twelve-Bar Sequence - This chapter in particular spoke to my own personal interests, and began to answer a difficult question: How did blues evolve?

To a modern musician, “blues” is not defined as simply as “any tune that calls itself a blues.” I think of a blues as a song with a particular 12-bar chord sequence (or variation thereof), blue notes, perhaps AAB lyrics, and as being recognizably part of what has become a deep, century-long tradition. So - where did that chord sequence come from? 

This last chapter includes sections on:

 “Development of the Blues Song”  - Discusses the history of American songs dealing with the word “blues,” and how the term came to describe an African American genre.

“The Evolution of the Twelve-Bar Blues Sequence” - The 12-bar chord pattern may derive from any or all of these: “The Bully Song” (pre-1894), “The Ballad of the Boll Weevil” (c. 1892?), “Stagolee” (c. 1895?), “Frankie and Johnny” (c. 1899?) and a number of popular songs by Hughie Cannon with harmonic schemes that are “Frankie and Johnny” - related, including the very popular “Just Because She Made Them Goo-Goo Eyes” (1900). Muir offers his opinion on how these songs may have evolved into the sequence we recognize as “blues.” There may not be any final answers here, but there is a lot of great information, and some well-considered speculation.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and recommend it to anyone interested in looking into the origins of blues. You can order it from Amazon; here's the link.

After reading this book and a few others about early blues (see this review), I’ve refined my view of early blues a bit. As a musician who has played many sorts of blues over the years, I have some thoughts to share about blues changes, blue notes, and blues scales - but I’ll save that for another post.