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Mark O'Connor

Florida Blues

July 20, 2011 at 4:41 AM

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: This week violinist and educator Mark O'Connor is sharing online a number of the excellent essays he wrote to go along with the music in his O'Connor Method, for which Books 1 and 2 are in print and Book 3 will come out this fall. At the beginning of August about 100 teachers, teacher-trainers and young students will gather for the O'Connor Method Camp in Charleston, S. C. That's in addition to 300 students of many ages (the range has been 10 to 91!) who came to camps at Berklee College in Boston, and at ETSU in Johnson City, Tenn. to explore various genres such as folk fiddling, jazz, rock, classical world music and more this summer. There are some real revelations in these histories, enjoy!

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Florida Blues

“The blues” is a music style that developed in the late 1800s among African Americans living in areas like the Mississippi Delta plantations in the American South. Black musicians combined their own African traditions with their slave work songs and field hollers, ring shouts (spontaneously singing or praying in a circle while clapping hands) and Negro spirituals to create a new form of musical expression - a new style of music that would become one of the most influential in the world.

There are many different types of African American blues music. The many traditional forms and variants can be grouped, however, into a few general categories: “classic blues” and “rural" or “delta blues” from the turn of the 20th Century and “urban blues” and “rhythm and blues” dating from the 1940s. In the earliest era of blues music, subgenres included: “barrelhouse blues,” “gut-bucket blues,” “hokum blues,” “piedmont blues,” “reels/breakdowns,” “blues rags,” “boogie-woogie blues,” “risque blues” and “up-tempo jump blues” - just to name a few.

The archetypical blues form is defined by a pattern of 12 measures in 4/4 meter divided into three lyric phrases. Many tunes exhibit the blues spirit but deviate from the fundamental 12-bar format. The improvisational tradition that developed with the early playing of the blues allows for self-expression within the context of communal participation - call and response. This spontaneous dialogue of improvisation between players established a brand new musical tradition and is one of the foundations of jazz.

Although other chromatic “passing tones” are often used, the basic sound of the blues centers around a “blues scale” which involves flatting the 3rd and 7th degrees of a major scale. In the language of the blues, these notes are characteristically played by sliding up to the desired pitch. The gliss or portamento from one specified pitch up to another, and down from from one specified pitch to another can also be applied to any note of the blues scale. The technical vocabulary of “bending” notes thereby accentuating microtones (pitches between the semitones of the Western scale) adds a provocative emotional dimension to this music.

“White” Appalachian fiddlers have long admired African American folk music. The intertwining of these musical cultures produced the American “hoedown” among other forms. Much “Black” music - especially ragtime tunes and religious pieces as well as many other vocal and instrumental techniques - was easily absorbed into the “White” repertoire. The blues music was no exception, however the “pure” blues styles had a more difficult time assimilating into “white” music culture. Slow-tempo blues ballads were the result of early cross-pollination, and faster-spirited versions of the blue became an integral part of the old-time fiddling of the early 1900s.

Enter Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith of Tennessee (1898-1971). Smith was an Anglo-American old-time fiddler and an accomplished composer and songwriter. He made his solo debut as a fiddler on the Grand Ole Opry in 1927. Smith was very influential and an inspiration to many fiddlers because of his “long bow” style which electrified radio audiences for years. Even though he had many opportunities to become a full-time professional musician, Fiddlin` Arthur Smith worked as a linesman for a railroad company in Dickson, Tennessee, for most of his life.

Although the evidence is not conclusive, Smith has been credited with composing the famous “Florida Blues.” We do know for certain, however, that he wrote many great fiddle tunes and played up-tempo blues tunes often helping to establish this fiddle blues style.

From Book II of the O'Connor Method.

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