99 1/2 Won’t Do

by Belle Waring on December 22, 2013

John gave me my Christmas present early. It was…our stereo. Yes. The stereo we had all along. That I had cut off my hair to buy! No, psych. But it had only been in our possession in its entirety since 2011, along with all our records, which I bravely rescued, all on my lonesome, from Colonial Storage on Abercorn Extension outside Savannah. I had to kill the biggest brown recluse spider I have ever seen in my life, from which my mover, who had served two terms in Iraq as a Marine “ran away like a little girl” in his words. It was on the back of a mirror he was moving and he was able to set it down without breaking it, on account of military training, before running off in the aforesaid manner, and I picked up a piece of a chair and killed it. It wasn’t like we could do anything useful just knowing it was in there somewhere, right? [I will spare you from the further explanations of why we could not set up our stereo in our old house.]

Yes, so we shipped our records and stereo to Singapore. That was economically very rational and I don’t want to hear anything about the sunk costs fallacy and the excellent new (to me) 70s Boston Acoustics speakers and 70s Marantz receiver I could have bought at the Adelphi Mall for the same money. Because I would never have gotten the records. Sure, in principle, I could have bought the same records again, but I wouldn’t have, because I don’t know what records I have. Ha! Refute that, Chicago economics guy! Now, the answer is supposed to be that if I don’t want to listen to it for ten years I don’t want it. Not so fast Professor Nerdlinger! I might want to be surprised! Like, hey, “Come Dance With Bump?” Released in Asia on the label Music Girl? Which I might very well think I had hallucinated if I could not hold it and look at its astoundingly great, yet deeply mysterious cover? Bump is apparently the nom de dance of a super-hot black chick with striped stockings, purple platform shoes, and a gold and yellow fringed hot-pants one-piece. But maybe she’s not? Maybe Bump is the DJ playing songs to which you are meant to do the bump and…something? OK, on a listen the latter. I guess I bought this here and couldn’t listen to it for ages. So it was a bad example. I only happened to notice it in alphabetizing. My daughter was willing to help until I told her it was 3 letters deep and she was like l8rs, Imma listen to Vocaloid, which I have convinced iTunes to accept in hirgana and katakana, although this has created alphabetizing issures of its own…

This is too, in a way, is a bad example, because I wanted to listen to it so, so, so often. So many other things I bought or downloaded, but this eluded me. It was the first record of the…1000? 900? I have, that I listened to. The Songbirds of the South were a Memphis group that were totally amazing. I have only ever listened to a few songs of theirs. The thing that makes them so great is that they have a contralto with a really low voice, so they are able to really put gospel songs across in the way more famous male groups do. I could only find them on YouTube (which, do you remember how much your computer’s tinny speakers suck? They suck.) doing “He Is Able”:

The one I really wanted was “99 1/2 Won’t Do.” They kill that song. KILL IT. The only comparative degree to which a gospel group pwns a song is Bill Lanford and The Landforaires with “Run On.”

But the whole compilation is amazing. One sad thing is that there is a two part song “The Book of The Seven Seals” by The Brewsteraires that only gets around to the Pale Horse and then ends and the next side is just–another group ah WHAT?! It’s so incredible, where are my other Seals? They way they sing “he weighed the whole world and the world was found wanting” is beautiful and terrifying. The tenor sings in falsetto “weighed the whole world” and starting underneath before he is done the rest sing low “and the world was found wanting,” four times. Here is another song of theirs, “Where Shall I Be When That First Trumpet Sounds” that will still send shivers up your spine.

One of the songs that I used to be amused by like 15 years ago or something and had never really thought about it was “Bank in The Sky” by Queen C. Anderson and The Brewster Singers. The chorus is:
Still I’m laying up my treasures
In Heaven’s savings bank
In which I am a stockholder of highest rank
So rich in love, just rich in faith
Rich in God’s amazing grace
I’m getting richer, oh, I’m getting richer everyday.
I used to have it the wrong way around and think the misplaced materialism about heavenly wealth was silly. But now I think about Memphis in the 1950s and how none of these people could have any kind of savings account in any bank, let alone be a stockholder of highest rank, and I think the song is deeply sad.
She is really incredible, as are her all-female back-up singers; here they is doing “Jesus is The Perfect Answer.”

“Damn, Belle, did your family have some beloved black nanny who raised you like she was your own precious child and took you to her full gospel church* or something?” Well yeah duh.**

Edited to add: *I should be clear to non-American readers that while her church had a full gospel choir all the time they were also full gospel because they were…were they Pentecostal? No, they weren’t white, they had to be Baptist, right? Are there Pentecostal Baptists? [Looks…(sort of)….] They had faith healing but didn’t go so much for speaking in tongues, which is kind of full gospel Pentecostalism’s whole deal so…OK, no I guess they were regular Baptists. [Are there Methodist Baptists? Yes-ish also? Aw, dammit. Wait, that was innappropes.] I take it back; they were not a full gospel church, though they were full of the Holy Gospel etc., they were Baptists, of whatever sort started to ordain black people on the sooner side, one imagines. She got a plaque from her church for 75 years of service before she died, I went and saw her after my grandmother died, and she had gotten it, and was justifiably proud. I had the impression they always had a black preacher but I was a dumbass kid, she might have been going and getting condescended to by some white guy for the first 35 years of service. I don’t think so.

*It’s sort of not exactly like that. She lived at my grandmother’s house in Savannah, so she only raised me like her own precious child while I was in Savannah. Which was a lot. She took care of my father when he was a child also. She wanted to go live in the country on her brother’s farm, and ride a mule (I know because she told me all about it in loving, heartbreaking detail, naturally), but my grandfather made her swear just before he died that she would stay and take care of my grandmother (who was ill all her life). SWEAR. On his very deathbed. So she stayed, for always. Even though she hated the city. Forever. Until she retired at 80. Fuck, 85? She lived to be 103. And then her brother was dead and his children had sold the farm; there was nowhere to go but the house my grandmother built for her, with her grand-daughter’s house next door and her daughter’s house across the street, though her daughter had already died by then. EVEN THOUGH SHE LOVED THE COUNTRY. Even though my grandmother said she could go. My grandfather was a cocksucking bastard for making her promise that. Also, she was like, what, reverse dowry, bride-price? When my grandmother got married and moved into the Waring house Ms. Annie Washington was already working there. What, was she part of the fucking furniture? God, I loved her so much. I still miss her.



Meredith 12.22.13 at 6:56 am

“Now, the answer is supposed to be that if I don’t want to listen to it for ten years I don’t want it.” Thank you, Belle. I am now blessed (or cursed) with an attic. The discoveries therein (after repeated tag sales to thin in — it’s a never-ending battle) keep me going. From a Union cappie to a Confederate drum, neither of which I have the faintest idea what do to with. More fun are the albums I stumble upon (not in the attic — they’re stored where the temperature variations are less severe, in my husband’s “study” — that’s another story).


Belle Waring 12.22.13 at 9:30 am

But Meredith–you have an attic! Your problems are as naught! I live in a condo on the 24th floor! Also, really, a Union cappie and Conferedate drum? I think the correct answer is never give up anything at anytime ever, and there would be nothing in the world better to convince me of this than the organizational email list for the GMU economist group yard sales. “What are the odds either you or your wife are going to care very much about your middle child when all is said and done. I mean, have you seen the longitudinal studies? Or The Lion in Winter? I say sell all his belongings and all your photos of him now, while he’s seven and still has time to get over the rejection and ‘bounce-back’.” However, you could sell them to Civil War re-enactors and buy something else you wanted more with the money? Like jewelry? My daughters say I have too much jewelry but that’s crazy talk. I have too much costume jewelry. For all those hundred and hundreds of dollars of non-valuable jewelry I should have been saving up and buying sapphire rings. LOGIC, RITE? I sure hope John doesn’t read the comments here, or he’s never going to believe my next sapphire ring isn’t one of those awesome machine-made stones–they’re pretty awesome though. (My money, to be clear, but our shared…acquisitional habits.)


Belle Waring 12.22.13 at 1:11 pm

Our money, what am I saying. We have always had joint banking accounts, although my current Singapore visa status makes me like a 1950s housewife and I cannot even get a phone contract in my own name. Or at all, I mean, John’s got to go wait in line at SingTel and upgrade. Now that I think about it, it would probably be better if he did read this so he would get me a new iphone for Christmas and I could give our helper Malou mine. [O HAI!] Unfortunately, he’s too busy to read comments. I’ll have to try some more direct means of communication, such as whatsapping him from a different room of the apartment.


Dave Davis 12.22.13 at 1:15 pm

Terrific post, great music. Thanks.


FRauncher 12.22.13 at 1:15 pm

Belle, your are rapidly becoming my favorite blogger. I can’t say why without writing a long, worthless, speculative post. There’s something about the North/south/Singapore mix. It’s like the positive side of Midnight in the Garden of…. Anyway, Keep it up.


Belle Waring 12.22.13 at 2:39 pm

Thank you FRauncher! [blushes in becoming fashion]. Please feel free to write long, worthless speculative posts/comments at any time. It never stopped me none, after all. In general, people have been very kind lately and it’s flattering and nice to hear people enjoy my writing, so, thanks everyone!
As far as the Midnight et alia ad nauseam goes(I mean it’s fine and all but you can get sick of something; John and I used to say we would get rich selling rare copies of the book not signed by the author), my grandmother knew all the people involved well (excepting the young man I suppose) and she thought that Kevin Spacey did an excellent job of both imitating and physically resembling him in the movie version, which is an impressive feat of acting to be modeled on a dead man you never met. Savannah called collective bullshit on how this stranger from out of town would get along so swimmingly with a voodoo practitioner all on a sudden, and be taken into her very bosom. So much was he invited into her secret confidences, in fact, that on the third day of their acquaintance he got taken out up in the creek of a marsh somewhere so she could, I don’t remember, but do something she wouldn’t ever tell anyone about or how to do, unless they were her daughter or apprentice or something. I call BULLshit! People barely even ever talk about it!


mattski 12.22.13 at 2:51 pm

In general, people have been very kind lately and it’s flattering and nice to hear people enjoy my writing, so, thanks everyone!

I find your writing to be extremely studly. But, secretly, I want to know what drugs you take!


Jim Buck 12.22.13 at 4:54 pm

I dip my toe, into a Belle Waring post, and am quickly floating around banging my head on unexpected surfaces. And I always emerge– in some way–sweetly wounded. Thanks for x-ing the spot where the rare songbirds rest. Sometime, I’d like to read your thoughts on In This Our Life, or any other Ellen Glasgow novel.


PatrickinIowa 12.22.13 at 4:54 pm

^With me there’s no secret about it. Also, I’d like to meet and share sometime, but the closest I’m likely to get to you is Shanghai in July. (Disclaimer to any Singaporean, US or People’s Republic of China authorities: this is lighthearted banter of the kind that American academics sometimes engage in. It is not probable cause, because it’s utter bullshit.)


Mr Punch 12.22.13 at 6:59 pm

Your taste in music is pretty good too.


bozhidar balkas 12.22.13 at 10:00 pm

if prayers would work, would we also need the priestly class?


Anders Widebrant 12.22.13 at 11:28 pm

“Also, really, a Union cappie and Conferedate drum? I think the correct answer is never give up anything at anytime ever [..]”

Ahem hem. ANYWAY, these are lovely songs and they make me want to get some speakers, because the mix is kinda rough for headphones (on the other hand it’s past midnight and I’ve got neighbours on the other side of two walls and one ceiling of this room, so).

This ode to a synapsid is what’s stuck in my head right now. Might be a good distraction if you ever get tired of Miku.


William Berry 12.23.13 at 2:59 am

’70s Boston Acoustics, eh?

Awesome. The Advent Loudspeaker. Polk. Infinity Q series. Altec Model 19s. Brings back memories. I realize that my late model Klipsch speakers probably sound better than any of these, but I still remember those brands (and their very competitive, hard-working designers) with a twinge of nostalgia.

Belle, you said “records”. Does that mean LPs?

I have only recently (in the last few years) got back into vinyl myself. At some point, I realized I had a sizable collection (3-400) of vinyl lying around, some of it dating back to late ’60s/early ’70s (first pressing BeeGees Odessa, EJ Empty Sky, lots more).

I bought one of those Spin-Clean Mk-II record cleaners and discovered that, after cleaning, most of the records were like new! Refurbished my old Yamaha TT-400 belt-drive (upper-mid grade; so-so platter, but pretty good arm) with one of Grado’s better MM cartridges. New Pro-Ject phono pre-amp. Hooked up to Pioneer Elite SC-65 receiver (sorry, I can’t help mentioning it; it’s my first THX rated piece of equipment ever!). And, most recently, I managed to get my hands on a mid-70s KLH branded Burwen TNE-7000 click and pop suppressor, completely renovated with all-new analog electronics.

Recent purchases: Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Tina Turner’s Greatest Hits (“Private Dancer”, one of the best feminist pop songs ever, IMHO), the first new LPs I have purchased in more than thirty years. Like-new used: Connie Francis Greatest Hits (“My Heart Has a Mind of its Own”, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”), Emmylou Harris Luxury Liner, Benny Goodman (playing heart-breakingly beautiful clarinet on classical chamber pieces), Peggy Lee (“Some Cats Know (how to take it slow)”!), Neil Diamond Greatest Love Songs (“Play Me”, “If You Go Away”, “The Last Thing On My Mind”), Roberta Flack, Chet Atkins, and more. I love to browse through the estate sale stacks in Cape Girardeau’s many antique stores; there are secret treasure troves of great stuff in there!

Not familiar with all the stuff you mention, Belle, but I hope to remedy that deficiency ASAP.

I do love to listen in the dark.

I only have to make sure I go easy on the scotch.

Happy Holidays to everyone here at CT.



Anderson 12.23.13 at 3:18 am

Belle, do you speak like you write? I want John to start surreptitiously transcribing.


Belle Waring 12.23.13 at 5:20 am

I curse way worse in real life. Waaaaaayyy worse. Adjusted for circumstances. Not in front of my grandfather or my in-laws or anything. William Berry: yes LPs! There ain’t no other records! Record cleaning kits do work wonders, but when I was a kid every 5-6 years we would take every LP of our battered collection of country blues, reggae, Dylan, Rolling Stones, The Clash, etc. and wash them carefully in the sink with tepid and barely soapy water, rinse well likewise, and allow them to air-dry–it was remarkably effective and an entertaining family group effort. The rule was during supper-time hours we took turns with one LP side each, causing one to agonize slightly. Sure, I really want to hear the Junior Murvin version of Police and Thieves, but we only have it on a compilation and I don’t like one of the songs on that side (I like them all now so no probs there. I fully re-created my dad’s LP collection as a young adult.) Maybe I should take advantage of the varying rules that apply to 78s and bust up the place with some Billie Holliday? No, I want to listen to Bo Diddley Had a Farm! If you had been frying chicken and making biscuits and it was summer you got double.


William Berry 12.23.13 at 5:40 am

Belle @15:

Awesome! That is too cool for words.

(Vinyl-heads of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your lossy, 48kbps digital encoding!

Just kidding. Sorta. I REALLY don’t want to start that debate again!)


Meredith 12.23.13 at 7:11 am

Of course I will hold on to the cappie and drum (and other such things). But will my children be able to, or any nieces and nephews? They all seem to be living in apartments in cities. I think I’m turning into my mother (she’s my southern side, btw), whose attic held not only our family’s mementoes and detritis (an awful lot of mattresses and bedsteads — the residue of a world where bedding was wealth) but also my parents’ New York friends’ stuff — kosher plates, paintings, and god only knows what tag sales a lot of that stuff ended up in once the dealers did their dealing.
I’m feeling sad tonight, having just learned that my father’s grandmother’s brother died at Andersonville. Something my father never mentioned, though he must have known. (Though maybe it passed over him — male and a northerner.) You’ll understand.


Belle Waring 12.23.13 at 7:56 am

There is no debate. LPs are the kwisatz haderach. Well, wait, well-mastered CDs that didn’t substitute LOUD for well-mastered can sound excellent, but mp3’s suck, and CDs decay horribly, like, music I bought 10 years ago has got those clear inclusions and skip problems, and it’s not as if you can stack a couple of coins on the laser and force it over the damaged area; that shit is done ding dang over. Those 78s at my pop’s place, by contrast, sounded fine, and by fine I mean they had that warm vinyl sound where one mike is trained on a skillet full of frying bacon. Lots of bands now will sell you an LP with free mp3s, so it’s win-win (most do the same for CDs, which I should always do because you can re-rip them when more storage space and a new audio format causes us all to have to re-rip our whole CD collection/mope about the quality of our downloaded tunes. But it lacks immediate gratification.) May I take this moment to complain that my husband was so rule-abiding as a newly-minted National University of Singapore assistant prof that he wouldn’t let me download music from napster during the cruce window when everything in the world could be had for free? He is one law-abiding mother-fucker. (You could tell that about him, right?) I am having trouble finding the exact right song/mode of input to contrast and thus demonstrate to my children the tragic lossy nature of mp3s (it must be one song on both formats and should be one they like. I think we’ll go with “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”). In addition to which fatal flaw, no one will be able to listen to mp3s in 20 years. My rare 45s from Savannah thrift stores by contrast, in 20 years? Still superlative.

mattski: it may not totally blow your mind to know that I sort of had to stop taking drugs at a certain point. Yeah. It just be’s like that sometimes.


maidhc 12.23.13 at 8:48 am

My turntable died after some 30-odd years of service. So I called up the audio repair shop (we have one here) and the man told me I had a cheapass consumer turntable anyway and you can’t fix them.

He said I have a nice Dual in here, it’s a good turntable and if anything goes wrong with it you can repair it. It was more than I ever spent on a turntable, but there you are.

Our library still has a lot of vinyl. It’s only partially ordered so it’s like exploring uncharted realms to go in there. All these years I had the first and third Stone Poneys albums, but I never had the second one because that was the one with the hit, so it cost more and I couldn’t afford it. I found it in the library. On CD there is only a Best Of that omits a lot of tracks.

I’m lucky the library still has LPs because most libraries have trashed theirs. I bet hardly anyone checks them out. I find magazines stashed on the shelves. I think the shelvers go in there for a quiet read because they know nobody will look for them there.

I’m not sure how many LPs I have – about 25 linear feet or so. Plus a few 78s. My turntable plays 78s too.

Nice gospel stuff.


William Berry 12.23.13 at 10:11 am

maidhc @19: “Nice gospel stuff”.

My dad, who was an Assembly of God minister and pastor for many years, had a big collection of his favorite gospel music (Blackwood Brothers Quartet, “Guv’nor” Jimmy Davis, Chuckwagon Gang, Louvin Brothers, etc.) on ancient laquer discs, no less (if I remember correctly, 78s were mostly laquer). My mom still has them, but, sadly, they are worthless: worn out by hundreds of plays (torture sessions, really), by cheap, flip-over, “diamond” styluses on a whole generation of console stereos.

You could kill somebody with one of those heavy-ass laquer LPs!


Zamfir 12.23.13 at 10:48 am

I actually have some coins glued to the laser of my old CD player. No clue how, but it honestly reads more disks this way.


William Berry 12.23.13 at 11:26 am

Sorry, that would be “shellac” as the old, pre-vinyl record material, not “laquer”.


The Modesto Kid 12.23.13 at 1:58 pm

Ellen convinced me last weekend to m0ve our stereo out of the “music room” where it had not been getting any use and into the “living room” — I complied and have been in heaven ever since listening to all my music! music room -> living room = about 40 feet (15 as the crow flies), far shorter and less expensive a trek than CA-> Singapore. But still.


SamChevre 12.23.13 at 3:15 pm

On the “almost completely off topic”–women–even black women–could own banks and run banks long before they could have savings accounts. See Maggie Walker (a different person than Madam C. J. Walker, although they are frequently confused.)


NickS 12.23.13 at 4:28 pm

“Well, wait, well-mastered CDs that didn’t substitute LOUD for well-mastered can sound excellent, but mp3′s suck, and CDs decay horribly, like, music I bought 10 years ago has got those clear inclusions and skip problems, ”

I’ve heard that about CDs, but I’ve never experienced the problem myself. I’ve always thought that a well-stored CD shouldn’t degrade, but now I feel slightly self-conscious and wonder if I’m just not listening to them enough. . . I agree, though, well mastered CDs can sound great. Personally I haven’t gotten into vinyl (I have too many CDs already, I don’t want to have to keep track of two different formats), but the rest of my family does, and as far as I can tell they both have their virtues.

I know a guy* who is an eccentric audio genius — for the last forty years (at least) he builds speakers, amps, microphones, and will modify off-the-shelf hardware. Cash only, anything takes months to complete, but the results are incredible. I think you would like him, though it’s unlikely that you will ever meet. Anyway, I find it reassuring that he switched over from records to CDs at some point, because he felt like he could get better sound from digital sources, and I know he doesn’t say that lightly. I do remember him getting excited at one point, working on a CD player for me. He was playing a test tone CD, and had hooked up the (analog) output to an oscilloscope. He said that when he got to some of the higher frequency tones he was worried because the output looked wrong and he wasn’t sure where the problem was. Then he realized that the test tones must have been generated using a square wave, rather than a sin wave generator — he demonstrated, and I could see the corners in on the scope. It was an impressive demonstration.

Thank you for the music, I know very little about gospel music, and all of those are unfamiliar and very good.

The version of “Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do” that I know is from the Smithsonian Folkways collection of civil rights music which is amazing and heart-breaking. According the the liner notes that particular track was recorded by Guy Carawan (famous for having tought “We Shall Overcome” to members of SNCC in 1960) and originally released on a record called Birmingham Mass Meeting.

We recorded this album under somewhat difficult circumstances. As we tried to enter New Pilgrim Baptist Church to join in the singing in support of the movement, we were arrested by Sheriff Bull Conner and told that no blacks and whites would be singing together in Birmingham. We were released two days later just in time to get to the mass meeting we had planned to record. Guy managed to maneuver himself onto the speaker’s platform and had to shift from speaker to speaker and singer to singer with our single microphone to capture the spirit of the movement.

* I realize that, “I know a guy” is one of the least credible statements that one can make on the internets . . .


bill benzon 12.23.13 at 4:49 pm

“Where Shall I Be…” sounds like a relative of South African Isicathamiya, perhaps most widely known through Ladysmith Black Mambazo.


dairy queen 12.23.13 at 6:03 pm

An early indication that I had met my true love was the overlap in our record collections. (mine small, his already quite extensive) – lots of Kathleen Ferrier, Dennis Brain, Elly Ameling and some Ian Partridge in common. I contributed Anton Karas, X, Dead K*nn*dys, Horowitz playing Scarlatti (the only psychedelic recording I ever bought) and Butth*ole Surfers, and he brought along pretty much everyone else.

An extended musical reunion sounds heavenly! Enjoy!


lemmycaution 12.23.13 at 10:14 pm

I guess there are two completely different 99 and a half won’t do songs.

gospel version


Wilson Pickett’s version


lemmycaution 12.23.13 at 10:23 pm

I have an full ipod from about 2008. The computer that had all these songs crashed so these are the only copies that I have for a lot of the songs. I have a boom box that connects to the ipod in the basement.


spyder 12.24.13 at 12:33 am

You won me over with setting up the stereo and listening to LPs. All the rest is whipped cream and cherries on the chocolate fudge sauce.


Sharon 12.24.13 at 1:53 am

Belle, thank you for this post. I discovered 99 1/2 on an Oxford American compilation and I’ve rocked out on it so hard, that I’ve scared the dog.

My vinyl is in boxes in the basement along with my turntable and a desktop tuner/boom box, ah the 80s. One day, I’ll fish them out and then I’ll really scare the dog! (Dancing, I do something that the SO refers to as, “Sharon’s Pogo-Pony, think Shindig meets the mosh pit.)

Happy holidays


Belle Waring 12.24.13 at 2:48 am

bill benzon: that African singing style is based on the same set of gospel hymns–written mostly by Scottish and English dudes I guess randomly?–that this tradition is using, but it developed in a different direction rooted in local singing styles. Most choirs of that type in South Africa are born-again Christians. But yeah, the loud/soft thing, imitating instruments, the whole deal. Part of the reason I love the Songbirds of the South so much is that they really rock this genre, which is mostly heavily male-dominated (unlike gospel solo singing, which is female-slanted.)


Belle Waring 12.24.13 at 2:53 am

It’s funny you can hear in Queen C. Anderson’s voice up there a lot of the flashy tricks people sometimes complain about in modern pop/R&B singing. I don’t actually know what the tricks are called because I don’t know anything about music in the sense that I can’t read music or whatever, but the quavering dilly-dallying before you settle on a note, etc. Whitney Houston was a child gospel star, you can hear that. Queen C. maybe could have done a killer Beyoncé thing in the 1910s given the opportunity.


bill benzon 12.24.13 at 1:14 pm

“… lot of the flashy tricks … the quavering dilly-dallying before you settle on a note…”

It’s called melisma and it’s very old. I’ve got this interesting book in storage, by a guy whose name I can’t recall, that argues that melisma made its way to the New World from the Middle East via two routes, a southern route through West Africa and a northern route through Ireland. As I recall, it’s an interesting argument.

I’m vaguely aware that some complain about its use in pop and RnB & I’m vaguely aware of some of that pop & RnB. What I hear is that sometimes the melisma sounds “organic”, if you will, and sometimes it sounds like it’s been “pasted on.” That can be a problem.


bill benzon 12.24.13 at 1:20 pm

The Wikipedia entry on melisma is pretty good:


“In Western music, the term melisma most commonly refers to Gregorian chant. (The first definition of melisma by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary[2] is “a group of notes or tones sung on one syllable in plainsong”.) However, the term melisma may be used to describe music of any genre, including baroque singing and later gospel. Within Jewish liturgical tradition, melisma is still commonly used in the chanting of Torah, readings from the Prophets, and in the body of the service itself. For an examination of the evolution of this tradition, see Idelsohn.

“Today, melisma is commonly used in Arab, Middle Eastern, African, Balkan, and African-American music, Fado (Portuguese), Flamenco (Spanish), and various Asian folk and popular musical genres. Melisma is also commonly featured in Western popular music. Early in their careers, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder used it sparingly.[3] Melisma is utilized by countless pop artists, although this form usually involves improvising melismas (and melismatic vocalise) over a simpler melody.”


Harold 12.24.13 at 5:59 pm

Melisma typically occurs where there are strong traditions of solo singing, for obvious reasons, as where pastoralists spend lots of time alone with their herds, for one example, or among traveling carters. Choral singing and harmony are more prevalent in settled populations where people know each other for a long time and work in groups.

It is interesting that Ireland appears to have relatively little choral singing compared to some other populations.

I find the melisma in recent pop songs overdone, myself.


Henry (not the famous one) 12.26.13 at 3:16 pm

And for Christmas I got a few of the records my sister didn’t throw out: Ward Singers, James Cleveland, Dorothy Love Coates, to name a few. O Happy Day! (go listen to the version by the Davis Sisters–no youtube version available, unfortunately).

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