Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Weakness of Words

At the most recent jam session I attend, we worked on an old Delmore Brothers number, "Blues Stay Away From Me." From the late forties, it's not a hard song to play, but we haven't ever gotten it "right."

One of the women put it up for consideration. I'd never heard it, so I went to YouTube and listened to it, got the chords and words, and we gave it a try. 

I played it too fast, and every time we came to it, that was the complaint, so I said, "Okay, pick a tempo and I'll follow along."

Better, but still not what the woman who offered it wanted. "It needs to be softened," she said.

"Softened? It's too loud?"

"No, it's not volume, but it needs to be ... softened." Accompanied by a vague wave.

"I don't understand. That's like saying you want it to be more orange. What does 'softened' mean in this context?"

She waved her hand again. Couldn't articulate it.

One of other players offered that he thought he understood what she meant, but he tried to say so, and that just muddied the waters more.

I said so. Wasn't trying to be nyah-nyah, just didn't get it.

The woman said, a bit testy, "Well, that's just my opinion."

I'm not arguing with your opinion. I just don't understand it ...

What I suspect is that she wants the song to sound just like the Delmore Brothers' version. Which, because we aren't them, ain't gonna happen. 

We do a couple song like that. They fall short of somebody's expectation of what they should sound like.

I think this is a common desire among musicians, especially those with less experience. You hear a long you like, you want to learn it. You strive to make it sound exactly like the version you like, same words, same chords, same key, and you measure your success against the original. (In fact, if you go to a live concert and hear the song done by the original artists and they vary it from the recorded version, that seems wrong, somehow.)

Because I have spent most of my guitar playing and singing alone, I realized a long time ago that if I was going to achieve any kind of comfort, I'd have to alter some stuff, vocally or musically, or I wouldn't be able to do songs I loved.

Sometimes there's a double-back-flip-E23rd-diminished/augmented-hidden-in-the-weeds jazz chord that I can't play. So it gets turned into one I can.

I love the Beatles, but they sometimes sang in the chipmunk-range, and I can't go there vocally. When Art Garfunkel hits the high notes in "Bridge Over Troubled Water," that's like a fantasy in my case. (And actually, Artie can't hit them anymore, either, and he's Art Fucking Garfunkel.)

So I have rearranged much of what I play, most often dropping the key lower so I can hit the high notes without going into my head voice. Can't always do it, but since it's just me, that's not a problem. Sometimes, I drop the guitar tuning and do it that way. And sometimes, I go into head voice, just to see if I can. ("Head voice," is a term some of you might better know as "falsetto," and it's not entirely accurate as I use it here, but it gets the point across. I'm a natural baritone, can hit a couple bass notes and some tenor, but soprano? Nope.)

And even so, I have personalized stuff. My version of "Blackbird," which is a stretch in G, has different phrasing than Sir Paul's, and the picking pattern is not quite the same. It's recognizable as "Blackbird," but different. (I'd drop it to F, but the fingering goes up and down the neck and it would require a lot of effort to relearn those tenths elsewhere. So when I get to " ... niiight ..." I'm either going into falsetto or dropping an octave.)

Think of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends." Then Joe Cocker's version. Both work for me, but they aren't the same.

And taste? That's another fun one when you are jamming. Somebody brought in John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," which happens to be one of my favorites, the Bonnie Raitt version is a break-your-heart-killer. 

Two of the women in the group didn't like it. One of them said "It doesn't go anywhere." The other said, "It's too slow and draggy."

I sputtered. "All songs don't have to be happy. Sometimes you do a lament, which is what this is. It's a great song."

They still didn't like it. 

I expect my days with this group are going to be numbered ...


Stan said...

One of the problems, and joys, of music is that it offers a "synthesis" of communication; words, tones, rhythm, inflection, volume and other aspects.
Attempting to describe a song's affect, using only words, would be similar to a two-dimensional figure describing a three-, or even a four-dimensional object. The scope of communication just isn't available.
Sort of like the layman's comment, "I don't understand art but I know what I like."

steve-vh said...

We run in to similar issues with our group but being mature musicians everyone recognizes limitations (now that we have a new bass player) of skill and uniqueness. I tend to be the one suggesting new songs and I've started to learn what's in peoples wheelhouses as well as the types they like (the guitar player only likes songs that are positive for instance). We pick songs that speak to people as well as ones that will fit in the vocal range of the singer(s). We've now been picking up what seems like 1-2 new songs per week!
Are they what each person wants? Of course not but that's why it's a group and we all do it for the love of the music, period. I suggested a heavier version of Imagine Friday afternoon and that night we hit it on the first run through!!

Not familiar with the song you mentioned but perhaps "softer" could mean playing slightly after the beat? Just a thought.

steve-vh said...

Interesting observation Friday as well. Invited my son's friend out to sit in on drum for some songs. He's 18 but a fairly diverse musician with some formal training in theory and multiple instrument skills.
I can tell the music he's used to playing is driven/controlledc by the drum part. Not knowing our set list I chose straight ahead songs I knew he could pick up.
it took several songs for hm to get it but he finally realized to play some of these songs, he'd have to follow the cues of the lead G or Bass. By the end of the night, he was getting congratulations on how quick he picked up.
I'd say priceless experience for him and his long career.

Steve Perry said...

My first jam group, the players were mostly a bit better than I, and while we didn't all like the same songs, I had to work to keep up.

The current group, they are mostly not as adept as I, so my tendency is to step in and offer stuff, and help them learn it. There are a couple of problems with that.

First, it's not my group, so I can't say, "Okay, let's do it this way." with any kind of authority. Second, they don't practice much. We play sitting down with our music stands, so there's no need to memorize stuff, and they don't. There are a couple of folks who have been there for like three years who still can't remember three or four basic chords, and mostly they don't know the words, either.

It's fun to sing with them, and the harmony is where I'm getting something, but if I'm the most accomplished musician, that's a real limitation, and I'm not stretching. Time spent practicing the songs we do takes away from repertoire I like more.

I expect I'll get it all sorted out eventually ...

steve-vh said...

yeah, things do wax and wane. this summer I wasn't enjoying as much (it's been a year). I thought it was me not really gelling. Then the bass player left over issues we all agreed were his (song selection and correctness). We got a new bass and things are really starting to gel. work on a song a few times and they really come along much faster. So u just never know.

heina said...

Nice story. Musicians are like that.

The Delmore Brothers piece does sound "muted". ( But it sounds to me like his strings are a little dead, or that's just how his guitar is wired. Could be that he's got an old nylon. Could very well be the dynamic response (or lack thereof) of a 1949 microphone.

All of those things are going to come out in the recording. I've been spending a lot of time lately in GarageBand, and the most ear-opening thing is to play with the final Master track eq settings. Golly gee can I make a song that's mediocre sit up and sound great.

In my job, we've heard some recordings done by musicans (sans audio engineer) and they sound terrible. Those guys are there for a reason.

Good luck with the little ladies!