Have you ever gone on a sound quest? That’s when You’re drawn to a specific musical genre and something drives you to keep on digging through it until you find the quintessence?the performance or the recording that represents the culmination of listening pleasure for that genre.
My early music listening involved moving from one thrilling pop song to another, playing them to death until the tones finally went all tinny in my ears and had to be replaced by a new song that granted an equal or greater quantity of spurious ecstasy.
As my tastes matured, I chose favourite groups and singer-songwriters whose talent was not to be summarized in one great Top 40 hit but rather meant to be enjoyed spread across 10 tracks of an album?an album whose tactile qualities and liner notes were to be examined and enjoyed while contemplating the music and the cryptic meaning of the lyrics.
Eventually pop and rock and folk got stale, and That’s when my sound quests began in earnest. I began searching for the material that had inspired Joni and Neil and Led Zeppelin, or rather, the sounds that these performers had only hinted at.
I wish I could say that my sound quests were triumphs of taste and fine education, but when it came to music I was a shameless thrill seeker. My classical music sound quest reached the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th; once I’d heard that, there was no more to listen to. My jazz sound quest ended in John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. You get the picture.
Finally I began to focus on the sound and structure of blues and to research the genre’s history. For a long time I’d been hearing sounds that simply hinted at what I wanted to hear, like bread crumbs in the woods leading Hansel and Gretel back home. I kept thinking, Yeah, like that, but even more so.
It was in the record library of CKDU, Dalhousie University’s radio station, that I found the culmination of my blues sound quest in the form of a field recording by a Mississippi sharecropper named R.L. Burnside. He was from northern Mississippi, often called the Mississippi hill country, which harboured a large number of musicians with a unique take on blues music.
At that time Burnside hadn’t ever been in a sound studio, and so was far from the electronic experimentation that comprised his later work. It was just Burnside at home with his guitar and lots of kids clacking away on whatever could be used as rhythm instruments.
My friends didn’t get this strange, beautiful music (so different from anything I’d heard before and at the same time the very thing I’d been looking for), which made me doubt my tastes and normalcy.
Years later I learned that the reason this music sounded so strange to the Western ear and what made it so different from all other incarnations of the blues was that it lacked the 12 or 16-bar structure of most blues. Twelve-bar blues was an African-American innovation loosely based on the AABA structure at the heart of the European song tradition. Burnside’s music, on the other hand . . .
Yes, Burnside was different, and it wasn’t just him. There was a long-standing musical subgenre in the northern Mississippi hill country, a region whose blues forms heavily influenced but did not supplant what we now call Mississippi Delta Blues. The blues musicians of northern Mississippi played modal music.
What is modal music? Here’s the comic book definition: modal music is comprised of one basic riff played over and over again in slightly different forms until a completely different riff, which is only repeated a few times, comes along to surprise and delight you. You could say It’s a variation of the AABA form, but only if you were to write it something like this: AAAAAAAAAAABAAAAAAAAAAAAA.
How many times do you repeat the musical motif? I assume that some master’s degree student has actually addressed this question, but not being a scholar, I can only guess. When I listen to modal music I can hear roughly where it should change, and the change always feels right. But if I count the number of times the first motif is played, It’s never the same number?the riff doesn’t change after a set number of repetitions.
As for the lyrics of modal blues songs, they’re thematically similar to those of mainstream blues?the supplicant moans, the groanings which cannot be uttered, the lion’s roar of love and despair?but the texts read at times like stream-of-consciousness writing. There is some repetition, usually one repetition of a long line (?Poor Black Mattie?) but often three or more repetitions of one short line (?Goin? Down South?); repetition of the last line of a stanza (?Jumper on the Line?); or just one long verse, sung over the repeated riff.
The bent notes on the third and the sixth tone of the scale and the dissonant chords sound characteristically ?bluesy,? but the sound is a far cry from B.B. King, Muddy Waters, or Etta James, or even from Bessie Smith, whose career predated Burnside’s by decades. So where did Burnside and his north Mississippi cohorts find this brave new sound?
Turns out it wasn’t so new after all. When fans of this music listen to the indigenous music of east Africa, they are blown away by the echoes of northern Mississippi blues; here is that same loose modal form, the twirling, winding, mellifluous riffs, the complex rhythms, the sweetly dissonant chords, and the soft vocals so distinct from the Howlin? Wolf style so common in urban blues clubs.
The tribal regions within and around Mali have long been believed to be the African cultures most likely to have passed their musical codes to the slaves shipped to the United States, and yet not many know that the closest form of American music to Mali is the blues of the Mississippi hill country.
To be continued . . .