"Open Your Doors": Alternate Tunings of Three Texas Bluesmen
Vidales, Daniel Rico
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As the blues developed across the southern United States different regional cultures emerged, connected by a set of musical influences but distinguished by the figures that represented them. The Texas country blues tradition remains one of the oldest and most influential styles within the blues genre. The creative scope and achievements of its notable musicians puts Texas country blues, or folk blues, on par with parallel blues cultures from the Delta Mississippi, New Orleans, Chicago, and Piedmont regions. Texas country blues musicians advanced approaches to songwriting and performance practice that greatly influenced the blues genre. Most of these artists were guitarists and songsters, figures who established and sustained a distinct regional style characterized by lyrical mastery, charismatic vocal deliveries, and adept guitar playing. However, an often-neglected aspect of this tradition’s musical language is the ubiquitous use of alternate guitar tunings, an idiomatic technique rooted in African music and connected to several other traditions of plucked string instruments. Musicians and scholars alike have alluded to the creative potential of alternate tunings, but substantive research on the subject remains absent. This paper will explore the use of alternate tunings in the guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins through the use of gestural analysis, informed by narrative interpretations. The goal of this survey, which examines how all three guitarists benefitted creatively from retuning their guitars, is to support the idea that alternate tunings in Texas folk blues music served a creative function.