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British blue notes and

musicological missing links

Philip Tagg

Facult de musique, Universit de Montral

(November 2004)

An example of how musicology can

contribute to the defalsification of
canonic consensus in the history of
North American popular music

3 main points of origin

The problem

Identification of the corporeal with African music

Identification of the cerebral with European
Identification of pitches outside the twelve-note
tempered scale as foreign (to us), ergo African
Identification of pitches within the twelve-note
tempered scale as European
Identification of rhythmic complexity and of
improvisation as African
Identification of rhythmic simplicity and lack of
improvisation as European

Presentation overview
1.General patterns of
West African

2.Musicological zoom-in
British blue notes
British backbeats and cross-rhythm
Melismatic ornamentation

3.Conclusions and consequences

Deporting Africans (1)

Map source -


Deporting Africans (2)

1666-1776: Slaves imported only

by the English for the English, French
and Spanish colonies: 3 million
(250,000 died on the trip)
1776-1800: A yearly average of
74,000 slaves were imported for the
American colonies with a total of

USA: some C19 immigrant


1800: US popul. 5.3 mill: 80% British, 10% African, 10%

1810: US population 7.3 million
1816: Postwar crisis in Britain causes mass emigration
1820: German immigration increases until 1850
1826: James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans
1840-90: >50% of US immigrants (total popul. 17
mill./50 mill.) arrive from Great Britain or Ireland
1846: Potato famine in Ireland (population from 8 to 2
1865: US civil war ends: slavery officially abolished
1890: US popul. 50 mill: >50% of immigrants Slavonic or
1898: HMV & DGG start mass production of recordings

Early British immigration to USA

C17: 2 types of immigration

c. 30% skilled and quite prosperous to New
c. 70% poor, young, single men to the
C18: after Union of England and
Scotland (1707) and after defeat of
Jacobite rebellion (1745) more Scots
than English

Brits in New World c.1800: summary

US popul. 5.3 mill., Brits 4.3 mill. (80%)


New England Brits: arrived in C17 and early C18: quite

Virginia Brits: arrived throughout C17 and C18: mostly poor

from England and Wales before industrial revolution mid C18

from rural Britain, increasingly from Scotland, during C18

Musically most emigrated without having heard:

Handel (British monarchys official composer)

Brass bands, symphony orchestras and other official music
Accordeon, piano and other equal-toned instruments
Recorded or broadcast music

Musically most emigrated having heard:

Rural popular singing and dance music (folk music)

Simply harmonised hymns (e.g. Scots Psalter, 1564; Wesleys Psalms
& Hymns, 1737)
Fife and drum bands (military recruitment, etc.)

Archaic Englishness in Appalachia

This last week I took down three
ballads given in Child* which I have
never before heard sung and to which
there are no published tunes The first
of these is one of the oldest ballads
known, and is the prototype of Lord
Rendal, a very rare and valuable find
[T]his field is a far more fertile one
upon which to collect English folk songs
than England. (Cecil Sharps Diary for 27
August, 1916, in Hot Springs, Kentucky)

Taking all reservations into account, I

still believe that the biggest danger lies
in underestimating the isolation of their
lives, the lack of canned music, the
scarcity of professional musicians, the
grip of tradition. (Peter van der Merwe:

Origins of the Popular Style, p.45; Oxford

University Press, 1999)
*Francis J. Child: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (5 vols., London, 1882-1898)

British blue notes - examples

1. Weaving song from The Hebrides (1930s)

Blue notes (3rds) at 8, 13 and 17, then pasted consecutively

2. The Lost Soul (Doc Watson Family, Kentucky, c.

for theday
at the highlighted
an awful
the judgement
And the sinners hear their eternal doom! (their eternal doom!)
At the sad decree (at the sad decree) theyll depart for ay
Into endless woe (into endless woe), endless woe and

3. Darling Corey (Doc Watson, Kentucky, c. 1960)

Banjo and fiddle in straight D major (with f).

Listen for vocal lines blue notes (f) at the highlighted
Wake up, wake up,
up Darling Corey, what makes you sleep so

Them highway robbers are a-coming, theyre a-ringing around
your town.

European (incl. British) backbeats


The emphatic backbeat, conventionlally held by rock

historians to be an African-American trait, is just as
common in music of British and Central European origin.*

Johan Strauss (I): polka c. 1840

(recording not yet available)

Band of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (fife and drum section): God
Bless the Prince of Wales (Trad., rec. c.1990)

*Garry Tamlyn: The Big Beat: Origins and development of snare backbeat and
other accompanimental rhythms in Rock 'n' Roll. PhD thesis, University of
Liverpool, 1998.

British cross rhythm: Scotch snaps

Pattern of 2 syllables/notes of which the first is short and
accentuated, the second unaccentuated, in British, especially
Scottish, English, as in do it, get it, matter, pretty,
Annie, Peter, Philip, David, Scottish, etc., i.e. an inverted
dotting (= | e q . |, not | q . e |).

1. Strathspey (Trad. Scottish., Farquhar McRae, fiddle; rec.

Numerous snaps and straight dottings throughout: impossible
to tell position of downbeat until end of first 8-bar period.

2. Sally Goodn (Trad. Appalachian, Fiddlin Eck Robertson, rec.

1926). Snaps at end of each phrase (Sally Goodn, wouldnt,

couldnt, etc.)
Fifteen dollars is my game, fifteen is my draw,
3. Randall
it isAppalachian,
my name in Norman
the stateBlake,

Fifteen (1st time) anticipates downbeat (syncopation)

Randall Collins, it is my name sung in 6/8 time against 4/4 (cross
and with blue note

British cross rhythms (2)

iiq iiq
or 3x2 || iq iq iq

Hemiola: 6 notes grouped 2x3 ||

The hemiola is the most simple polymetric device in West Africa.

Common in Hispanic popular music (e.g. cueca, son jalisco), it was
also a feature of the Galiard (C16-C17 in England). The two
rhythmic groupings can occur at the same time or in succession.

John Dowland: Earle of Essex Galiard (1600)*

* a.k.a song Can she excuse her wrongs with virtues cloak?

British melismas
Melismatic singing: several notes to same syllable; opposite of syllabic singing (=
1 note per syllable).
Improvising florid pentatonic melismas is common in gospel music and
conventionally regarded as a typically African(-American) practice.
Hebridean home worship (in Gaelic, rec. c.1960)

Lead singer (precentor) melismatically embellishes basic hymn melody.

Other singers follow her lead, each producing different but related melodic lines at the same time (heterophony).
Individuals relationship to God essential in radical Protestantism, therefore varying improvised interpretations of
same melody.

Amazing Grace (rec. Kentucky 1950s)

Lead singer (precentor) summarises each line of hymn in advance for illiterate congregation who follow with complete
Melismatic (and pentatonic) embellishment snaking the voice by
by all (no heterophony).
Personal relationship to God essential in radical Protestantism (and in U.S. Constitution), therefore embellished melody.


The majority of C17 and C18 British immigrants to the USA were
poor and from rural areas.
They left Britain before the industrial revolution.
They settled in the Virginias, the Scots, who emigrated in the mid-tolate C18, mostly in the hinterland of the southern Appalachians.
For at least 150 years they lived in relative isolation from urban
They were unlikely to have been exposed to much music of Central
European origin but did come into contact with the music of slaves
deported from West Africa.
The music of poor rural Brits shared more traits in common with the
music of the slave population than with the Central Europeans who
sometimes confused Scotch and nigger melodies (blue notes,
snaps, cross-rhythmic devices, melismas, etc.).
Acculturation between British and African traditions is at the basis of
the second wave* of globally diffused North American popular music
(from 1940s, especially after 1955 R&B, country, rock, etc.).
*First wave: Central European and jazz-influenced popular musics,

Ideological and epistemological

consequences - 1

Conventional discourses about N. American popular music

characterise cultural traditions (incl. musical) according to
hegemonic categories institutionalised during the slave trade
which provided the economic basis for the foundation of the
By so doing, these conventional discourses exaggerate racial
difference at the expense of social and cultural similarity.
The consequent confusion of racial with cultural traits leads to
the identification of false others, characterisable in either
derogatory (racist) or ostensibly positive terms (inverted
Positing false otherness impedes identification of otherness
in terms of oppression and alienation in the context of the
hegemonic home culture (divide et impera).
Rationalism, hijacked by capitalism since C18, was not applied
systematically to irrational aspects of human organisation
(theories of society, the individual, emotions, body, gender,
etc.) until C20. We still have to create alternative discourses
to deal with the sociocultural realities of shared subjectivities.

Ideological and epistemological

consequences - 2

Music studies have suffered particularly severely from

the effects of irrational rationalism. Conventional music
studies, by focusing on certain formal aspects of just one
among thousands of music cultures, have tended to
mystify rather than explain how music relates to the rest
of human life. Many academics have therefore been
unable to understand how music creates culturally
specific ways of representing patterns of emotion,
gesture, corporeality, social interaction and attitudes,
Academic studies in the West still revolve around printing
technologies which evolved between C15 and C19. They
consequently tend towards the logocentric or
scopocentric, neglecting symbolic systems which use
movement, tactility and non-verbal sound as materials in
the production and dissemination of values and meaning.

Ideological and epistemological

consequences - 3

Scholars outside musicology need to discuss musical meaning

if they want to explain central aspects of the culture/society
they are investigating.*

Musicologists need to develop ways of helping nonmusicologists to deal with music as if it meant something.

Musicologists and non-musicologists should work together to

develop these tools.

* If you want to know whether a people is well governed and whether their
laws are
good or bad, examine the music they make. (Confucius/Kongfuzi, 551-479

Verbal references
African diaspora
Hamm, Charles (1979): Yesterdays. Popular Song in America; New
York: Norton
Merwe, Peter van der (1989): Origins of the Popular Style; OUP
Slave trade (Evangelishe Stift, Gtersloh, Germany)

Slave Trade (Port Cities: Liverpool, UK)
Slave trade today (BBC)
Tagg, Philip (1989): "Open Letter about 'Black Music', 'Afro-American
Music' and
'European Music'"; Popular Music, 8/3: 285-298.
Background dates to the history of English-language popular music

Musical references
Amazing Grace (mel. US Trad., printed in Virginia Harmony,
Harmony, 1831)
The Folk Box;
Box; Elektra/Folkways Elektra EKL-9001 (1964).
The Band and Drums 1st Battalion of the The Royal Welch Fusiliers:
God Bless The Prince Of Wales (Trad., n.d.)
The Band and Drums 1st Battalion of the The Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Fusiliers. RS/1 (c.1990)
Blake, Norman: Randall Collins (US Trad.)
Home In Sulphur Springs.
Springs. Rounder 0012 (1972).
Dowland, John: Earle of Essex Galliard (c. 1610)
The Elizabethan Collection.
Collection. Boots Classical Collection DDD 143 (1988)
Hebridean Weaving Song & Hebridean Home Worship (Scottish Trad.)
Musique Celtique les Hebrides (ed. T Knudsen). International Folk Music Council: Anthologie de la musique populaire, OCORA OCR 45 (1970).
McRae, Farquhar (fiddle): Strathspey (Scottish Trad.); unidentified recording c.1960
Robertson, "Fiddlin'" Eck: Sally Goodin (US Trad., rec 1926)
Southern Dance Music,
Music, Vol. 2, Old-Timey LP 101 (1965).
Watson, Doc: Darling Corey (US Trad.)
The Doc Watson Family.
Family. Smithsonian Folkways SF 40012 (1990).
Watson, Doc & "Family": The Lost Soul (US Trad.)
Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley: The Original Folkways Recordings 1960-1962. Smithsonian Folkways SF40029/30 (1994).


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