I’ve started compiling lists in my head. This song is good to dance to. This song is great for listening. The listening list is much longer than the dancing list, and this discrepancy is forcing me to question the connection between music and dance.
What compels us to dance to certain songs? What compels us to stop and stand still and simply hear what’s being said? Randomly, I have “Cool Drink of Water Blues” by Tommy Johnson playing right now, and I can’t say it moves me to move. Instead I’m somewhat haunted, intermittently, by the way his voice slides into moments of wavering falsetto and feelng. The guitar in the background offers just enough of a rolling sense of rhythm and melody to send the song forward, but that’s it. This is delta blues from back in the day! It’s the roots of what we all dance to! Why doesn’t it make me want to dance? Perhaps the music wasn’t connected to movement at first? This makes sense to me. It also makes sense to question the idea of dancing to such music in the first place. If dance is a celebration, does it make sense to dance to someone else’s musical outcry of hardship and suffering? Perhaps this is how difficult experience is transformed into something positive.
A quick scan of some wikipedic blues dance history reveals that some of the old musicians from the early 1900s played for dancers! I’ll have to delve into their music and figure out what the difference was between their dancer-driven songs and the songs that just don’t seem to move me (or others) to move.
Apparently the tango was in vogue in the early 1900s, and W. C. Handy used a tango rhythm to entice dancers onto the floor, then broke in an entirely different, bluesy beat. St. Louis Blues uses this tactic. So, did African-roots blues, once melded with European-rhythm music give rise to “danceable” blues music?
As soon as I let go of the idea of what created blues dance music in the first place, it’s easy to start picking out danceable songs. The shuffle beat is incredibly powerful and important in blues dance music. But it’s not the end-all of rhythmic devices either. A simple, single-time stomp can create enough driving rhythm for dancing. There’s a guitarist who plays on Commercial Drive, and as he plays, he stomps out simple a beat on his guitar case. The result is the slide guitar style of old delta blues with enough rhythm to make me want to dance!
A quick glance through a few of my 882 songs that are specifically labeled with “blues” under the genre heading:
3 O’clock blues – B. B. King – medium-slow – shuffle beat with triplets played on cymbals – DEFINITELY danceable
Another version of the same song – a little slower – the shuffle is less noticeable – instead a simple 1 – 2 kickdrum-cymbal beat of boom-click, boom-click – and it totally works
Yet another version – Ike and Tina Turner – from Putumayo’s Mississippi Blues album – shuffle beat with triplets – medium-slow and totally danceable
606 Blues by Slim Tinsley and His Band from Midnite Blues Party, vol 2. – no shuffle beat, but rather a thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk beat in both the rhythm and bass and thus more of a sloooow lindy or slightly faster bluesy step-touch or shake ‘n bake effect – danceable? yes, but not in the really groovy way a lot of us love
Bad Luck Shadow by Johnny Otis – more shuffle, so it’s a groovy slow-medium tempo, perfect for draggin’, struttin’, shakin’, or doin’ whatever blues movement one wants
I could keep listing songs on and on into the night, but here’s the thing – I might find hundreds with the right beat and sound, but the next level is definitely a less definable thing – feeling, soul, heart, whatever it is that moves me to move and express myself. Maybe this is the question worth exploring, how to know whether a song has feeling or not….but then again, isn’t this a decision best left to each individual listener?
Gosh, then how does DJing really make sense? Every song will be interpreted in as many ways as there are dancers in the room, right?
More thinking, more lists, more levels of categorization, more listening is needed!