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For many cultures spanning the vast realm of human history music existed primarily as an oral tradition. Societies passed along songs from one generation to the next without the need for scribbling them down in notebooks or printing sheet music… they merely sang them enough so they were remembered, then sang them to their offspring until they remembered too.

Though not quite as ubiquitous in the modern age it’s still being done, which anyone who’s ever had Happy Birthday sung to them as they covered their ears in mock horror at a party growing up well knows. It’s a basic trait of humanity, sharing something deemed to be special with others forms one of the most indelible bonds between people.

But other distinctly human characteristics began taking hold somewhere along the line, among them ego and avarice, and so there was a desire to being publicly credited and acclaimed for coming up with songs, as well as being financially compensated for doing so.

Today almost all songs in all styles adhere to that philosophy and that’s fine, music hasn’t really had any significant drop off because of this, if anything it’s made it a deeper field since you no longer were forced to keep recycling the same public domain material. But there remains SOME songs, even some songs that do qualify as officially credited compositions, which hold up the basic tenants of music as oral tradition, none more so perhaps than the blues.


Wake Up In The Morning
It’s important to remember the origins of the blues as music created by those who were kidnapped by armed invaders to their homeland, brought to America in chains, sold as chattel and forced to work for no wages, no compensation of any kind including not even getting the fruits of their labor, all while being beaten, raped and murdered by their captors who were fully protected in doing so by the laws of so-called “civilized” American society.

The blues were a coping mechanism for this inhumane treatment, something that could be sung without much fear of retribution even as the lyrics spoke of the unbelievable hardships they were forced to endure. Without any irony the same culture which had enslaved them later stole the blues too as it formed the foundation for most modern American music… thus showing nothing much has changed in hundreds of years.


Because of the circumstances in which the blues were created this music had no choice but to exist as an oral tradition. Slaves were not permitted to be schooled because reading and writing were a threat to the hegemony of white power, so the songs themselves weren’t transcribed. But since slaves were sold from owner to owner that meant songs passed from field to field, plantation to the plantation and in time from one generation to the next.

In the first half of the Twentieth Century, now ostensibly “free” under law but hardly blessed with the same freedoms as their white counterparts, blues wound up providing one of the few ways in which black Americans could find some form of mainstream acceptance, even credit, for their talents and excel because of it. Yet even as blues artists began to compose original material it still had a tendency to draw from the oral tradition history it had known for so long. The twelve bar blues form was standard and thus the structure of many songs were interchangeable, while verses, or sometimes just phrases, were widely adapted from other songs thereby giving the blues a link back to the oral traditions from whence it came.

Between Midnight And Day
Rock ‘n’ roll of course is largely unrelated to the blues, at least as much as any distinctly unique genre can be as we’ve taken pains to point out time and again. Now there’s always going to be some threads of one style that blend into another but rock’s birth stemmed from jazz’s fraying DNA far more than anything else.

Witness Wild Bill Moore, a former jazz saxophonist who hadn’t quite gotten himself established as a major player in jazz yet when rock ‘n’ roll came along in mid-1947. Signed to Savoy, a label with a good track record in jazz, specifically be-bop, producer Teddy Reig, perhaps sensing Moore would never be able to compete in that realm, or just as likely sensing the musical and cultural changes underway, convinced Moore and fellow saxman Paul Williams to give up their dreams of jazz stardom and try making a go of it by playing this far more crude style called rock ‘n’ roll.

It worked. Moore notched a hit with the storming We’re Gonna Rock the next summer and though he was just as likely to issue some tepid records along the way, he seemed to realize which side his bread was buttered on and even after departing Savoy for Modern Records he notched another strong seller with the unambiguous anthem Rock And Roll which really should’ve settled matters as far as which direction to pursue.

But in spite of his success Moore was likely to be flummoxed about the specific particulars required of these rock records beyond merely honking up a storm and struggled with coming up with suitable variations. So looking around for something that might meet with approval it probably shouldn’t be surprising that Moore would wander over to the blues neighborhood in search of inspiration. After all the blues were raw whereas jazz was refined, blues spoke a common earthy language whereas pop music dressed up its sentiments in fine ribbons and bows, and maybe most importantly of all blues – thanks to the oral tradition – had a long history that ensured a lot of the musical components were known by rock’s audience even if they’d never intentionally sought that music out.

Therefore even though the blues themselves were far removed from rock ‘n’ roll, and even more pointedly certainly somewhat alien from the brass sections which Moore plied his trade in, it still made sense for Wild Bill to “borrow” a song from reigning blues guitar god T-Bone Walker in an effort to come up with something which may be palatable to the audience he was still a little uncertain of how to best reach.

Live In It All Alone
Certainly there’s no one who is a serious fan of any form of 20th Century music who should be unfamiliar with T-Bone Walker. He’s only the greatest and most influential guitarist in the history of the blues and arguably in all of music regardless of genre.

Walker’s early mastery of the electric guitar was first really showcased on record on Mean Old World a song he cut backed by the great pianist Freddy Slack in 1942 for the newly founded Capitol Records but which got held back for release until 1945. Now Walker was credited with writing the song, and we’re not going to question it here, but certainly the overall theme of it is something that was prevalent in the blues from the start. How else could one describe a life of slavery other than by acknowledging what a mean world we were forced to live in?

Though it’s not hard to think the song’s most famous line, “This is a mean old world to try and live in by yourself” would be just as apt, if not more so, in the 1800’s separated from your loved ones and kept in bondage, and thus you can envision such a line acting as the source material for this a century later, the focus of Walker’s song is both modernized and yet still timeless in its own way.

By the 1940’s, though the world hadn’t gotten much nicer when it came to race relations it had at least shed itself of slavery, the most onerous human stain connected to this country, and so the outlook for blues lyrics as a whole had shifted to smaller and more personal concepts, in this case the pitfalls of male-female relations, something everyone of every era and background can relate to. Walker’s vocal tone is unquestionably blue as he ponders this desolate fate without the one he loves, something which might not work so well when transposed to a style as unapologetically aggressive as sax-led rock ‘n’ roll.

Wait… does that mean we’re about to encounter another vocal on a Wild Bill Moore record? So much for sticking to instrumentals.


Packed And Gone
In spite of this version being meant for the rock crowd that had catapulted Moore into the upper echelon of artists he doesn’t really distinguish himself here, either singing or playing. It’s sung in a halting way that doesn’t jibe with the prancing horns behind it, not to mention the twitchy, somewhat hyperactive piano playing underneath.

When the singing stops and the horns take center stage their tone is still far too reedy to be pleasant to hear and Moore doesn’t chip in until the closing notes which make for the only moments where you remember why you were giving this a chance to begin with. Though the idea of adapting Mean Old World to a rock setting was alright in of itself, the manner in which they did so left a lot to be desired. They didn’t radically alter it to best highlight rock’s unique cultural viewpoint, but instead toned it down and just lightly seasoned it with their differing instrumental lineup in order to try and make it stand out from the blues origins.

It never really had a chance.

The interesting thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that it largely eschewed the oral tradition of passing songs down with artists all putting their own spin on it. As we’ve already shown the blues were notorious for this, as was folk, but so too was jazz, pop (though they used more cultured terms for it, “covering” when done to a new song and “reviving standards” when applied to an older tune… lest they be associated with something as primitive as partaking in oral traditions!).

Rock on the other hand, maybe because its practitioners were seeking a form of self-expression and recognition for their creativity, usually came up with their own material and maybe not surprisingly rock in all of its many forms has consistently remained both commercially and artistically vital ever since, while those other genres that rely more on a common pool of standards have seen their reputations even within their own musical communities ebb and flow.

There’s certainly a role in all of society for passing along oral traditions and the blues, particularly when it was being first created in the midst of unspeakably horrific conditions, is evidence of that need. But rock ‘n’ roll was of a different time and different place and most importantly a different outlook and while it would at times successfully take from outside sources, usually radically re-crafting their presentation to appear new, it was a practice that had definite limitations.

With that in mind it’d have been far better for Wild Bill Moore to remember that most who took part in rock ‘n’ roll were no longer decrying a Mean Old World because singers and fans alike were far too busy conceiving of a brave new world with which to replace it.


(Visit the Artist page of Wild Bill Moore for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)