DFG HfM Weimar Voice and Singing in
Popular Music in the U.S.A. (1900–1960)

Singer and style portraits
Dahlhart, Vernon: »The Prisoner's Song«
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The Prisoner's Song was the first million selling song of hillbilly music and the only hit of Vernon Dalhart. He sings with a classical trained voice but the song topic and the musical accompaniment are clearly hillbilly style. Dalhart attained an international following for himself and the commercial country music. The recording opened up hillbilly to a broad audience preparing the rise of later country music. The Prisoner's Song was incorporated into the tradition of country music and was covered many times.


Jackson, Mahalia
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Often, Mahalia Jackson is called the »Queen of Gospel Music«. Her style had an influence on many Gospel and R&B singers, and even today's artists refer to Mahalia Jackson when they sing ornaments, grace notes and melismas. When Mahalia Jackson should be described with three words, these would very likely be Embellishment, Unconventionalism, and Intensity. Her ornaments, grace notes and runs are indeed the most important characteristics mentioned in literature. She put emphasis on the transition of notes, often with a small upward jump, followed by a run downwards and a backward run until she reaches the next main tone. However, her ambitus was not strikingly large and rarely exceeded a tenth. Her phrases were short and she did not care about whether or not she takes breath within a sentence or even within a word. Besides those untrained characteristics, the listener will hear a powerful deep voice, which is able to scream, whisper, speak and vibrate depending on the dramaturgy of the song.


Patton, Charley
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Charley Patton, the »Father of the Delta Blues« exemplifies many characteristics of the Delta Blues: a rough and raspy voice, a relaxed articulation, and a minimalistic approach to musical form such as melody and harmony. In his blues singing he avoided singing the third and seventh tone at a discrete pitch; he rather applied a permanent glissando approximately a semitone around the equal tempered pitch or around the »neutral third«. Born in the late Nineteenth Century, Patton belongs to the first generation of blues performers, which already had performed years – if not even decades – before they were discovered by the record industry. In this regard, Patton is also an example of an African-American musician who played almost everything the audience liked and therefore was not restricted to blues. Patton is outstanding in so far as even in his recordings he was not restricted to blues.


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The definitions of twang are manifold. Twang is used to characterise a sound quality in speech and singing, but also in acoustic signals in general. Regarding the singing voice, which is of interest here, »twang« can refer to the perceived sound as well as to the physiological basis which produces this sound. Moreover, twang used to be seen as a deficient vocal feature, which should be treated in speech therapy. Today, twang is a means of vocal expression in music taught in singing workshops and today's speech therapists use twang to improve the voice quality of patients.


Waller, Fats
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Fats Waller has been one of the best known and most successful jazz pianists of the 1930s. He sings on some hundred recordings using his voice in a very flexible way. As entertainer Waller is adding comments to the music. He uses roughness and rhythm in order to intensifiy his expression. And he is able to change quickly between different vocalizations to flexibly underpin song texts. By doing so Waller is able to generate further meanings to the lyrics.


Waters, Ethel
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»Sweet Mama Stringbean«, as Waters was called in her early years, was a vaudeville star. Her singing style comprised a variety of vocal sounds and timbre, which she used to characterise the role she played on stage. She was able to scream and growl, but the most prominent features were a clear voice with a huge vibration, a clear pronunciation as well as an ironic and humorous approach to vocal expression. Her way to play with her voice seemed to be fun even for herself. Ethel Waters introduced many songs that became standards in the jazz repertoire, therefore she was one of the pioneers in jazz singing, too.



last update: 20.10.2014