Barry Smith: Irrelativity
October 24, 2011
My farmhouse remodel project is entering month two. I now have a bathroom, dining room, kitchen and, perhaps most exciting of all, a front porch!
I’ve always wanted my own front porch, because that’s the ideal place to play some blues. And I need a place to play the blues. I grew up in Mississippi, and I learned all about the blues from my grandmother, so it’s kinda in my blood. Even though it was more than 30 years ago, I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. She was working in the kitchen, and I went up and tugged on her apron and I said, “Grandmomma, what’s the blues?”
She stopped what she was doing at once, as if she’d been waiting for this moment. Then she wiped off her hands and sat down in her rocking chair.
“Come on over here,” she said. “I think it’s high time you knew about the blues.”
And I’ll never forget those words she told me on that day.
“Now listen here, child,” she said in her slow drawl, rocking slowly back and forth. “The blues is a style of music native to the American South. The most distinctive aspect of this truly unique sound is its emphasis on percussive statement, which derives from its idiomatic source in the black community in the United States, and its African-derived disposition to use instruments as if they were extensions of the African talking drum, causing the music to be both incantery Jill Beathard 10/23/11 incantatory? and percussive.”
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I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant, but I liked the sound of it.
“Grandmomma … can you teach me the blues?”
“Yeah, I reckon old grandmomma can sho’ nuff teach you the blues.”
She scooted me off her lap and walked into the back room, then returned with an old guitar. I didn’t even know she had a guitar.
As she handed it to me she said, “The guitar is the single most important instrument in the history of the blues, and continues to define the sound of blues and rock today. The instrument’s versatility and expressive power make it a natural choice for blues improvisation as well as a superb complement to the human voice. The blues, of course, began as a vocal form which grew out of the work songs and spirituals written by African-American slaves. Early blues guitarists discovered how to use techniques such as slides, bends and vibrato to imitate blues singers. With this exciting new vocabulary, together with a strong sense of personal style, they brought the instrument – and even the blues itself – to new heights of expression.”
“But grandmomma,” I protested. “I can’t play the guitar, how am I gonna …”
“Gitar,” she corrected. “Gitar.”
“Um … OK, gitar. But I don’t know how to play it. Will you show me?”
“Of course,” she replied. “We’ll begin immediately, and when we are done with my simple yet effective instructional method you will have mastered the basics of blues gitar. You’ll learn blues chords, progressions and scales in every key. You’ll explore classic blues fills, turnarounds, intros and endings. You’ll also have the ability to create your own solos and riffs using important blues techniques, such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends. Useful finger picking and strum patterns will also be provided under my tutelage, along with suggestions for developing your own blues accompaniments. Occasionally throughout the course of your instruction, I shall personally be accompanying you on the harmonica, also known in blues parlance as the ‘harp,’ ‘tin sandwich’ or ‘Mississippi saxophone.’ I shall require that, during my solo portion of our duets, you shout out such encouragements as ‘Yeah, gimme some harp, granny,’ or ‘Aw, make it talk,’ or even raucous non sequiturs like ‘Somebody better come here, I ‘spect!’ I, of course, will respond in kind with exclamations of ‘Show ’em what you got, Junior’ and ‘Take it down the highway, man.’ In this way we will begin to develop an authentic sounding blues rapport. Does this strike you as a suitable arrangement?”
“Absolutely!” I said.
She cleared her throat and stared at me, annoyed.
“Uh, I mean … lord have mercy!”
She patted my head and smiled.
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