If anyone is looking for some new music, a new band, or is really into alternative music, some friends of mine in a band called The Georgia Flood released an album today. The Flood cut their teeth in blues bars all over the south, but also play rock, R&B, roots, and soul music and weave it all over a base of alt rock. The band is comprised of two brothers who are some of the most musically devoted people I know. They listen to and will play any music made with “real instruments”, but they also have incorporated synth and electronic elements before. The album is called People Like Ourselves and can be found on Spotify, iTunes, Napster, or whatever platform you use.
For my second observation, I went to a blues jam in Greensboro on Wednesday. The way jams usually work is you find whoever is running it and put your name and instrument on the list. At some point in the night you are called up on stage and you play three songs with people of each instrument. For instance, I was playing with a bassist, drummer (the drummer tours with Bob Margolin, which is pretty awesome), and two guitarists. There was also a singer for part of my first set. Blues is easy to improvise and play spontaneously, so it usually isn’t too much trouble playing with people you don’t know. It’s part of the “feel” of the blues that I am having so much trouble articulating. After my first set, they had me stay up for the rest of the night. Partly because I was the new kid in town, and because they were impressed and liked my sound.
When I was playing, the singer told me to play all over him, and to not stop playing. I have been expressly taught NOT to do this. Playing over the singer and playing too much is bad form, at least on the Atlanta blues circuit. I may be biased, but the people I’ve played with in Georgia are more professional and more skillful than those I’ve met here, with a few exceptions. Here people love it when I don’t stop, but at home, the mark of a good artist is leaving space, and knowing when not to play. Playing all the time detracts from the beauty and the power of what you play. You have to bide your time and wait for your moment, instead of just playing the whole time. I played how I was asked on Wednesday, but it was profoundly unsettling and felt wrong. The differences in preferences between relatively close locations is something I may be exploring in my final paper.
In blues and roots music, instruments such as the washboard, washtub bass, cigar box guitar, and jugs have long been used. But until recently, there has been a decline in the use of homemade instruments. However, some people have started to use exclusively CBG’s or other homemade instruments, such as Samantha Fish and Justin Johnson. Here is a video of Justin playing a three string shovel.
Aside from just being really cool, these artists are bringing back the idea that music can be made without fancy instruments. Spreading this idea around could give people that otherwise can’t afford mass produced Strats the means to play music and return to the roots of American popular music.
Here is a video of the Chinese Hearing Impaired Dancers (not sure if that is actually their official name). The video is of choreography to the Thousand Hand Bodhisattva, which is a tribute to Guan Yin. While music is a universal entity, it’s not often linked to the deaf or hearing impaired. The most amazing thing to think about this, for me at least, is the far reaching implications that music transcends sound. For these dancers music is a non-auditory experience. I can’t imagine experiencing music without sound. Does the choreography enable them to feel the flow of music? What other ways are there to enjoy and experience music without hearing it?
Remember the “little fifth” overtone that we read about in Sardinian Chronicles? When four singers harmonized a high overtone was heard. Turns out there is a way to achieve this sound alone. One person can sing 2-4 notes at the same time. This phenomenon is present in most regional styles of throat singing, however, the most fascinating (to me), and the one I have been listening lately, is that of the Tuvan and Mongolian peoples. There are up to 6 different types of this style of throat singing, most notably kargyraa and khoomei. Khoomei is said to be modeled after wind whistling through the rocks on the steppes. I have tried to learn how to produce this sound, and it is extremely difficult to achieve any semblance of an overtone. It is done by singing a base note, something that sounds like the “hu” in “human”, with the tongue blocking all of the mouth except for a small hole against the top teeth. Somehow multiple notes emanate from the singer with this embouchure, and quick tongue and lip movements. Tuvan throat singing is beautiful, eerie, haunting, and sounds utterly foreign to ears conditioned to Western musics. Here are two videos of Tuvan and Mongolian throat singing. The first demonstrates khoomei and kargyraa, which is the deep growling hum, and is accompanied by percussion, morin khuur, and some other instruments. The second is just one singer accompanying himself on morin khuur, a traditional Mongolian stringed instrument.
Whenever people who aren’t regulars on the blues scene hear me play for the first time or hear that I play at all, they tend to ask why I decided to learn how to play it. For most people, the harmonica, or harp as it is often known, is something that you get as a child, a brightly colored piece of plastic that you blow randomly, sliding it from side to side. For me, and for many others, it has soul, and is one of the most effective conduits of one’s soul. I play harp specifically for a multitude of reasons, the main one being that it is very common in blues music, which is my life’s passion. Another good reason is that you can take a harp anywhere, unlike drums, which I played for 8 years. But there are other, deeper reasons. Because the harmonica is a free reed instrument, meaning that the reeds vibrate only with the passage of air, and not with oral contact, embouchure can affect tone and sound much more. There is an extremely intimate link between the breath and the voice, and this enables harmonica players to . The breath comes from the same place as singing – the diaphragm – and therefore is almost, as, or more evocative than the voice, depending on the player and song. Each person’s mouth is shaped differently and each person has slightly different technique. No two people sound the exact same, and individual sounds can very widely. This level of individuality is often not present in some wind instruments, especially ones that are played in symphonies or orchestras. Good harp playing can be provocative, rousing, energizing, and sorrowful, and can follow the same structures used by vocalists without words. James Cotton likes to say if you can say it, you can play it, and though I haven’t completely figured that out yet, I am learning to put my frustration, sadness, joy, and energy into my playing.
Most people get into the blues through the “blues interpreters,” like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Cream, and I am no exception. When I discovered that I was especially into the blues covers they did, I traced the music back in time to Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Howlin’ Wolf, and the like. When I heard the power and tone of Big Walter Horton, I got hooked really deep and really fast, and decided to learn harmonica. This journey has led me all over Georgia, and I have played with people who are touring the nation and the world, and learned from some of the greatest living harp players.
Most blues musicians worth their salt will tell you that blues is a feeling. Many of us don’t have technical backgrounds in music theory, and tend to play by ear and by feel. The blues is something you feel in your soul, something old and natural that just flows through you. People evaluate each other on the blues scene by whether or not they have “the feel.” “The feel” is a visceral pull you feel in your gut that moves you to play and weave your soul and emotion into the music.
Blues is commonly and erroneously perceived to be a mere expression of sorrow or negativity. You don’t have to be sad to play the blues, your woman need not have left you, and you can have plenty of money and still play the blues.
The Atlanta blues community has become a second family for me. I typically spend 3-4 nights a week playing for hours at jams, or sitting in with friends’ bands. Blues harp is my greatest passion in life, and one I intend to bring to Davidson and continue to pursue in the clubs in Charlotte.
Here is a video of me doing what I do from several months again. I’ve gotten better since then and started singing too.