Honky-Tonkin'

Odd time signatures have a kind of a mysterious appeal among musicians.  Recently I saw a band in L.A. do a whole set of jazz standards in 13, and it was just as varied in tempos and feels as a typical set of standards in 4.  All time signatures can be broken down into some form of 2's and 3's, my favourite example being North Indian 5 and 1/4 time, where you count to three three times, each time doubling your speed.  (1---2---3---1-2-3-123) 

Earlier this year I was listening to some Robert Johnson and Hank Williams Sr. in anticipation of a week I spent in Nashville.  Many of their songs don't have nice 4x4 bar length and phrase lengths, they simply go until the lyric is finished.  In "Honky-Tonkin'" I was struck by the strong 5-beat chorus, and how natural it feels.



Since the 5 is actually in the bass (E-B-E-B-B or oom-pah-oom-pah-pah), these half-notes actually form 10-beat phrases, so the chorus is actually a nice 8-bar phrase with three 6/4 bars in it.



In the solos, the musicians play around the melody for the most part, so I found it interesting to see how they navigated this phrase.



The steel guitar player adds two beats to the 6/4 bars (as does the Hank Jr version...), which works well with the bass, who stays in 4/4.  There is a strong pick-up into the final phrase to lock down the form, bringing the phrase length to 11 bars.  The fiddle makes a bit more of an attempt at pushing ahead those two beats, but since the bass hold down a 2-feel, the 2 beats end up overlapping with two of the next phrase, so adding one extra bar, making a 9-bar phrase.


I love these solos- the melody is so clear even though there is a kind of open-ended form. 
As a young student, when I got lost on the form while improvising I always felt awful, like I had ruined the music and everyone knew.  Of course, the band was usually listening and came together after anything strange happened- and the audience quite often had no idea that it was a 'mistake'.

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