Wednesday, December 21, 2011

December 21: Ma Rainey, "See See Rider Blues"

Artist: Ma Rainey
Song: "See See Rider Blues"
Album: Various
Year: 1924

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While most “greatest musicians of all time” lists are filled and top-heavy with performers from the genres of rock and jazz, the fact of the matter is that many of the most talented artists in history made their name well before these styles were even in existence.  It was during the first three decades of the twentieth century where a majority of musical styles and approaches were forged, and few can argue with the power of the blues music and the way that it transformed culture during the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s.  It was during this period where female performers also found themselves in high demand for the first time, and some of the biggest names in the history of blues-style singing emerged during this era.  However, standing far beyond them all was the singer from whom nearly every other “woman of blues” borrowed their style: the legendary Ma Rainey.  Though she was not the “first” female to record blues records, there is no question that it was her style and vocal prowess that made her the best by far, and on nearly every song she ever recorded, she more than earned her title of “Mother Of The Blues.”  It is the amazing vocal range she displayed throughout her songs, as well as the deep emotions that she conveyed at every turn which set her so far beyond her peers and followers, and yet due to the era during which she was recording, it is somewhat difficult to find high-quality versions of her songs.  However, there is not a bad recording in her catalog, and few songs have become more iconic than Ma Rainey’s 1924 rendition of the tradition number, “See See Rider Blues.”

As “See See Rider Blues” begins, the classic sound that defines the time period during which the song was recorded is immediately evident.  Not only in the actual musical sounds, but the slightly muffled overall quality, as well as the light crackles give “See See Rider Blues” an authentic feel that cannot be denied.  Yet the fact remains that the performances from the handful of musicians are fantastic, and there is no arguing that even at this early point in her career, Ma Rainey was able to easily command the presence of the finest musicians of the day.  It is the almost meandering, muted trumpet that takes focus for a majority of the song, and it is the way that it plays almost a second vocal part throughout the song that makes it so intriguing.  Yet at the same time, there is a jazzy feel to the trumpet progression, and this can be seen as one of the earliest examples of the blues sound sliding into what would become the jazz explosion of the following decade.  Setting the song far apart from a majority of blues recordings, there are no drums to be heard at any point on “See See Rider Blues,” and in this case, a steady cadence is provided by the piano.  Though it is mixed slightly to the back of the overall sound, as well as being slightly overpowered by the trumpet, the piano gives the track a slight sense of elegance, and it provides a superb contrast to the rest of the instrumentation.

Yet there is not a moment anywhere on “See See Rider Blues” where the focus moves far from the voice of Ma Rainey, and within seconds of her first notes, it is impossible to not be completely captivated by the power and emotion with which she sings.  Not quite crooning and not quite lamenting, it is Ma Rainey’s performance here that in many ways defines “what” the blues sound was supposed to be, and her style would be copied by nearly every later artist.  There is no question that throughout “See See Rider Blues,” Rainey has completely given herself to the music, letting it dictate the pitch and inflection within her voice.  Working from chilling notes in the lower registers to a breathtaking move to higher pitches, it is the strength that one can hear in every note she sings which makes her so unique, and on many levels, this is the very essence of what it means to “be” a great singer.  Along with her unparalleled singing ability, it is the way that Ma Rainey conveys the lyrics of the song that become so captivating, as she spins the tale of an unfaithful lover.  Though in modern times, the story has been spun in countless different ways, it is the original, almost innocent words found here that still resonate with the most impact.  One can see “See See Rider Blues” as the beginning of one of the most common themes within blues music, when Ma Rainey sings the lines, “…shoot my man, and catch a cannonball…if he won't have me, he won't have no gal at all…”

As the decades have passed, not only has the content of the lyrics to “See See Rider Blues” changed in a number of ways, but the songs’ title has also gone through a series of modifications.  Other artists have performed the track under titles like “C.C. Rider” or “Easy Rider,” and yet the overall theme of the song has remained intact.  Due to the early time during which it was recorded, as well as the timeless, universal themes found therein, “See See Rider Blues” stands as one of the most heavily covered songs of all time, with some of the most famous remakes coming from artists like The Who, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead and Jerry Lee Lewis among a massive list of other performers.  However, in many ways, it is the simple, pure way that Ma Rainey brings the tale to life that manages to set her version above the rest, and after nearly a century in existence, the song has lost none of its impact.  Perhaps due to the fact that the instrumentation is somewhat sparse and mixed behind her vocals, or more likely due to the reality that she simply has a voice that cannot be ignored, the pain, frustration, and eventual vengeance one can detect within Ma Rainey’s voice continues to be the standard in quality for vocalists across nearly every musical genre.  Though she is responsible for the definitive version of a number of now-standard songs in the worlds of blues and jazz, there is no other recording in history that is as impressive or as outright important to the development of music as a whole than Ma Rainey’s 1924 interpretation of “See See Rider Blues.”

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