This essay from Timon Kaple represents what we hope will be an ongoing series of original writing about collaborative and responsive art. We’re immensely grateful to Timon for his insight and patience in inaugurating this series. If you’d like to contribute an essay on a Call & Response-adjacent topic, let us know!
The Calls and Responses in Songwriting and Live Musical Performance
When I was approached by Call & Response to write a piece about music-related instances of call and response, the usual examples came to mind—African-American blues music, field hollers recorded by Alan Lomax, folk spirituals, arranged spirituals, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, gospel, among others. To elaborate on one of the music’s defining features—the types of call and response that manifest to various nuanced degrees and at multiple times in the creative process and in live performance—is an endeavor less-traveled, in my opinion. It is not something that has been left out of popular and academic discussions on the subject. There are, however, instances of call and response that occur in much less explicit ways than what we encounter in Lomax’s recording of “Rosie”, for example, (C: “Be my woman, girl” R: I’ll be your man! / C: “Be my woman, girl” R: I’ll be your man!) that have been overlooked by many and discounted by some. Why? Call and response is subjective. We can categorize, label, and define until we go blind, but at the end of the day, your opinion and experience of musical call and response is as important and valid as any other.
The two examples I provide below consider two less explicit instances of “call and response” and may not be considered as such by some individuals. The first example is based on my ethnographic fieldwork with musician and songwriter, Phil Hummer, of Nashville, TN. In this example, I discuss one aspect of his creative songwriting process and the ways in which a kind of call and a response informs his inventive practices. This is an instance of “call and response” before most individuals consider musical call and response to occur. This is before anything musical makes its way to the stage, into the recording studio and, often times, before anyone other than the songwriter hears any part of the musical object or finished product. The second example considers improvised rhythmic and melodic interaction between musicians, another overlooked instance of call and response. With it, I discuss the importance of “listening in” between musicians in a group and how the various “calls” between them are frequently ignored by inexperienced performers, thus resulting in no “response.”
I spent the summer of 2009 driving to Nashville, TN, to meet with local musician, Phil Hummer, and his band, The White Falcons. The motivation behind this research was to gather ethnographic information about his life and musical performance. In order to do so, I spent time with him at his home, recorded hours of formal interviews and informal conversation, and performed music with him in venues on Broadway Avenue in downtown Nashville. I eventually completed a manuscript, a thesis in partial fulfillment of my Master of Arts in ethnomusicology, based on this information. In sum, this was an ethnographic work in which I analyzed Hummer’s life story, the phenomenon of non-Southerners “learning Southernness,” and the performance of Southern masculinity on stage and in daily life. For those readers not familiar with ethnomusicology, it is the study of (1) humans’ reaction and response to sound and (2) their musical practices (humanly organized sound) in, and as a product of, daily life. This definition may be drastically different depending on whom you ask and is an ongoing debate among ethnomusicologists.
Although much of my time with Hummer was spent discussing his musical and social progression as a musician (he’s been a musician for nearly 30 years), he would sometimes allude to a curious way of experiencing creativity. In particular, inspiration for his song lyrics and various songwriting components, such as the melody or defining rhythmic figures, he described as existing “in the room” and generated by kind of larger power that is “bigger than me, bigger than you,” and outside of himself. These close-by, looming clusters of creative-somethings, the vague seedlings for song or lyric composition, come and go in waves. It is up to him, he said, whether he acts on the inspiring elements generated by the “song in the room” feeling. In that way, it is his choice to respond to this call. Composition is the voluntary response. Hummer’s feelings about his songwriting and creativity closely relate to how he conceptualizes his on-stage musical performance more broadly. In both cases, he describes it along the lines of “Something else is making me do it . . . As soon as I [was old enough] write, I’d start to write the words down. It totally felt, I knew it was me writing it, but it felt like I was sort of receiving it, like I was sort of a conduit for it or something.”
In this second example, I consider a young child’s interpretation of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”
I am concerned with the importance of “listening in,” as in musicians in a group listening to each other’s playing. In the live performance setting, there are an incalculable number of calls being made. Ideally, for every call there is a response. This example suggests that “listening in” is paramount in order to produce well-synchronized and highly musical performance. Here, a boy performs his repertory of Elvis movements and disregards the musical “calls” of the band. Surely nervousness, lack of performance experience, and his young age contribute to his disregard of his musical surroundings. I don’t mean to devalue this performance at all, but there is an interesting phenomenon taking place here. A performer’s desire to replicate a particular set of learned techniques supersedes the task at hand: to become a coherent member of a performing group where all parts congeal into one presentation of a musical object.
A friend of mine filmed the boy on stage at Robert’s Western World in Nashville, TN, dancing and singing, performing his best Elvis impersonation for the live audience. The child’s interest in Elvis, and the process during which he formulated a loosely structured improvised performance of “Blue Suede Shoes,” is an instance of call and response in its own right and beyond the limited discussion here. In short, the boy observed footage of Elvis’s on-stage performance and extracted what he perceived to be the salient aspects of his bodily conduct and gyrations. As one might guess, the boy employs several of Elvis’s signature movements, such as the one where he picks up his momentarily limp leg and moves it over to the side, where it then comes to life and he continues his dancing. Others include Elvis’s hip gyrations, off-balance knee bobbing and arm swinging, and a fast, weight-shifting, running-style movement done on the balls of his feet, spread wider than shoulder-width.
An important part of this boy’s particular performance of “Blue Suede Shoes” is that his limited repertoire of physical movements are erratically performed and quickly exhausted in a haphazard, disjointed sequence. In this way, I mean that the movements are rushed, surface-level versions of themselves, repeated at several times, and not executed at their “natural” times or order—those moments in performance, for example, when specific times in the song call for a “climax” or signature dance movement, are overlooked. The movements that Elvis would use at the end of songs, or at the end of instrumental solo sections during which he could perform some signature movements, were used at random throughout the boy’s performance. Easily identified “Elvis” dance movements, ones that even Elvis would save for crucial moments, particularly at the end of musical phrases and sections, are peppered randomly throughout verses. Don’t get me wrong. The performance is effective, in the sense that it’s entertaining, the crowd is pleased, and it’s delivered with unbridled enthusiasm by the youngster. It’s a honest homage to a musical hero, and performed in a space, Robert’s Western World, the self-described home of traditional country music, that is a shrine of nostalgia and backwards glances to a bygone golden era Nashville and country music.
The boy, quickly dispensing his limited repertoire of dance movements, is not unlike an inexperienced instrumentalist improvising a solo with a small number of pre-used and pre-conceived “licks.” No matter the song, tune, or piece, improvisers seek to “compose in real-time,” developing coherent and listener-friendly phrases (in that one’s ear can make sense of the sonic information and follow it as it unfolds), and melodic and rhythmic lines. Improvisers often learn the “signature” licks of their idol musicians as well as those lines that are easily adapted to that particular instrument—many of which become easy to play because of a natural pairing with the physical requirements of the instrument and become “idiomatic” in particular genres. For example, guitarists’ “blues licks” are among the most widely circulating musical vocabularies, particularly because of the ease with which they are played on the instrument or, in other words, there’s a physiological comfort. Secondly, the pentatonic scales used in most blues licks, a series of 5-note scales that are frequently altered, are not difficult to remember and are often more easily applied in more musical and generic contexts than other scales or modes. If an improviser is playing a solo and drawing from a limited and unbalanced reservoir of musical vocabulary, he is likely to assemble the licks in a less-than-desired sequence. When I say “unbalanced,” I mean a disproportionate selection of “meat-and-potatoes” and, say, “climax” phrases are available—with too much of the former, an even keel, potentially uneventful performance could ensue. With too much of the latter, an over-excited and exhausting, “over-playing” performance may result. “Climax” phrases could be played at inopportune moments, thus making what are naturally perceived as a tune’s climax sections to fall flat and have less of an impact on the listener (even if it’s just a spotlight or rhythmically strong moment in a phrase). This isn’t rocket science. Imagine a murder mystery novel with all of the story’s events mixed around, and exposes the name of the mystery killer in the third chapter. It doesn’t make sense and the climax is delivered at the wrong moment. The type of improvisation I am describing above is the sonic equivalent.
The most important connection between the boy’s dancing and the inexperienced improviser to consider here, especially in terms of call and response, is the lack of coherence between themselves and their accompanying musicians. In both cases, the performer is constructing a disjointed narrative of visual or sonic information, and spending the majority of their performance capacity on the assembly of unrelated parts. A performer’s efforts to combine movements or licks, whether to imitate Elvis’s movements or Wes Montgomery’s phrases, often forces him or her to disregard the musical information generated by his or her accompanying musicians. The video of the boy’s performance of “Blue Suede Shoes” is a case in point. Other than his ability to adhere relatively well to the band’s tempo, his desire to deliver an authentic replica of Elvis’s performance diminishes, if not entirely removes, his ability to perform with his musicians. Desired levels of synchrony between performers of a group are often described in terms of “gelling,” “being together,” and “being tight.” This level of coordination is only achievable when all members are “listening in”—that is, performers must listen to the nuances of each other’s playing at all times. In less than ideal stage settings, when performers can’t clearly hear each other, such as when the sound system is misused or the shape of the performance space results in acoustic difficulties, experienced musicians who rely on “listening in” find themselves thrown to the dogs. Without the skill or ability to “listen in,” synchrony and, thus, effective call and response between musicians is impossible.
Timon Kaple is a PhD student in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, Bloomington, and guitarist for Daniel Ellsworth & the Great Lakes.