Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rockabilly- Hillbilly Casino Live

pic from

I recently went to see the band Hillbilly Casino play at Frank's Power Plant on Sept. 9th and they were amazing, as usual. If you aren't familiar with the band they are a powerhouse quartet of vocals (Nic Roulette), bass (Geoff Firebaugh), guitar (Ronnie Crutcher ) and drums (Andrew Dickson) that according to their own website bio "blends elements of honkytonk, rockabilly, psychobilly, and straight up rock and roll."  I will be writing more about these genres in the coming weeks, but you can get a head start on rockabilly by reading one of my previous posts.

Singer Nic Roulette is also a huge hip hop fan (as well as a fantastic trained tap dancer) and often throws in a few verses of some old school rap to mix it up now and then. The very first time I saw HBC at the 2007 Rockin' 50s Fest in Green Bay, they did a high-energy mash-up of Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" with a few verses of Digital Underground's "Humpty Dance" in the middle. Below is an example of how this works:

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine
It'll shake all the trouble from your worried mind
Get rhythm when you get the blues

Little shoeshine boy never gets low down

But he's got the dirtiest job in town
Bendin' low at the peoples' feet
On the windy corner of the dirty street
Well, I asked him while he shined my shoes
How'd he keep from gettin' the blues
He grinned as he raised his little head
Popped a shoeshine rag and then he said

Get rhythm when you get the blues

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe
Does a million dollars worth of good for you
Get rhythm when you get the blues

   All right! Stop whatcha doin'
   'cause I'm about to ruin the image and the style that ya used to.
   I look funny but yo I'm makin' money see
   so yo world I hope you're ready for me.
   Now gather round I'm the new fool in town
   and my sound's laid down by the Underground.
   I drink up all the Hennessey ya got on ya shelf
   so just let me introduce myself
   My name is Humpty, pronounced with a Umpty.
   Yo ladies, oh how I like to hump thee.
   And all the rappers in the top ten--please allow me to bump thee.
   I'm steppin' tall, y'all, and just like Humpty Dumpty
   you're gonna fall when the stereos pump me.
   I like to rhyme, I like my beats funky,
   I'm spunky. I like my oatmeal lumpy.
   I'm sick wit dis, straight gangsta mack
   but sometimes I get ridiculous
   I'll eat up all your crackers and your licorice
   hey yo fat girl, c'mere--are ya ticklish?
   Yeah, I called ya fat. Look at me, I'm skinny
   It never stopped me from gettin' busy
   I'm a freak I like the girls with the boom
   I once got busy in a Burger King bathroom
   I'm crazy. Allow me to amaze thee.
   They say I'm ugly but it just don't faze me.
   I'm still gettin' in the girls' pants
   and I even got my own dance

Get rhythm when you get the blues

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe
Does a million dollars worth of good for you
Get rhythm when you get the blues

Well, I sat down to listen to the shoeshine boy
And I thought I was gonna jump for joy
Slapped on the shoe polish left and right
He took a shoeshine rag and he held it tight
He stopped once to wipe the sweat away
I said you're a mighty little boy to be-a workin' that way
He said I like it with a big wide grin
Kept on a poppin' and he said again

Get rhythm when you get the blues

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Get a rock 'n' roll feelin' in your bones
Get taps on your toes and get gone
Get rhythm when you get the blues

I found a live version of HBC performing the song so you can hear it-

Find more artists like Hillbilly Casino at Myspace Music

Not only did the mixing of the two seemingly divergent styles of rockabilly/hillbilly with hip hop work rhythmically, but combining the lyrics really showed the similarity of the genres in how they discuss the same subject. The idea of using music to create a sense of self that transcends social prescriptions and rising above them becomes much more poignant when adding Humpty's self-description.

Back to the most recent performance, HBC just came out with a new album "Tennessee Stomp" which is a continuation of their hard-edged rockabilly and honky-tonk sound. One of the things I like most about their music, which also sets them apart from many groups of the same style, is that they have a lot of layering in their music. Much of this is because each band member is an accomplished musician in many genres which allows them to fill space in a tasteful way. They are also very good at listening to each other and responding musically to what is going on in the moment. This is very much apparent in a live show because you can see the interaction of the players through eye contact with each other, as well as the individual concentration in the rhythm section, particularly drums, that produces a constant rhythmic movement underneath the vocals that is alive and evolving until the song ends.

LISTEN- Tennessee Stomp by Hillbilly Casino

Frank's Power Plant 9.10
 "Tennessee Stomp" is broken into 8 bar sections in a basic I-IV-V progression and the overall form is AABA. The use of changing rhythmic and harmonic textures, particularly in the B section, makes the song  more intricate and interesting. The B section also has a vocal counterpoint that adds to the forward movement of the song, one of many techniques used that often makes their songs feel like they are on the verge of dangerously falling apart. Of course, they never do but it definitely adds to the reckless charm of this band.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is American Popular Music?

I have been asked to write a short paper describing what I think American music is for my graduate class. It is a difficult thing for me to pinpoint as I don't have a tendency to label music on that broad of a scale. I usually think of music as being classical, Renaissance, jazz (or even more specifically hot jazz, fusion, cool jazz, etc.). So I guess I am more of a micro than macro thinker.

I feel that getting a handle on what American music is is difficult because America is a melting pot of cultures that each have their own characteristics that have been blended into whatever music fits the time it is written. For example, according to An Introduction to America's Music traditional African music often has a call and response characteristic to it which is found in later African American music like spirituals and jazz. Spirituals themselves were developed in America to establish an African American tradition and were a mixture of white part songs and slave songs which sung by slaves transported from Africa in the early 1600s. Spirituals are considered American music, however what of the slave songs that came from Africa and were adapted to serve the purpose of the slave masters? Would they be considered American music because they were sung in America? Or perhaps they would be considered American because they were adapted for American specific purposes, as horrible as they were. Going one step further, rock music is American but if it is adapted to suit french music and performed in France, does that make it French Popular music? When is it just stealing?

I find this dilemma very similar to parody copyright issues. How much of a song must be changed for the ownership to be able to be claimed by someone else and granted? The melody may remain the same but the essence of the song must be significantly different usually through a change in lyrics and subsequently interpretation. This differs from a cover song or arrangement which merely derive from the original work. More about parody and derivative works can be found on the U.S. Copyright website.

As I struggle to continue to define what American popular music means to me, I wonder if there can be a way to answer this that isn't subjective?What do YOU think American music is?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Native American Music

pic from
Truly the first example of the American popular music don't you think? I admit I had to get past some preconceived notions I had about Native American music that was laid on me from old Westerns and Disney movies. I feel the guilt from not having dispelled this years ago, but my taste in music never led me to the path of enlightenment, which is one of the reasons I wanted to take my American Popular Music class.

According to Richard Crawford in An Introduction to America's Music, early reports of Native American music by explorers and settlers describe yelling and percussive sounds, either using instruments or parts of their own bodies. Many accounts speak of the natives using music to serve a specific function, such as healing or protection against bad spirits. Very little attention is paid to understanding the culture behind the music and Native Americans were labeled as savages. A push to "civilize" them through converting them to Christianity began, including leaving their own culture behind.

Fortunately, as time progressed, various individuals recognized the importance of documenting Native American music, even if purely to make it more accessible to non-natives, and melodies and lyrics were written down and eventually recorded. Native Americans also strove to preserve their heritage for future generations that were raised in non-native ways, allowing researchers to better understand the context of the rich material that comprises Native American music.

Listening: Reviews:

War Dance Song From Southern Plains Indians, CD1, #25 from Recordings for An Introduction to America's Music

The first thing you hear in this piece are rhythmic drums and bells establishing a steady half note beat undercurrent of continuing motion. A singular male voice quickly starts in with the first musical idea, which is soon echoed by another single male voice, then echoed again by a group of male voices. This specific configuration of 1:1:all never happens again in the recording, although there always seems to be one voice leading a new idea which is echoed by a chorus in unison. Another single voice adds various interjections like whoops or yells throughout the piece. At some points there is the faint sound of treble voices, which may be women or boys singing along, but it is not consistent.

The form of the song seems to be AABA. The percussion background is the only accompaniment to the voices and seems to have a loose, but definite structure that is cued by the different sections of the song. It is evident that the lead singer controls were the song goes and when it will end.  Being that the song has a specific function, a war song, it is difficult without a text translation of the sections to know if this would change the meaning of the song or if the sections are interchangeable at the will of the lead singer.

War Dance Song of the Los Angeles Northern Singers from Pow Wow Songs: Music of the Plains Indians

There is a definite stylistic difference in this Northern Plains war dance song from the above Southern Plains war dance. They both start the same with percussion and lead voice echoed by chorus, but right away the melodies seem more intricate with more twists and turns, staying longer in the upper ranges before settling down in the lower range at the end of a phrase. The sections are longer and even the overall time of this song (5:28) is longer than the first (2:45). The drums are also more prominent in cueing the end of each section.

Although the majority of the singing is done by male voices as with the first example, it is more evident that there are treble voices (most likely women) singing along, although this could be due to the quality of the recording itself. The form is not as evident as the first example in listening to it, but it seems that it is contained within the longer sections and may be a AA BCB form.The sections also seem to get higher each time they are sung and the drums quicken and put more emphasis on quarter notes adding to the excitement of the performance.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Is Rockabilly?

(reposted from Tart Deco- Vintage Glamour & Retro Style)

I get this question a lot, especially when I tell people I used to sing in a rockabilly band (Sidecar Steph & the 7-10 Split). Rockabilly can be so many things to so many people, so I'll keep my definition to what I think it is and perhaps others will add on through their comments. I could wax poetically for hours on end on this subject, but I'll save that for my masters thesis and keep this post as simple as I can.

Rockabilly Music
Rockabilly as a word is "rock+hillbilly" and many of the early musicians were considered country & western, like Rose Maddox & the Maddox Brothers and Charline Arthur. There were also quite a few jazz musicians that would contract in to a studio session, like Les Paul, and Sun Records was crawling with players from both genres. Sun Records is considered by most to be the birthplace of rockabilly music and they owe much of that to Elvis Presley. Here's where it gets interesting- Elvis was heavily influenced by African American music, specifically gospel and R&B bop, and this, coupled with the aforementioned genres, provided the driving beat that really gave rockabilly it's unique sound. So now we have three diverse influences helping to create this new and exciting sound.

When people think rockabilly they usually remember the men of the genre, like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, etc. However, there was a huge female contingency that could rock just as hard as the men- Wanda Jackson (pic on right), Janis Martin, LaVern Baker and Barbara Pittman are just a few.

Rockabilly music unfortunately went as quickly as it came, mostly because of social issues and a fear of "the beat, the beat, the beat." Luckily, interest was revised in a big way in the 1980s by groups like The Stray Cats and The Blasters. Psychobilly (punk+rockabilly) also came out of this movement led by the group The Cramps. The genre just continues to grow and thrive, with it creating an attractive lifestyle that goes beyond the music.


Welcome to my newest blog about American Popular Music. This blog has been established to coincide with a graduate class I am taking, but I may decide to continue it if there is enough interest. To get some content on here, I will be reposting a few music posts from my main blog Tart Deco.