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6. John Lee Hooker: ‘Boogie Chillun’

Western musical analysis represents a triumph of form over content. To many people, the ‘blues’ is de facto a twelve bar long structure with a predetermined chord structure. But whilst it is true that ninety percent of the blues recorded from the fifties onward have a recognisable twelve bar framework, it would be a mistake to understand that the twelve bar form, in itself, is the fundamental prerequisite of blues. John Lee Hooker early songs are frequently ‘meditations’ over a static chord root, and ‘Boogie Chillun’ is exactly that, yet at the same time, it is most certainly blues. What then, is a blues?

There are two parallel histories of African-American popular music. On one side, there are all those musical forms which deal with (ostensibly) the Christian religion. This would include spirituals, a capella gospel ensembles, hymns, contemporary gospel music, soul and so forth. It might also include romance songs, like ‘Touch me in the Morning’ which clearly come from the gospel tradition but do not actually espouse Christian thoughts, on the basis that in purely musical terms, the language of romantic love and Christian devotion are indistinguishable. As Ray Charles once noted, the essential difference between soul music and gospel was that one used the word ‘baby’ and the other ‘Lord’. On the other side are all those musics which do not acknowledge the Christian tradition, and can more easily be ascribed to the masculine iconography of the blues. The list of blues-derived music is harder to compile; so much of it has become inextricably mixed with popular music from other origins.

In ‘Backwater Blues’, Bessie Smith sang ‘ ... Backwater blues done told me to pack my things and go’ after one of the great floods of the Mississippi of the 1920’s. She stood on top of a ‘high old lonesome hill’ and ‘looked down on [her] house where [she] used to live’. In this song, the blues is presented as a kind of fateful awareness; something that could advise her that the situation was beyond human comprehension or control, and that all she could do was ‘pack [her] things and go’. Later, Leadbelly sings ‘ ... Woke up this morning, blues sneaking round my bed / went to eat my breakfast, blues in my bread’. (‘Good Morning Blues’). Later on in the song, he meets the blues coming towards him on the road, and his response is ‘Blues, how do you do’. Leadbelly sees the blues as something that permeated his life in every minute detail. From trawling through all of those blues songs where the blues is mentioned as a discreet entity, a picture of what constitutes the personae of ‘The Blues’ can be compiled.
 

The blues helps explain the inexplicable - it assists in making the cruel hardships of life bearable - anything which bedevils ordinary existence but which appears to have no reasonable explanation is the work of the blues. 

The blues forgives: despite the pain of the African-American holocaust, very few blues songs are vitriolic about the role of the white man, encouraging instead the po’ nigger quickly to come to terms with his bad luck. 

The blues is masculine; it works a kind of magic on men in respect of sexual prowess. Most post-war blues lyrics are about ordinary man-woman relationships and many of these are alluded in terms of their sexual connotations. 

The blues has a sense of fun, despite the ever present pain of everyday life: metaphor, symbolism, allusion and puns litter the words of every blues lyric, particularly those in which the capabilities of the male member are central to the meaning. 

Bluesmen, that is, men who sing the blues or who are living a blues lifestyle, are free spirits who jump freight trains, move on from one relationship to another, from one town to another; they are not to be contained by civic or family responsibilities. Accepting these responsibilities involves a loss of credibility, a loss of face and, indeed, a kind of ‘backsliding’ away from what constitutes the real condition of blues. 

The blues has connotations of magic, and can be linked to Voodoo cults of the Caribbean and New Orleans: the 'mojo' and the 'mojo hand' are talismans from voodoo which frequently make an appearance in blues lyrics. 

Above all, the blues is decidedly not Christian, and in adopting the blues as a way of life or as a way of musical expression, the bluesman is distancing himself from Christian salvation. It was this tension that haunted Robert Johnson, and fuelled the mythology surrounding his ‘Crossroads Blues’.

Prof. Henry Gates Jnr. points out the extent to which ‘the blues’, as a social phenomenon, encodes West African Esu or Legba cults in the setting of the new world, and Paul Oliver has discovered many retentions of African musical practice in the blues. It is tempting, therefore, to view the blues as a kind of resistance to the new religious and civil structures that were imposed upon the Africans in the New World, just as spirituals, gospel and soul music attest to the extent to which the new Christian sensibilities were absorbed by the newcomers. The bluesman, in advocating a libidinous and socially rootless lifestyle, declared a kind of freedom that was denied him in the everyday reality of poverty. All those lyrics about sexual prowess restored to the bluesman some pride in something that was inalienably his own, and that could not be controlled and subverted by the economic powers to which he was subject. In this way, just as the spirituals encoded dreams of reaching freedom in their veiled references to ‘trains’, ‘salvation’, and ‘happy lands’, the blues similarly is a site of passive resistance; a way of acknowledging that even though the body was in economic chains, the spirit was still free.

In ‘Boogie Chillun’, there are many aspects of the musical form which are vivid reminders of Africa.

6.1 Score of opening of ‘Boogie Chillun’.


The guitar is used as a percussion instrument at the same time as providing a tonal background. It has been retuned thus:

6.2

This tuning arrangement allows the A, E drone to be easily maintained through the piece whilst providing a percussive and penetrating quality to the drone by the deadened, pitchless 6th string. The ‘c’ figure (see 6.1) is easily achieved by a partial barre across strings 1 and 2. Paul Oliver suggests that such re-tuning and characteristic use of the guitar is in itself an ‘Africanism’, and derives from the playing style of the ‘halam’, one of the precursors of the modern banjo, which uses a buzzing resonator to augment the pure sound of the vibrating string. As David Ames writes:
 

The strings [of the Halam] are plucked by the fingernail of the thumb, forefinger and the middle finger of the right hand, and the [griots] keep their fingernails long for this purpose.

... the three shorter strings [of the Halam] are not stopped but left open and are plucked at constant pitch.

Ames, David: Wolof Music of the Senegal and Gambia. (Sleevenotes) Folkways FE4462

A formal deconstruction of this opening fragment might reveal that the piece has one constant rhythmic line that is ‘on the beat’ (the foot-tap), and at least three other ‘voices’ (labelled ‘a’, ‘b’ and ‘c’ materials respectively) which combine polyphonically. One of the voices, ‘a’, is constantly syncopated, pushing the beat against the bar line. The basic rhythmic structure is 12/8 grouped 3+3+3+3. When the song enters at the end of bar 12, it is improvised over the closely woven rhythmic texture. The piece has no real harmonic movement, but it does have a tonal centre. The closeness of this piece to its African origins can be seen by comparing it with one of Rev. A.M.Jones ( see Jones, 1948) transcriptions. Jones’ ‘Nyayito Dance’, collected and transcribed from the Ewe tribe of present-day Ghana, shows a similar disposition of constituent parts in an African drum ensemble. Jones’ transcription shows a constant element, a handclap, which is always ‘on the beat’. Around the handclap there are five or six other syncopated elements, all strictly synchronised around a basic 12/8 format. One of the ‘Nyayito Dance’ instrumentalists varies his triple metre, and introduces duple time (see bars 10 & 11 of the Hooker transcription) whilst remaining within the overall framework of the constant clap. The song is announced by the Cantor, and the chorus responds. Although Hooker’s piece is clearly simpler than Jones’ transcription, he is, after all, on his own. Hooker achieves a kind of one-man-band version of the traditional West African drum ensemble by using his guitar as a multi voiced percussion instrument, his foot (typically with bottle tops loosely fixed to it as a rattle) and his voice. Although he is a respected electrified bluesman, he is simultaneously a living griot, the traditional West African peripatetic minstrel. According to Oliver (ibid, p47), the griots were feared and admired by the community for their wit and sought after for their musical prowess. Their powerful sense of individuality might sometimes threaten social cohesiveness, at other times give them an uncompromised platform to expose humbug and wrong-doings.

The words to ‘Boogie Chillun’ maintain some of that irrepressible individualism into the contemporary context.
 

Well my mother allow me (she said)
To stay out all night long. (Oh Lord)
Well my mother allow me (she said)
To stay out all night long.
I don’t care what she allow
I would boogie anyhow

Well, I put into town people
I was walking down Hastings Street.
Everybody was talking about ............ ( inaudible - "Henry swing club?")
I decided I’d drop in to her that night
I say yeah people
They was really having a ball - yes I know

(Introductory musical material with a sudden and brief stop ...)
 

Boogie Chillun

One night I was laying down
I heard mama and papa talking
I heard papa tell mama
‘Let that boy boogie-woogie
It’s in him, an’ it’s got to get out’
And I felt so good
Well I would boogie just the same.

The axis of this song is the central indictment: "Boogie Chillun". Thus Hooker becomes the champion of similarly minded adolescents ... it is a challenge to the social norms represented by parental control. Although the situation is clearly ludicrous in its account of serious angst about whether or not their son should boogie-woogie, there is within this domestic drama enough of the griot and the bluesman to remain recognisable into the contemporary age. It’s never made clear what ‘boogie’ means, but in the sense that it means staying up all night long, it signifies some kind of opposition to control. In Hooker’s mind, it may well have meant an alternative to the kind of control intended by the church. In an interview with Judah Bauer, both the lyrical and musical aspects of the song are discussed.
 

BAUER: That line in "Boogie Chillun", "Mama didn’t allow me to stay out all night long." That’s the archetypal story.

HOOKER: Let that boy boogie!

BAUER: Did your mom support you playing music?

HOOKER: She supported me the best way she could. She was mostly a Christian woman, but she didn’t object to me goin’ round town.

For Hooker, the song is an important one. He maintains that this was a song that he learned from his stepfather, Willie Moore, who played country blues in Mississippi. John Lee Hooker says:
 

HOOKER: Yeah, I always watched (Willie Moore’s) tunings - - open A, regular tunings, and I played them in all keys. When I’m playin’ "Boogie Chillun", that’s in open A.

BAUER: Was that song something you worked out?

HOOKER: Well, I heard my stepdaddy doin’ something like that, but he didn’t call it "Boogie Chillun", he just played it.


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