Hollinden sings the blues with Mini audience
Whether he's performing his original music for a packed house at Bloomington's Bluebird nightclub or teaching an undergraduate course on the history of rock 'n' roll, Andy Hollinden knows how to connect with an audience.
During his recent Mini University class "The History of Blues Music," the Jacobs School of Music professor at turns whipped out his guitar to strum a few bars, played early blues recordings from the 1920s, and talked about the social influences that affected trends in blues over the years. It was Hollinden's first time to teach at Mini University. "I expected maybe 15 students," he said. While 83 signed up, event organizers said more than 100 actually attended the class.
"The blues" are deeply familiar to Hollinden, who in 2005 created a new blues history course for the Jacobs School. (He has also developed courses that include Rock Music in the '70s and '80s, The Music of Frank Zappa, The Music of Jimi Hendrix, and a class called Beach Boys, Beefheart & The Residents.)
During the Mini University class, Hollinden talked about the inherent tension between major and minor notes in blues music that musicologists in the late 1800s and early 1900s originally interpreted as wrong notes.
"Musicologists thought the use of flatted third and seventh scale degrees was a mistake," said Hollinden, explaining the pentatonic scale used in classic blues (C-E-flat-F-G-B-flat-C) and the well-known three-line verse (with an A-A-B rhyme pattern) that repeats the first line and uses the verses as thematic building blocks instead of narrative units.
As he described the first blues singers, the glamorous divas who traveled around performing in full eveningwear, he said that they usually used spoken introductions to explain why they were blue.
"It was usually because of a man!" whispered one audience member, a petite senior with a sparkle in her eye who tapped her white sneakers along to the music of Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Blake ("Sounds like they're all blind," she commented).
Hollinden said many blues musicians say that it's what's "in between the notes" that's most important in blues music.
"In theory, there are dozens of notes between, say, E-flat and E, and a skilled blues musician can navigate all of them in an incredibly subtle way," Hollinden said. "That's why instruments that can bend notes -- guitar, voice, harmonica -- are so good for getting the deep blues feeling."
Reflecting on the class later, Hollinden said it's important to preserve the blues through such courses, which lend academic credibility to a form of music that was once as shocking to adults as gangster rap was when it first emerged in the late 1980s.
"Did you see their heads bobbing when they heard the music?" he asked with a grin. "For us, it would be like if there were a class on grunge. We'd go 'yeah, we know that!' That's how these people feel about blues."
Hollinden now returns to working on his seventh CD and is planning a July trip to Paris (for a Frank Zappa conference at which he's presenting) and to England (to meet with former Beatle Paul McCartney's manager).
While he loves to perform his original music and travel, Hollinden's greatest pleasure remains teaching.
"Music is just such a big part of my life," he said. "I think of my job, teaching music, as being a friend with a really good record collection."