10
–The Flatted Fifth

There are many unusual scalar patterns in the blues, and some could perpetuate tonal concepts found in regions of Africa outside the west central Sudanic belt. One of the issues to be accounted for in any study of the origin of the blue notes is the so-called “flatted fifth” (cf. Schuller 1968: 51–52). It was only recognized as a blue note in the 1940s, but there is no doubt that it existed in some of the “early downhome blues” (cf. Niles 1949).

The flatted fifth is not part of my merger model. Does it represent a different strand in the blues tradition? After all, the two other blue notes are characteristic of the melodic repertoire in almost any blues that has been recorded, while the flatted fifth appears sporadically, e.g., in Bessie Smith, Ed Bell, John Lee Hooker, and others. It could even be that it became more common in the blues during the 1940s, after it had assumed a prominent position in bebop, a development which could have reflected back to blues singers such as John Lee Hooker.

Nevertheless, the flatted fifth, especially when used as a starting note in descending phrases (such as by Bessie Smith), or resolved downward in various other contexts, is to be considered a distinctive pitch value. Its melodic position within the singer's scalar pattern (disregarding the instrumental accompaniment) probably contains the clue for its genesis. The flatted fifth in the blues most often occurs as part of a descending phrase. In an ascending phrase sometimes the same singer would intonate a perfect fourth. This can be observed, for example, in Blind Lemon Jefferson's “See that My Grave Is Kept Clean.” To me this suggests that the flatted fifth must be part of a descending scalar framework, blues scale, or whatever one might call it, while the movement upward from the basic tonal center to a perfect fourth is of a totally different nature, namely a progression between tonal levels and not between scalar steps. This would confirm what I have

-146-

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Africa and the Blues
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Africa and the Blues *
  • Contents v
  • List of Examples vii
  • List of Figures ix
  • List of Photographs xi
  • Preface xiii
  • Part I - Out of Africa 1
  • Introduction 3
  • 1 - sources, Adaptation, and Innovation 5
  • 2 - The Rise of a Sung Literary Genre 21
  • 3 - A Strange Absence 51
  • 4 - The West Central Sudanic Belt 63
  • 5 - Blues Recordings Compared with Material from the West Central Sudan 71
  • 6 - Some Characteristics of the Blues 82
  • 7 - Why Did a West Central Sudanic Style Cluster Prevail in the Blues? 96
  • 8 - Heterophonic Versus Homophonic Multipart Schemes 105
  • 9 - The Blues Tonal System 118
  • 10 - The Flatted Fifth 146
  • Part II - Return to Africa 153
  • Introduction 155
  • 11 - The 12-Bar Blues Form in South African Kwela and Its Reinterpretation 161
  • 12 - Return to the Western Sudan 186
  • Summary and Conclusions 197
  • Bibliography 205
  • Index 225
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