Originally published in The Second Line,
Time for the Boswells
By Dennis Yancey
Have you ever thought about the inner workings of a fine watch, how every wheel and gear are important to its total function? A watch is a balanced, precision, well-integrated instrument, everything purposeful, nothing arbitrary, with no conflict between means and ends. If any part of the mechanism is impaired, the watch will not keep proper time. A watch is carefully designed, each part acting and reacting, with the final goal of keeping correct time.
The Boswell Sisters, Connie, Vet, and Martha, thirties singing trio from New Orleans, kept precision time, too, with their close harmony vocal blend. Their vocal harmonic blend, arrangements, and nuances, like the carefully coordinated internal intricacies of a watch, reflect a musical integrative feat. Their three part vocal exchanges, coupled with their intricate arrangements, can be compared to the precision movements of the gears and wheels within our watch. As the meshing of the gears represents the Boswells blending with their actual voices, so the reciprocal motion of the tiny wheels represents the coordinated musical interaction within their closely integrated arrangements. Each tiny wheel, working in synchrony with the others, reflects the integration and interchange of various musical components that went into making a unified interpretation: relation of the chosen song to melody development, harmony, rhythm, voice placement, key changes, tempo variations, all designed and balanced for the final Boswell performance. As their arrangements and harmony continue to fascinate me, I am sharing my observations with Boswell enthusiasts, recent discoverers, or those not realizing the extent of Boswell ingenuity. As a jeweler delves into the inner workings of the watch, I now enter and share with you the inner workings of the Boswell Sisters.
Since good time cannot be kept without the parts of the watch working properly, the finished Boswell Sound was helped by quality vocal equipment. The trio consisted of two contraltos, Connie and Martha, and mezzo-soprano, Vet. Their vocal ranges were, however, extensive. Vet could often be found in the lower register, supplying harmony, and contralto Martha could be found in the upper range singing the lead. This “crossover” technique, or the taking of notes not normally taken by a certain type of voice, was used by the Boswells in appropriate passages. Listen to Connie, Vet and Martha supplying some high soprano sounds after Connie’s lead-in of “River Stay Away from My Door.” If you want to hear some highly effective low vocal placement, listen to the trio in the final E-flat chorus of “Doggone I’ve Done It!” Although having similar vocal qualities, their three voices complimented one another with subtle differences.
The mainspring of our watch, the force which keeps it running, is reflected by the richest voice of the trio, Connie. Like the mainspring, Connie had much to contribute, possessed a full-bodied voice, and often supplied deep harmony. The most outstanding voice of the trio, Connie offered a robust mainspring, giving our watch considerable strength. Listen carefully for Connie’s low contralto harmony in “Lonesome Road,” measures 22, 24 and 25 coming through in overtones. Connie often opened an arrangement with a solo, working in and around the melody line effectively. This solo work shows a great deal of inventiveness and always sets the stage for exciting things to come. Before the trio begins its harmonics in “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” listen to Connie’s streamline solo effort.
Like the oil of our watch, necessary but diffuse and subtle, Vet was able to blend and adapt her higher timbre voice in a way that you have trouble picking her out individually. But her voice added, like high grade oil, to the smooth operation of perfect vocal blending. Although Vet’s low soprano was not as full-bodied as Connie’s contralto, one may liken their two voices. Because of this interesting similarity, Vet served as a valuable harmonic counterpart to Connie, like the oil which keeps the mainspring running properly. Beginning in measure 33 of “Crazy People,” while Martha holds middle C, Connie and Vet can be heard vocally interacting. In one of her rare solo passages, Vet’s lovely voice can be heard in the A-flat – D-flat downward phrases in measures 5, 6 13, and 14 of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”
The greatest harmonic strength of the trio, and, oddly, the greatest weakness, was Martha. As the springs allow the gears in our watch to mesh, Martha, like the vital balance of the spring, was vocally responsible for the effective vocal meshing of the Boswell blend. Not as impressive as our mainspring, the balance spring is crucial to the watch. Without it, the balance wheel, the timekeeping device of the watch, would not work. Complementing our subtle oil and rich mainspring, Vet and Connie, Martha’s voice gave the needed harmonic balance. With a slightly curious voice, somewhat sharp and pointed, Martha’s type of vocal stridency was responsible, I maintain, for the success of the Boswell Sound. As the tension on the springs in any direction will affect the meshing of the gears in our watch, Martha’s slight stridency, added or detracted to the overall Boswell blend, depending on her voice placement in the arrangement. Therefore, the movement and actual meshing of the gears – which ultimately is the vocal interaction of the Boswells as a single harmonic unit – was either maximized or rendered slightly less effective by Martha. You can hear Martha’s voice making an arrangement work, her voice placed perfectly, in “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” opening segment. The overall brassy texture is Martha in perfect form, and the result is an unforgettable, electrifying performance.
It must be kept in mind that these vocal differences, mentioned for purposes of analysis, go generally unnoticed without careful listening when one hears the astonishing Boswell blend at work. The qualitative differences and similarities inherent within the three Boswell voices were arranged vocally and musically for the most effective single unit, close harmony singing possible.
Inevitably, when the subject of the Boswell Sisters comes up, there is much comment on their vocal gimmicks, gibberish, or using their voices like musical instruments, such as emulating horns. When developing a Boswell esthetic, however, there is something frequently overlooked but critical in defining what the Boswells were all about. While Fritz Lang was making the great silent film “Siegfried,” it is reported, a sign hung on the wall of his office: “Nothing in this film is accidental.” This is the motto of great art. Very few artists, in any field have ever been able to live up to it. The Boswells did. Their real art lies in the fact that nothing in their arrangements, vocal inflections was ever inappropriate, thrown in arbitrarily. Like our watch, containing nothing accidental or purposeless, so are the Boswell performances. Everything about a Boswell rendition is stylized, i.e., condensed to those stark melodic and harmonic essentials which convey the spirit and core of the music. They maximized their voices, used innovative vocal devices, to be sure, but everything employed was always within an overall context. The “how” never replaced the “what,” not for one second. Never a conflict between means and ends, they never sacrificed arrangement integrity for the sake of mere vocal gymnastics.
The central problem confronting close harmony singing is the vocal and harmonic management. The human musical voice, to begin with, is not an instrument that is handled in the same way as a piano, clarinet or banjo. It possesses its own identity, its own special problems. Text and melody, especially in a jazz medium, are closely linked. This is complicated when dealing with three emerging voices, aspiring to function as a single harmonic unit within a jazz context. The Boswells always seemed to be aware that close harmony singing is just that, not three voices going up and down the scale, independently of each other. Vocally, they always centralized themselves as closely as possible, while at the same time maximizing all the harmonic potential of the given material. Their harmonic explorations would often begin with a solid chord set-up, continuing into smooth modulations, often into quick and drastic chord changes, without ever losing sight of the original chord context. This could even be done with one voice moving from one note to another, but still a highly effective change would be made. For an example of maximum chord results with very subtle means listen to the Boswells working in the C sub-dominant, G tonic in “Got the South in My Soul,” one of their most carefully structured arrangements. Another harmonic device employed by the Boswells was placing the melody right in the middle, with the harmony on top and underneath. This gave an unusual effect, a different way of listening to the melody, but unpretentious and in keeping with the basic spirit of the song. “Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia” and “The Golddigger’s Song” are examples of this. Another device employed by the Boswells was their occasional excursions from the major to minor mode in the same song. “Old Yazoo” is first done in F major, then on to F minor to give the song an extra dramatic dimension.
The dilemma facing the three Boswells when working up a number, would be how to blend good rhythm, melodic improvisation, effective harmonic changes, and manage three separate voices as a single unit. This required a great deal of care and planning. They would choose material that generally lent itself to close harmony singing, generally not too expansive a melody line, but loaded with harmony and change potential. They then would begin a process of extraordinary musical integration, the arranging of melody, rhythm, voice placement, chord structure to showcase their unit most effectively. Even though they saw that the requirements of close harmony dictate the requirements and work-up of the chosen song, whether jazz or spiritual, they consistently realized that the material itself must be dealt with as creatively and meaningfully as possible. This did not always mean an elaborate arrangement. Sometimes they worked closely to the original material, with few liberties, in such songs as “It’s Written All Over Your Face,” with Boswell blend and material coinciding very well. Sometimes they would rebuild a mediocre song, exploring hidden potential within the melody line, and make a substantial arrangement out of it. Their exciting “Crazy People” falls into this category. Sometimes they would work partially within the original material, quality or otherwise, add their own original material onto it, integrating it perfectly with the rest of the song. The additions were never out of place or arbitrary, but seemed always to give the song a brand new vitality. Listen to “Cheek to Cheek,” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Finally, the Boswells would sometimes work from scratch, doing some complete original composing, with original material serving a very broad outline. “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye,” and “Was That the Human Thing to Do?” are examples of first-rate Boswell originals. As both primary and performing artists, the Boswells were always totally responsible for their output. And no one has ever been able to construct, balance and execute a song exactly the way they did.
The Boswells have certain performances that are perfect in every way: blend, arrangement, structure. The three following renditions are all top-notch performances, but different in the way the original material was handled. Each illustrates the various ways the Boswells devised an arrangement, and are examples of the finest performances the Boswells had to offer. Let’s go outside of our watch, see what time it is, and observe the ticking away of the Boswell Sisters in action.
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” has got to be one of the most popular and durable jazz numbers ever composed. The Boswells recorded it in 1934 and I doubt if there has been a more inspiring interpretation. Here is an example of the Boswells working quite closely with the original material, going with the integrity of Mr. Berlin’s creation, and yet their blend at its most glorious. The verse always seems to fit nicely with the chorus, and the Boswells work with it in F. On to the rousing chorus, done here in B-flat, with the Boswells generally working with the composers concept, To make sure that Mr. Berlin’s point is driven home, they place, for the final chorus, words ordinarily occurring on the off-beat, not normally emphasized, right on the first beat of the measure, with added emphasis.
“Louisiana Hayride” is a shining example of Boswell ingenuity at work. This shows the Boswells working partially within the given material, but, with their additions, giving the final interpretation more meaning this it would have otherwise had. The verse, done in G, is the Boswells’ own composition, and it supports the overall arrangement, giving the familiar chorus a needed lift. Thanks to this imaginatively constructed verse, one is, by the time Connie comes in to sing the chorus in C, assisted occasionally by Vet and Martha, already prepared to continue the hayride. With a slightly swaying rhythm, voices perfectly placed, text first-rate, and a Western flavor to the melody, this verse makes one feel as if on a real hayride. This is very innovative musical construction at work.
“If It Ain’t Love” is an example of the Boswells finding the original melody line somewhat rambling – too decentralized a melody line for a smooth three-part-modulating process – so an excellent arrangement was reshaped from the melody, while still working within it. Connie opens the arrangement with a beautiful solo, and the trio comes in with their voices blending, as usual, as one. We hear them working back and forth with the D7th and G tonic, their voices highly centralized throughout. This rendition contains two instances of Boswell phrasing at its best. Astonishing vocal work, somewhat gimmicky, but done within the context of the entire arrangement, making it all the more effective. The first, done in measures 41 and 42, is a rapid running together of word, normally taking 4, but done in a fast 2 measures. As usual, the rhythm is strict and precise, and one is left with an example of Boswell vocal trickery within a purposeful arrangement context. The second is a spellbinding vocal gyration in E7, measure 47 and 48.
How ironic that the Boswell Sisters rose to prominence when the grit and grime of depression and unemployment became embedded within our watch. But each tiny wheel and gear of Boswell musical integration, precision, structured arranging, and performing continued to turn and mesh. Their voices were heard over the airwaves each week, offering clarity and a benevolent sense of life in the midst of national unrest. Due to the omission of music historians, our watch eventually stopped, the Boswells overlooked, and their place in musical history never fully explored. The watch is being rewound currently, however, by a rediscovery and rekindling of interest in their musical sounds. A story is emerging of how three young ladies from New Orleans, armed with talent and ingenuity, helped shape musical history.
The time the Boswells kept with their musical sound was, metaphysically, joyous, exciting, inspiring, exhilarating, and, stylistically, flawless. They will never be duplicated again, but with their recordings they leave a rich legacy for our enjoyment and evaluation. And because of their happy blend, they helped the world keep better time, too.