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W. C. Handy: Yellow Dog Blues

W.C. Handy’s great “Yellow Dog Blues” incorporates an idea he picked up in the Mississippi Delta during his residencies in Clarksdale, Mississippi (1903-1905) then Memphis, his home base for endless gigs up through 1917.

“Yellow Dog” was written as a 1914 answer song to a 1913 hit by Handy’s friend Shelton Brooks entitled “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” (an “Easy Rider” was a gentleman caller or pimp depending on whose definition you prefer). In a wonderful mix of appreciation and appropriation, Handy takes the okay chorus (closer) of Brooks’s song–the closer always being the most memorable section–and re-uses Brooks’s best stuff as his verse. He’s got a much stronger chorus up his sleeve, a real Mississippi Delta lyric, and he springs that as his chorus.  In our NYFOS concert, listen for the thematic idea to travel from end of “Easy Rider” to opening of “Yellow Dog.”

This week we focus on recordings of Handy’s works dating from his own lifetime, and this is the oldest track in our set list, and like the first 3 in the series, up-tempo. The band is Ben’s Bad Boys; the performance incorporates an archaic laughing effect that made the earliest recordings of “Yellow Dog,” a decade before this one, extremely successful. The trombone laugh is a direct quote from those records. Why listen to this 1929 version?  Like most early “blues” recordings, it is up-temp, non-lugubrious. Then there’s the quality of this band: Glenn Miller on trombone, Jimmy McPartland on trumpet, and especially the clarinetist, a not-yet-famous Benny Goodman. His first feature has a bluesy smudged-note feel, over a “stop-time” accompaniment with a hint of that era’s dance craze, the Charleston.

Hoagy Carmichael & Johnny Mercer: Skylark

I know of two perfect songs: Fauré’s “En sourdine,” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” Paul Verlaine was the poet for the first of them, and Johnny Mercer the lyricist for the second. Please don’t ask me to explain what makes them perfect, or even why I think they might be better than other wonderful songs. After all, there is plenty of “great” music I don’t enjoy, and even more non-great music that lifts my heart. Greatness and perfection aren’t really in my lexicon, except when it comes to “En sourdine” and “Skylark.” It’s something I feel in my hands and in my soul when I play them.

The Hoagy Carmichael tune is on the menu for this week’s FSH concert, so my hands have been all over it for the past days. The magic of “Skylark” lies partially in the harmonic progression—rather static for the main tune, and then gorgeously mobile in the bridge, with a magical lift at the words “Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon.” But even though the chords on the sheet music center lazily around the home-base key, Carmichael’s melody gives the pianist multicolored possibilities for substitute chords. I can sit at the piano staring at a pile of music I need to learn, and spend 30 precious minutes reharmonizing the A-section of “Skylark.” Yesterday I found that a spot where I have always played the printed chord could actually take a quick detour to a new tonality and still get back in time for the Ab7 on the fourth beat. A triumph.

As for Johnny Mercer’s lyric, it remains a wonder. The source of his inspiration? His longing for Judy Garland, with whom he had a turbulent affair. He was in his early thirties and married, and she was in her late teens. “Skylark” expresses his desire for this charismatic girl, just as “One For My Baby” is the epitaph for their love.

Carmichael wrote the original tune as a tribute to his friend Bix Beiderbecke, the great jazz cornetist who died at the age of 28. Hoagy’s melody tries to recapture the sinuous cadences of Bix’s improvisations. He passed the melody on to Mercer—and promptly forgot all about it, until the writer came to him seven months later. “Here it is. It’s called ‘Skylark.’”

I revere this song—and am so happy I’ll get to play it again with Dimitri Katotakis this week at the San Francisco FSH gala.


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