The lyrics of race record blues, 1920-1942 : a semantic approach to the structural analysis of a formulaic system

Taft, Michael (1977) The lyrics of race record blues, 1920-1942 : a semantic approach to the structural analysis of a formulaic system. Doctoral (PhD) thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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Abstract

From 1920 to 1942 the major record companies in the United States began producing records for the Afro-American record-buying public. These records were known as “race records.” Over this twenty-two year period, hundreds of black artists recorded thousands of blues songs. For most of these performers, the recording context was simply one more way of making a living through their artistry, but this context made demands on their talents and upon their creative abilities which were not made in other performance context. Because of the lack of visual contact with an audience, the two-hundred second time limit on the songs, and the pressure by record company officials for ever-new and innovative material, the lyrics of the race record blues became a highly complex and compact form of song in this new performing environment, relying heavily on short, aphoristic pronouncements and concise poetic imagery. -- At the same time, however, race record lyrics were highly formulaic in structure. In this study, the nature of this formulaic structure is described. -- Part One of this study defines the blues according to its text, texture, and content. Special care is taken to explain the many different performance contexts in which the blues was sung, from house parties, juke joints arid picnics, to cabarets, circuses, and stage shows. The recording content is described in detail and the effects of the race record performance upon other types of performances is explored. -- In Part Two of this study, the structure of the blues is described. The basic unit of the structure of the blues is the formula, which is usually a half-line in length, but which can also include an entire blues line. The best way of visualizing the formula is as a generalized, semantic predication in which each part of the predication may generate a number of different words and phrases in the surface manifestation of the formula. Depending upon one's analytical focus, therefore, different phrases may be seen as either different manifeistatipns of the same formula or as separate formulas. This is because; the generalized predication is a fluid structure with an almost infinite number of manifestations on a continuum of meaning. – One of the paradoxes of blues structure, then, is that the .formula is both a theoretical construction and a concrete reality of blues composition. As one moves one’s focus from blues compositional competence to actual blues performance, the structure of the blues formula becomes more concrete and it acquires definable boundaries. It is at the level of blues performance, rather than blues competence, that the formula becomes a truly useful tool in the study of blues structure. In one chapter in Part Two, the recorded repertoire of Garfield Akers is analyzed formulaically, in order to show the usefulness of the concept of the formula in actual blues performance. -- Another paradox of blues structure is that, although it is clearly a formulaic system, it is nevertheless infinitely expandable within this system. The blues singer could be both traditional and innovative at same time in his composition. This paradox is partly explained by the flexibility of the formula, but innovation is also achieved through the embellishment of blues formulas with a wide variety of extra formulaic elements. In addition, the ways in which formulas, lines, and stanzas are juxtaposed allows further room for innovation. The blues structure is both rigid and flexible at the same time. -- The findings of this study are based on an extensive analysis of over two thousand blues texts by approximately 350 singers. A computer was used in order to rearrange the lyrics into a concordance format. In this format, the formulaic structure of the visible, and individual formulaic structures could be easily isolated. -- In the appendices, to this study, the twenty most frequently recurring formulas in the corpus are described. All occurrences of two of these twenty formulas are listed in order to show the wide variation and flexibility possible within formulaic structure. The study also includes a complete listing of the corpus used in the analysis as well as a bibliography and discography of references cited

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral (PhD))
URI: http://research.library.mun.ca/id/eprint/1523
Item ID: 1523
Additional Information: Bibliography : leaves 485-508
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > Folklore
Date: 1977
Date Type: Submission
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Blues (Music); Popular music--Writing and publishing

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