I meet two more people with passion

I love meeting people with passion, and there are so many who’s efforts under pin this wonderful dance community.  Back in December of last year I meet two more.  Their passion, for what they want to do, hit me within the first few moments of our conversation.  They are Paul Ray and Sarah Lovatt, and their mission is to ensure that we all get a chance to appreciate traditional Blues music.

Blues music is a big part of this dance scene.  Many people who take their first steps at a Modern Jive class go on to take an interest in Blues dancing, and it has subsequently played a big part in many of our dance journeys.

Many of us dip our toes in to second rooms at freestyles and weekenders, but there is a growing number who seek out pure Blues events like Devon Velvet run by Hev Mate (see link below), or who spend the majority of their time at a weekender, in the late night Blues Lounge expressing themselves to the Modern Blues mix of DJs like Rachel Pears and Marc Forster.

Is Modern Blues eclipsing Traditional Blues?

Blues dancing is in a very healthy state, but after chatting with Paul and Sarah, I realised that what I see as I go around the country is what might be termed ‘Modern’ Blues dancing, and is danced to a mainly contemporary style of music.  Paul and Sarah have no problem with this music and enjoy dancing to it as much as anyone.

However as their interest in Blues dancing and Blues music developed, they realised that there was a danger that the original Blues music, with its origins in the struggles of the African American Community after their release from slavery, might be being eclipsed by more modern forms of the music.

It wasn’t long before they decided to do something about it, and started Crossroad Blues as a way of promoting and preserving the traditional Blues music that was in danger of being passed over.  Alongside this mission to promote traditional Blues music was an associated desire to teach a style of Blues dancing that pays homage to the way the African Americans first developed a way of moving to their own music.

A taste of Modern Blues music

Before I talk about Paul and Sarah’s love of traditional Blues music, I want to feature a so called Modern Blues track as a way of illustrating how the music we dance to in the Blues Room has diverged from the traditional African American songs.  Down by Marian Hill is a track from 2017 that I’ve come across a few times in Blues Rooms.

I first heard it when Blues teacher and DJ Jo Hart used it during her set at the Fresh Weekender in Perth last spring (see link below).  I was to hear it again at the aforementioned Devon Velvet when DJ Nick Stephens gave it a spin.  It is characterised by two very different sounding passages.  The first uses just a piano accompaniment, but the second is a lot funkier and uses all the modern sound effects you’d expect from a contemporary dance track. The result is a track you can have some fun with.

Will these original Blues tracks just fade away

I asked Paul if he would give me three tracks that represented traditional Blues music.  His first choice was recorded in 1929 by Bessie Smith who rightly earned herself the title The Empress of The Blues.  Her song Nobody knows you when you are down and out is surely an anthem of the hardship suffered by the African Americans who found themselves at the bottom of the pile in the depression years of The 1920s and ’30s.

Of course there is no comparison between the two tracks.  The production techniques are separated by almost ninety years of recording technological advances.  I think most people would prefer to dance to the Marian Hill track, but that is missing the point.  The point is should we allow the records of Blues pioneers like Bessie Smith to just fade away.  For Paul and Sarah the answer was a resounding no.

We owe so much to our rich dance music heritage

Of course the answer has to be no.  For those of us who love dance music, we soon become aware of the rich heritage that modern record producers draw from.  There is not a week that goes by, when we don’t hear a hit record that owes something to the Funk Brothers – the unknown group of musicians that created The Motown Sound.  James Brown and his ’70s funky music underpins so much of modern R&B, and where would dance music be with out the guitar licks of Niles Rogers of Disco Super Group Chic.

In the same way we should not let biological species die out, we must not let the likes of Bessie Smith be forgotten either.  We owe them so much.  Paul also explained to me how much dancing owes to the original African American performers.

They were the first people to move to a modern dance beat.  At first they danced as individuals but eventually they moved in time with a partner.

In such a way, modern social dancing was created.  From such early beginnings would come Lindy Hop, then Swing and Rock ‘n’ Roll.  All manner of Ballroom and Latin dancing would take it’s inspiration from this dancing and our own Modern Jive would have its roots in all these dance genres.

As people gained confidence at Modern Jive they would look for more challenging styles of social dancing.  Many would find what they are looking for in Tango, West Coast Swing and of course Blues.  Social dancing has come full circle, and surely it is our duty to acknowledge and celebrate where it came from.

Paul and Sarah also promote live performances

Dancing is one way of keeping traditional Blues music alive, but sadly the poor recording quality of the earliest Blues tracks like the Bessie Smith one is something of a hindrance.  I for one would struggle to enjoy dancing to too many of these basic quality recordings.  Paul and Sarah have realised this and their freestyles are scattered with modern cover versions that have a much greater appeal.

Here’s another of Paul’s tracks, that he feels represents the genre of music they are wanting to promote and so preserve.  It’s a live recording of a the Blues classic St. James Infirmary by Stefano Ronchi & Dan Nash.  Even though it is live, the quality and performance of Nash on vocals and Ronchi on guitar make this a track you could love dancing to.

But here’s where Paul and Sarah really show their passion for promoting this style of music.  Both Ronchi and Nash have performed live at Crossroad Blues dances, and what’s more they have pulled the crowds in, so much so that their freestyles with live music sometimes have had to become all ticket affairs.

It just shows that when you show such passion for something people will want to support you.  Here then is Ronchi and Nash performing this Blues Songbook standard.

I feel very proud of my Ceroc Class

I mentioned above that many people make the journey to Blues dancing after starting out at a Modern Jive class.  Modern jive is of course, as partner dancing styles go, fairly easy to pick up, and interestingly both Paul and Sarah started out at the same Ceroc class as myself at the Rolls Royce Pavilion in Derby.  In fact I remember helping Sarah in the lines of the beginners class.

I have a special place in my heart for that class, as I not only started my own dance journey there, but it actually introduced many people to social dancing who are now enthusiastic members of the local Tango, Smooth Jive and Blues dance communities.  I was particularly proud when I came upon a Blues dancing video that not only featured Paul and Sarah, but also another fabulous Blues dancer that I had helped in the beginners lines of my Ceroc class.

I am sure that Ceroc and Modern Jive classes and their teachers take great pride, when they think of all the people they have started on their dance journeys.  As I watch this video of fabulous Blues dancing I can’t help wonder how many of the participants got started at Modern Jive classes.  The first couple to go are Sarah and her partner Deej Moors, who I think also got started with Ceroc.  You can see Paul in the centre background with the waist coat on.

The backing track is Night time is the right time by Ray Charles

A Blues class is part of the plan

If Paul and Sarah were going to succeed in promoting traditional Blues music they would need a vehicle.  They decided to start off by running a Blues Class in their home town of Derby using traditional music as a background to their teaching.  It’s never easy to establish any kind of dance class, but after a stuttering start which included problems of finding a regular venue they have now established Crossroad Blues as a regular meet up for Blues lovers and people eager to give this dance style a go.

Paul and Sarah have now found a perfect venue, which has an intimate feel, ideal to promote their favoured form of dancing and music.

Their regular Thursday class up is held at The Moravian Lecture Hall  in Ockbrook on the outskirts of Derby.  This building has quite an interesting history, being part of a Moravian Settlement that also includes a church and Independant Girls School.  The Lecture Hall itself was used as a hospital during the First World War.

The Class builds a local Blues Community

It’s around this class, with it’s dedication to traditional Blues music, that Paul and Sarah have brought together all the local dancers with an interest in Blues dancing.  I have no doubt that the success of the class is due in part to their enthusiasm and passion for Blues dancing and music.  Like I’ve said many times, when you show real passion for something its amazing how many people will follow you.

Back in early December I attended one of their classes.  Now regular readers of my blog will know that I’ve struggled with Blues dancing, but recently I’ve come out of my comfort zone and have been giving it a try.  I must admit I was still a little apprehensive when I joined Paul and Sarah’s class but with their encouragement I made a little more progress.  I would highly recommend anyone wanting to dip their toes in to Blues to give these lessons a try.

Again the music that Paul played during the class had a very traditional flavour.  It included this ’50s recording of Nine below zero by Sonny Boy Williamson.  This song has a very well defined Blues beat that was ideal for the moves and techniques that Paul wanted to get across.  Like the Bessie Smith track, Nine below zero has a simplistic structure but after listening to it a few times I can see the appeal of this traditional music to people who might want to play with the beat.

So could I cope with a lot of traditional music?

Having created a good following amongst the local Blues dancers Paul and Sarah have been able to run freestyles which have been very well supported.  Having enjoyed the class night I decided to find time in my busy pre-Christmas diary for their festive freestyle party.

I felt a lot more relaxed about my Blues dancing, particularly after the previous class, but I did wonder if I could cope with two and a half hours of traditional Blues music.

The Christmas party attracted a lot of dancers, and interestingly most of them had once attended the Rolls Royce Ceroc class.  This really helped me.  You can’t beat knowing lots of people when you are even slightly out of your comfort zone.

Paul’s shows the appeal of traditional music

Paul stuck to his guns.  For those two and a half hours Paul played tracks that can only be described as traditional Blues.  I have to say that the tracks were so carefully selected that there was a surprising variety in Paul’s playlist that I never sensed the music was samey.

I’m still a long way off from being like the dancers in the Blues dancing video I featured above, but I’m slowly getting there and I had a fabulous time.  Here’s one of the tracks I danced to.  Though it was recorded in 2017 it still captures the spirit of Bessie Smith’s 1929 track.

Proof if it was needed, how the traditional tracks can still inspire modern day artists and record producers, and why we must ensure they don’t disappear in to the music vaults never to see the light of day again.

Preachin’ blues by Larkin Poe achieves it traditional feel with the use of a slide guitar and banjo.  The track also has a well defined 12 bar structure which means you can successfully anticipate the breaks and really play with them.  It’s tracks like this that will actually find their way in to Modern Blues playlists and ensure that the heritage of the Blues singers from the ’20s and ’30s is not lost for future generations of Blues dancers.

Everyone is doing their bit to keep traditional Blues alive

Paul and Sarah tell me that there is quite a world wide campaign to preserve traditional Blues music.  There own contribution in the suburbs of Derby is of course quite small, but there are other Blues lovers that are doing there own bit to promote this important music heritage.  I should also say that the Modern Blues DJs still slip in the odd traditional track and so are making their own contribution to the cause.

I started the article by mentioning a contemporary track that Blues teacher Jo Hart uses in her playlist.  Jo actually used a very traditional Blues track in her lesson, as an example of the way Blues tracks often have a very structured format, that enables you to spot the breaks and so play with the music.

While the track was recorded in 1997 you can trace its linage back to Bessie Smith’s Nobody knows you when you are down and out.  Here then is Karen Carroll with Can’t Fight The Blues, with its wonderful changes of mood and well defined breaks.  I particularly love the blues piano that underpins Carroll’s soulful vocal.

This is a well loved Blues venue

Paul and Sarah’s Christmas party freestyle had a wonderful relaxed feel and it was great to have the opportunity to chat with friends I’d made all that time ago at the Derby Ceroc Class.  There is no doubt that Paul’s traditional music also contributed to the chill-out vibe and I can see why this is a well loved venue, and how Paul and Sarah have been able to build a small Blues community around their class.

I’ll finish by featuring one more track from Paul’s Christmas play list, Feeling good.  It features one of the great voices of Blues music Nina Simone.  Recorded in 1965 for her album I put a spell on you it has so much going on.  There are changes in mood, changes in tempo and a big band backing that adds another level of drama.  It is a track that is designed for expressive dancing, and it shows just what can be done with traditional Blues elements.

A worthy cause and the next live gig

Promoting and preserving this traditional Blues music is a worthy cause, and it is so wonderful to see people with the passion to ensure this happens.  Oh and one last thing:

If you want to experience the full Crossroad Blues experience, the next live date is gig is 21 February when Blues guitarist and singer Paul Cowley makes a visit.

My thanks to Paul Ray for his help in providing the background information for this article.

Related Articles

My review of Devon Velvet

Jo Hart’s Fresh Blues Classes