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December 4, 2008

"Whole Lot of Power"

"Whole Lot of Power" is a musical analysis of Jimi Smith's song "Whole Lot of Power." This paper breaks down the song and analyzes many different aspects including phrasing, melody, rhythm, timbre, harmony, etc. In order to have a true understanding of how the music we listen to works, it is important to go through these analytic steps. Doing this helps us to further understand the purpose and processes behind the artist's creation, and also assists aspiring musicians to incorporate different theoretical aspects into their own music. This paper is an attempt to create this sense of understanding, albeit for just one song.

“Whole Lot of Power?

While listening to the blues with someone who isn’t experienced with the genre they might make the statement that all blues music sounds the same. Of course, anyone who listens to or plays an extensive amount of blues knows that there are a number of songs from artists that do in fact sound similar. However, experienced listeners and players have the ability to discern the differences in each song, and that is what makes blues music interesting. Jimi Smith is a guitarist who is especially talented at incorporating twists into his music to give it that extra something. The song “Whole Lot of Power,? a swinging blues in F minor, from his Back on Track album is a good example of such a song. Through form, texture, rhythm, melody, and timbre Smith produces a piece of music that holds on to classic blues roots while incorporating aspects of contemporary blues styles.
Structurally speaking “Whole Lot of Power? is a combination of two different styles of blues. Smith breaks the song up into 12 bar and 16 bar sections, using phrasing to transition between the two. Essentially there are three different sections within the song: verse, chorus, and solo. Each of these three sections is assigned a certain number of bars. For example, each verse is given a 12 bar phrase, each chorus is given a 16 bar phrase, and both of the solos are assigned two 12 bar phrases. The chart below depicts the order of the different sections and the number of bars in each.

Verse 1 Chorus Keyboard Solo Keyboard Solo Chorus Verse 2 Guitar Solo Guitar Solo
intro 12 16 12 12 16 12 12 12 outro
The interesting aspect of this piece is that it combines the 12 bar and 16 bar blues together into one cohesive work. Smith accomplishes this by breaking up the 16 bar phrase of the chorus at the seventh bar with a two bar instrumental break to emphasize the lyric “I’ll make you say you do when you know you don’t.? Throughout the song, the different melodic lines are broken up into either the verse or chorus and remain consistent within their groupings. This keeps the song from becoming dull and repetitive.
Within the song there are two main melodies that are used. One of these is used over the verse and another is used during the chorus. Both melodies are monophonic and are sung by Jimi Smith. These melodies are supported differently in the verse and chorus. In the verse, antiphonic call and response is used. Smith will sing a two bar line and “answer? it with a two bar guitar fill. Smith also utilizes harmony in the verses by having his organ player hold sustained 9th chords under his melody. The chorus, on the other hand, is a combination of two different melodies separating the 16 bar phrase into two smaller phrases of eight. While the organ was providing harmonic sustains during the verse, the guitar takes over this responsibility in the first eight bars of the chorus leading up to the two measure break. In turn, the organ falls back to playing short “chirpy? staccato chords following the progression. The second eight bars of the chorus is a variation of the verse. Smith returns to the antiphonic call and response tradition. However, it is condensed into a shorter form. Two bars of melody are sung followed by a two bar fill, which is then cut in half for the remaining four bars of the phrase. One bar is sung followed by a one bar fill and repeated once to complete the 16 bar chorus. The second eight bars of the chorus bring in the return of the sustained harmonic chords of the organ heard in the verses. These patterns are repeated in each verse and chorus to follow.
Following traditional blues standards this song is very rhythmically charged in that it has a strong, emphatic beat. The tempo throughout the song is a steady 120 and does not speed up or slow down. The piece is in common time and is played in a swing style created by the drummer swinging his eighth notes on the ride cymbal. This swing places emphasis on the second and fourth beats of the piece. Both the twelve and sixteen bar patterns are based on a four count beat with all of the beats sustaining an equal length. Essentially there are three instruments that produce the rhythm in the piece. The bass, rhythm guitar, and drums all play a sort of cadence that drives the song ahead. The bass and rhythm guitar are playing simple quarter notes building the F, Bb, and C chords. The drummer then takes this driving quarter note rhythm and subdivides it into swing eighth notes to add an extra flare to the song. There is a lot of cyclicity used throughout the song. For example, the same four beat pattern that the rhythm guitar and bass play is constant and almost metronome-like. The lead guitar also plays a recurring pattern when it comes in over the first eight bars of the chorus. Another key use of repeated patterns is found in the intro and outro. These two sections are comprised of identical strumming of six beats. This adds a sense of closure to the song by ending the same way that it began completing the circle.
The piece is in the key of F minor, and therefore the tonic is F. The majority of the lines sung begin and end on the tonic. The song follows the standard circle of fifths, and its 12 and 16 bar blues is based off of the 1st, 4th, and 5th scale degrees: F, Bb, and C. Improvisations are performed using the minor pentatonic scale, omitting the 2nd and 6th scale degrees and flatting the 3rd and 7th. Throughout the song there are several varying melodies which are both composed and improvised. The first verse sets the precedent for the melodic line, and then the chorus comes in varying the melody slightly. Both of these melodies sound to be composed by the way that they fit in with the supporting lines. The next variations come from the keyboard solo, which seems to be improvised. The organ player splits the solo up into two 12 bar phrases. In the first phrase, the melody is obviously mimicked and played off of very closely, but in the second phrase of the solo, the melody line is harder to pick out. This second phrase is a higher more wailing organ sound that was built up to in the first phrase which was comprised of shorter more spastic combinations of notes. That buildup allowed for the long sustained screeching on the organ. The final melody is created in the guitar solo which is completely improvised, yet phrased in such a way that it leads to the eventual ending of the song. It begins work on the lower spectrum of the fret board in the first twelve bars and ends up on the higher frets where the climax of the solo is achieved.
Overall the shape of each phrase is meant to be as smooth as possible. The phrasing is carried out in such a way that the transitions between phrases fit in with the phrase to come. The phrases are shaped by slow glissandos down the fret board or slight bends and sustainments at the end of fills. The exception to the pattern of smooth phrasing is found in the chorus. The break in the middle of the section comes very abruptly and completely throws off the flow of the music in order to make the listener pay attention to the words. The melody is comprised of a longer flowing idea which is suitable for this phrasing. Textually, the song is about having “a whole lot of power? which the singer is going to use over someone. The singer proclaims that he has “the power to make you stay or go/to make you say yes when you want to say no,? and that “I’ll make you say you will when you know you won’t/I’ll make you say you do when you know you don’t.? This mood of having completely power and control is emphasized through the driving beat which feels almost like a pushing force.
The piece contains six separate sonic sources. The six are comprised of two electric guitars—one lead and one rhythm—a bass guitar, electric B3 organ, drums, and Jimi Smith’s voice. In the case of the guitars and bass, all three produce vibrations by strumming over the strings and sending electrical signals through amplifiers. However, all three have different tone qualities. The rhythm guitar is heavily distorted and has the deep, crunchy growl you get from classic Marshal stacks. Contrarily, the lead guitar has a brighter, clean sound that comes off almost tinny. This sound, however, is abandoned during the guitar solo where the lead takes on a thick, gnashing tone that allows the guitar to screech and wail into two step bends and frantic hammer-ons. In opposition to standard blues songs, the bass is fairly under toned is this song. It follows the rhythm guitar and plays a very smooth pattern, yet there is the occasional low note that sends that brassy vibration through the speakers. The drummer utilizes very heavy beats. This is very apparent in the base drum which is kicked every beat. He also emphasizes the off beats with “poppy? snare hits complemented by the brassy swing rhythm on the ride cymbal. The jazz organ adds a lot to the sound of the piece. It has a very screechy quality while providing a smooth brightness at the same time. This works well to contrast Smith’s growling blues voice. He sings in a way that deemphasizes certain syllables to mesh the vocal line into the instrumental. It is a very throaty voice, and he uses an almost guttural vibrato at the end of his verses. Overall it is a very good supplement to the style of blues that he plays.
Undoubtedly, there are thousands of blues songs worthy of critical analysis, and many of them will never be taken into consideration. However, “Whole Lot of Power? is now one song that can claim its worth. It has earned the right to relevance because of its unique twist on different blues styles. This truly is an example of how different uses of form, texture, rhythm, melody, and timbre can contribute to the makings of a blues song that is both true to tradition and contains some contemporary flare.

It's a Blues Thang

"It's a Blues Thang" is a break-down of a musical tradition. In this case, that tradition is blues music. Background information is given on the origin and development of the genre. From W.C. Handy and Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton and B.B. King, this paper attempts to show that blues is an ever-developing musical tradition. Another key element of the paper is to define meaning within the genre, and defining what it means to be a great musician from a blues standpoint. The question of soul is brought up, and is used to define greatness of self expression. Finally, a bridge is built between the cultural differences of early blues and more contemporary styles.

It’s a Blues Thang

Playing the blues is contributing to part of a time honored-tradition. Historically, the development of the genre had to put up with a lot of discrimination from white culture, and musicians had to go through a lot to have the simple right to play their music. Many artists, like Jimi “Prime Time? Smith, have made valuable contributions to the transformation of the blues style over the years, and these contributions have molded the blues into a new type of music for a new audience. Because of new developing techniques and contributions by contemporary artists, the critical element of soul, and the need for musicians to have the ability to convey true expression through their music, the blues has become a genre that crosses new cultural boundaries.
In terms of historical background, the blues has a very lush and interesting story. It is said that the first blues ever sung song was entitled “Joe Turner? and was written about a penal officer from Tennessee in the mid-1890’s (Weissman 19). Although “Joe Turner? is considered to mark the birth of blues, a long road needed to be paved to get there. Much of today’s blues music originated in the south, but its true roots can be traced back to Africa. West African music contains many traits that are still used in blues music. These traits include flatting the third and seventh scale degrees, call-and-response singing, and vocal techniques such as falsetto or growling (Weissman 9). Slaves brought these styles over to America during the slave trade. Soon these techniques were being used in field songs, minstrel shows, and in early folk blues, a style of music which featured such artists as Woody Guthrie and Charley Patton. Even though there is no way to know exactly who the first musician to play blues was, many attribute the popularization of blues to a composer-musician named W.C. Handy. Common blues folklore claims Handy saw a man in a rail station playing a blues song using a penknife as a slide in 1903, in Mississippi (Weissman 19). Yet, there are countless musicians and composers who must be credited for contributing to the full development of the blues. Some of the most notable figures are Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and John Lee Hooker, yet it is impossible for any genre to cease developing because every artist brings something new to the proverbial table.
Since the birth of what is known as classic blues, musicians have made many contributions that have advanced or that have even broken out of the genre completely creating their own styles. Examples of such genres are rhythm and blues, rock ’n roll, and soul. Rhythm and blues was popularized by musicians like Ray Charles and Bo Diddley and differed from the blues in many aspects. It didn’t follow the standard twelve-bar pattern, groups incorporated horns into their bands, songwriters used choruses in a pop form, and gospel music played a highly influential role (Weissman 93). Rock ‘n roll also stemmed from blues-oriented rockabilly music, a style made famous by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in the 1950’s (Weissman 98). Blues music has been shaped by the social and economic situations that have surrounded it. After the civil war, the failure of reconstruction left African-Americans abandoned with many problems. These problems were reflected in blues music, and similarly, during the great depression many blues songs were about poverty. These examples go to show that the blues is an art form that utilizes personal expression whether it is through peoples’ woes or their happiness and successes.
The blues is a time honored tradition that has produced many superstars and legends known by millions worldwide. Some of the greatest of these musicians are Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Jimmy Reed. Jimi Smith was directly influenced by several of these artists, and it is apparent when listening to his music. Smith grew up playing with Jimmy Reed in his home, and Reed’s influence proved to be Smith’s greatest by far (Stiles). Smith learned how to play guitar from Reed, and he actually played his first gig with Reed at the Ann Arbor blues festival in 1973 at the age of 14 (Stiles). However, it is obvious that Smith takes influences from other artists. Listening to his song, “South Bound,? it is clear that Smith hints at Robert Johnson’s slide techniques, which are especially utilized during the guitar solo (Smith). All of these musicians left their marks on blues music. During the 1960’s and 70’s, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were exploring new stylistic directions for the blues. Many of these musicians were products of the drug culture and brought revolutionary new styles that no one had heard before to the table.
When witnessing a performance of any of these great musicians, or any blues musician for that matter, it is a natural reaction to judge the talent of the given musician. The difficult question is, “How do you go about determining a musician’s skill in regards to their specific instrument?? Certainly the answer to this question is different for every genre of music and can differ from musician to musician within the given genre. Putting aside all deals with the devil, most blues musicians would agree that becoming a true virtuoso on guitar, harp, or bass cannot come without practice. However, no matter how much practice, the only thing that truly matters in a blues musician is the player’s soul. Yet, even this definition is potentially problematic because it requires understanding of the term soul. In a 1983 recording session, Albert King talks to Stevie Ray Vaughan about soul. He says that “there’s a lot of guitar players…that just play fast; they don’t concentrate on no soul? (“Old Times?). Therefore it takes much more than ability to play your instrument to be considered truly great. The music that comes out of your guitar can’t just be notes, it has to be you. In the blues song “My Soul,? by the popular jam band Phish, Trey Anastasio sings the lyrics “Why do I/ Sit and cry/ Without a reason/ I don’t know why/ It’s my soul.? The ability to convey personal emotions through music is crucial in the blues because it is such a down-to-earth, no-bullshit type of music.
Since Jimi Smith learned how to play guitar from Jimmy Reed they both have somewhat similar approaches to inserting soul into their blues. When listening to Jimmy Reed, it is clear that he comes from an earlier period of blues development. His songs are much slower than and not as busy as those of Jimi Smith’s. Reed utilizes strong, rhythmic 12 bar and 16 bar patterns that surge on steadily like a train. To add extra expression, he plays screechy harmonica melodies over the guitar rhythms that create an extremely bluesy tone. Smith uses some of these techniques as well, but in different ways. Most of Smith’s music is more up-tempo and has a lot of backup from other instruments. This forces Smith to find different ways to make his music soulful. Since there is more sound being produced by many players, Smith uses his guitar to wail through the rest of the players and give his music something special.
Before the 1960’s, blues was primarily a music made by and for African-Americans. However, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a new audience for blues music (Powell 1). In general, blues artists are primarily middle aged black men who can write music that plays to the interests of their audiences who typically shared the same demographic. However, with the rising percentages of a white audience, there was a clear drop in the percentages of black audience members, who were beginning to focus more upon soul music (Oliver). Because of this decrease in audience, many artists were forced to scale down their touring, and they had a lot of success among the American University circuit (Oliver).
With crowds of young, white hippies surging to shows by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Eric Clapton, the system of black blues performers playing for a black audience began to break down becoming a part of mainstream white culture (Powell 2). Powell goes on to include the eighties pop-culture movie “The Blues Brothers? in the conversion of blues to mainstream culture (2). Yet, we must consider the repercussions this shift would have on the music as a whole. Playing for a new type of audience can cause a need for musicians to write lyrics that are tailored specifically to their fans. The majority of black blues artists, from Charley Patton to B.B. King grew up picking cotton, so their audience understood that a standard opening line “Woke up this mornin’? meant that they were waking up to a day of arduous labor for low wages (Powell 2). Is this meaning lost by now middle aged and younger white blues fans or does it help to build bridges across cultural lines? Some critics would argue that it is not merely the racial shift of audience makeup that is affecting the meaning of blues music. Rather, it is because so much time has passed since the age of slavery, and black people are earning the respect and acceptance they deserve causing the youth to become dissociated with the problems of the past. It is arguable that this shift has given a new strength to the genre, as a more diverse demographic is likely to bring more income for musicians and possibilities for new developments within the genre.
Searching throughout the history of the blues, it is obvious that blues is a music that has been through many changes. New artists are constantly emerging in the genre and redefine what it means to be a blues artist. From Robert Johnson to B.B. King, there have been countless blues players who have each left their mark on the historical value of blues. Yet, as new styles continue developing, there is something that can never be taken out of the blues: soul and personal expression, the two cornerstones of blues music that define the genre.


Works Cited
Powell, Garry C. "Talkin' Blues at the Living Blues Symposium." Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies 35 (2004): 121-28.
Smith, Jimi. "Jimi Prime Time Smith." 18 Mar. 2008. 29 Oct. 2008 .
Weissman, Dick. Blues Basics. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Stiles, Ray M. "Blues on Stage." 1998. 17 Sept. 2008 .
Oliver, Paul. "Blues." Oxford Music Online. 2007. Groove Music Online. 12 Nov. 2008 .
"Old Times." Rec. Dec. 1983. By Albert King; Stevie Ray Vaughan. In Session. MP3. Bill Belmont, 1999.