[Monday Notes no. 118] Ethel Waters is a first-generation jazz singer, her style is conversational and discreet, enhanced by an alto voice and a pleasant blues vein. We listen to her performance of Don’t Blame Me, a ballad composed by one of the great couples of American song: Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields.
Don’t Blame Me has AABA form. Harmonically, part A is built on a variation of the classic I VI II V progression, typical of numerous songs, including Blue Moon. The harmony is made more interesting by the chord Em7(b5) in the first measure, a chord that is unrelated to the key.
Part B moves from the IV degree (F) to the relative minor key Am, before returning to the initial key key with a II V movement.
The melody is very simple and easy to sing, it never takes jumps higher than a fourth and moves mainly by step motion or by third jumps.
The extension of the piece is very limited, part [A] moves almost entirely within a sixth interval, part [B] moves up a little further but does not surpass the note D.
The lyrics unfold the theme proposed by the title and recount a love game of kisses, hugs, and the ever-present moon as an observer. In summary, the concept of the song is as follows: ‘It’s not my fault that I fell in love with you, you’re irresistible and I couldn’t help it’.
Don’t Blame Me is a simple, delicate song that fits well with Ethel Waters’ elegant, sober style. The singer delivers the melody with grace and precision, at times concluding the phrases almost speaking, or conceding just a hint of vibrato, without any excess.
Ethel Waters was a contemporary of Bessie Smith, both of them were examples to the great singers of the next generation, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Yet Ethel Waters’ vocals, in this 1933 recording, are of a truly astonishing modernity.
To remind us that almost a century has passed, only the crackling and rustling typical of these old recordings. On the other hand, Ethel Waters’ performance does not appear dated, and many contemporary singers could and should draw inspiration from it.
Until next Monday!