Deciphering Culture


leave a comment »


During the mid-1940s a new style of blues established itself in California that would have significantly influence the development of American popular music, most dramatically by shaping the sound of Rhythm & Blues during the early 1950s. Without R & B, there would be no soul, no funk and, arguably, no hip-hop, and pop singers would not sound the same today. The sounds of the California blues—or as it came to be known, the West Coast Blues—also helped shape the sound of early rock ‘n’ roll and the national post-War Urban Blues styles that brought us such artists as B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, offering a counterpoint to the very different Chicago sound of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and others.
The West Coast blues developed out the same sociological changes as its Midwest cousin: as hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South during WW II looking for economic opportunity and a more tolerant social climate. In California, the African American population grew from about 80,000 in 1930 to more than ½ million by 1950. The exodus out of the South followed the main railroad lines – from Mississippi and Alabama, those lines led to Chicago and on to Detroit; from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas to Los Angeles, they led to Los Angeles and then up the Coast to the Bay Area. That, at least in part, explains the very different blues styles that developed in California and Chicago, which were the regional blues styles that most significantly influenced the development of modern popular music in the U.S. and beyond. We will examine the development of the West Coast blues in detail in the subsequent classes but since the main subject here is music, I want to introduce the basic musical vocabulary for the course and the approach to listening we’re going to take.

Basic Musical Vocabulary:

• Melody: a succession of tones (pitches) heard as a single unit.
• Rhythm: the variation of length and accentuation (emphasis) of a series of sounds and silences
• Harmony: two or more simultaneous tones (pitches)
• Dynamics: how loud or quiet a sound is (includes how stressed a sound is)
• Timbre or tone color — why a trumpet sounds different than a guitar
• Form: the structure of a particular piece of music — i.e., a ballad, blues or symphony
• Texture: the interaction of the melodic, rhythmic and timbral elements.
• Style: what distinguishes a group, period, genre, region, or manner of performance.


Analytical Listening (How we’ll listen in this class):


• What stands out? — Remember your gut feeling.
• Experiential associations — Relate the sounds to something you know


• Timbre (rough, smooth, raspy, etc.)

• Pitch (high/low, definite/indefinite

• Melodic Contour (descending, ascending, etc.)

• Interval range (Small movements, big jumps)

• Style of singing (Syllabic: one tone per syllable or melismatic: more than one tone per syllable)

• Rhythm (tempo: fast, slow) (accents) (meter: duple: 1-2-3-4 1-2-3-4….. triple: 1-2-3 1-2-3….) (rhythmic density: are there many layers of rhythm?)

• Dynamics (loud, soft)

• Ensemble (voice or instrument)  (solo or group) (types of instruments)


• Other art forms (dance, poetry, theater)

• History (what period or era – what else was going on)

• Ensemble (voice or instrument) (solo or group) (types of instruments)

• Social use (ritual, entertainment, dancing, listening)

• Social setting (nightclub, parade, baseball game, wedding, concert hall)

Listening Exercise #1

“Reconsider Baby” by Lowell Fulson – a West Coast Blues from 1954

Listen for:

  • Instruments How are they used? How do they interact? What is unusual/typical?
  • Musical style(s)
  • Type of Song
  • Emotional tone (of lyrics / music – the same or contrasting)
  • Probable social setting

And what does it all mean – how would you analyze this song?


Written by Jeffrey Callen

March 30, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: