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W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues

In 1912, when Handy published the “Memphis Blues,” the word blues was used primarily to describe an emotional state—depression, melancholy. Songs specifically about these issues did not come into being until something like 400 years after the first mentions of the “blue devils” appeared in English. Once blues songs emerged, around 1900, they had a single overriding theme: bad luck in love. There were blues about other things—bedbugs, floods, and other irritants and calamities. There were virtually no blues about political matters, not even racial ones, until many years later.

Blues emerged from a societal structure that was African-American, in the Mississippi Delta and to a lesser extent such far-flung places as Texas and New Orleans. In these areas there were significant numbers of black people—in the Delta they outnumbered whites by a very high margin. Preconditions for the emergence of blues included the concentration of these people in sufficient numbers to support entertainment venues, such as the still famous “juke joints,” where part-time musicians supplied entertainment, especially for dancing; also theaters, built specifically for African Americans who had small amounts of pocket money to see traveling entertainers. Among them were such legendary characters as “Ma” Rainey, and the less-well-remembered but important Butler “String Beans” May and a legion of others, most of whom combined musical performance with comic routines or dancing. At harvest time especially, rural people flocked to the theaters in cities all over the south: Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; Macon, Georgia; and especially the Delta market town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, between the vast, fertile Delta and the regional metropolis of Memphis, Tennessee.

Blues fused disparate elements: three-line ballads, often about true-life murders: “Stackalee,” “Frankie and Johnnie,” “Delia”; ragtime; old folk songs, many of British derivation, preserved primarily in Appalachia and other uplands; fiddle tunes, often “reels” such as the one we know today as “Turkey in the Straw.” W. C. Handy was familiar with all of these, and also classical music, hymns, spirituals, and especially brass band music, when he became a composer.

The blues form is commonly understood today to combine, almost by royal decree, a few simple elements including a three-line rhyme scheme, A-A-B, in twelve bars of music, with a close-to-set chord structure and the employment of “blue” notes, unexpectedly flatted, plangent-sounding notes, the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the scale. This is an inadequate formalized structure, but one amenable to memorization and especially publication, using a major/minor key system derived from 19th-century hymns and similar songs. In practice, rural country blues employed a wide variety of slippery elements such as sliding notes or glissandi. These gestures probably derive from African roots and certainly from pre-1900 African-American music such as field hollers and other work songs, and the precursors to the spirituals.

Blues dissemination moved in two directions, rural-urban and black-white, but also the other way around. The bug was transmitted not only by roving troubadours and seasonal crop-pickers but by traveling entertainers. “Authentic” country blues musicians picked up material from men and women who traveled the circuit of theaters, at courthouses that hosted dances, and heard entertainers embedded in minstrel shows, circus troupes, and the like. Later, country bluesmen (mostly men) learned a good deal of material from recordings. Before 1927, almost all blues records were made by cosmopolitan entertainers in the north. Blues came from everywhere and nowhere: Dockery’s plantation in the Mississippi Delta, but also Chicago, Pensacola, Florida, Mobile, Alabama: everywhere.

When William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873, nothing remotely like the blues existed. Spirituals, which we regard as ancient, were disdained by many African Americans as new-fangled aspirants to replace the good old hymns. Handy’s father and grandfather were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church, which vied with more “primitive” denominations such as the Baptists for dominance. Charles Bernard Handy, the composer’s father, was a stern man, averse to popular culture, and forbade secular music in the home, even forcing the young W.C. to return a guitar purchased with his own hard-earned money in exchange for an encyclopedia. Handy’s dad embodies the toughened survivors of the post-Reconstruction era, an extremely bad time to be black in the South; his own father had been a hero of the Underground Railroad, and was shot, though not fatally, during a nighttime escape in Alabama while serving as a lookout. Handy’s mother, Elizabeth Brewer, came from a less-educated family with a musical streak: her father had played fiddle at barn dances before he “got religion.” She liked a good tune herself, but bowed to her husband in all things. Both the Handys and the Brewers were liked and to some degree respected by the whites of Florence.

In elementary school, W.C. Handy benefited greatly from the tutelage of Y.A. Wallace, who was among the first graduating class from Fisk University. He was an inspired music teacher, and Handy got an excellent education in the rudiments of music, which he learned using the old moveable pitch system (do-re-mi); by high school he was singing choral excerpts from the classical standard repertoire, and playing the harmonium (pump organ) in his father’s church. He also felt an irresistible urge to hit the road in show business, running away with a minstrel troupe as a teenager, getting stranded in a faraway town and returning home sadder but not wiser. Dutifully completing school, he got a teacher’s certificate and journeyed to Birmingham to teach, found the salary inadequate, and got work at an iron furnace in the suburb of Bessemer. There he organized a vocal quartet, which took to the road in spring 1893, when the depression coinciding with Grover Cleveland’s second presidential inauguration hit factories nationwide. Handy and his men intended to capitalize on the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892, which had been postponed to 1893, then opened still later than expected. Finding the fair still not operational, the quartet moved on to St. Louis, also a lively entertainment center. There, outclassed by less regional talent, they disbanded. Handy was alone, broke, and hungry. He was found on the Eads Bridge by a stable hand who thought he was contemplating suicide, and from there worked his way back up, first by mucking out stalls. He had, as his father predicted, followed music into the gutter.

In St. Louis, Handy found that his gifts as a singing guitarist had some value and he took in the nightlife of Targee Street, which gave him a taste for urban high society. Ever alert to the songs of balladeers and street singers, in 1893 he heard a despondent woman sing “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” It would become the final refrain to his biggest hit, “St. Louis Blues,” over 20 years later. From St. Louis, Handy journeyed east, found a road-paving crew in Evansville, Indiana, got a cornet and work playing it, then found that gigs in Henderson, Kentucky paid better, and traveled between these cities and others throughout the upper South until summer of 1896. He then was summoned to join the brass band of Mahara’s Minstrels, led by three swashbuckling brothers from Iowa. He soon worked his way up to cornet soloist, then bandleader, and finally director of the orchestra as well (these played the troupe’s formal concerts). He began writing arrangements for and experimenting with such novelties as the saxophone. And he constantly self-educated, purchasing books on counterpoint and harmony to improve his composition skills.

Black minstrel troupes such as the one Handy joined specialized in comic routines, including cross-dressing, dancing, animal acts, storytelling, and, of course, music. They were not self-degrading; they represented the insight that black people imitating black people did it better than white people imitating black people. Handy never had to wear blackface like the comedians did; he would have starved before he stooped to that. He had a decent job with Mahara’s Minstrels from 1896 to 1903, seeing much of the United States, and also Canada and Mexico. The troupe visited Havana early in 1900, and there Handy first heard the habanera, which would prove a keystone of his “St. Louis Blues.”

Handy’s family had long disapproved of his decision to go into show business, and his wife Elizabeth Price, who he married in 1898, had a family and friends who did as well. He dutifully spent the academic years 1900-1902 teaching at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, but found the pay and working conditions unattractive, so spent a final year in minstrelsy before taking a job leading the brass band of the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Memphis in 1905, playing for funerals and benevolent society events, then increasingly with his own dance bands. His combos ranged from three-piece string bands (Handy was an able guitarist as well as a fine cornetist) to full-sized concert bands of 20 pieces. Starting out as low man on the totem pole, he dominated local music-making by 1908; by 1918, when he left for New York, he had a territory that ranged from Missouri to the west, Virginia to the northeast, Baton Rouge in the south, and Atlanta in the southeast. He ruled the Mississippi Delta, where he was repeatedly exposed to the blues. Two encounters proved pivotal: the first came in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where one night he heard a guitarist singing about “going where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog,” a reference to Morehead, a major railroad junction. The guitarist used a knife to play bent notes on his guitar, creating what Handy recalled as the “weirdest” music he had ever heard. In the second incident, while playing for a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi, his “band of full orchestration” was outdone by a local string trio, poorly clad and monotonous but irresistible, and this alerted Handy to the commercial potential of blues and “roots music.” He was soon arranging such folk tunes as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” for his ensembles and by 1908 was arranging for Memphis music publishers and writing original songs.

The first of these to get attention beyond the Memphis main drag of Beale Street was an infectious little ditty called “Mister Crump,” a topical number dissing that year’s come-from-behind mayoral candidate (in a three-way race), cunningly calling his candidacy to wider attention. This song was rooted in a tradition of songs about how “Mama don’t allow [whatever].” And while Handy’s song was hostile toward the reform element, it has long been credited with helping Crump get elected. He remained the absolute boss of Memphis politics until after World War II. Handy’s 1912 “Memphis Blues,” very loosely based on “Mister Crump,” was a piano rag with a bluesy section. He self-published it, but sold the copyright, for a very inadequate sum, to a canny white publisher who, while visiting Memphis, assured Handy that it was too difficult to play and wouldn’t sell. Handy would never fall for such a ruse again. Yet something wonderful came about when the publisher took the song back to New York and hired lyricist George Norton to add words to it. Norton, who’s contemporaneous “Melancholy Baby” was a smash hit, had the great idea of identifying Handy as the top bandleader of Memphis, the man everyone visiting Memphis should hear. This made Handy instantly famous nationwide; it also made the song a talisman of the city. Traveling salesmen who had passed through Memphis requested the song in New York and Chicago; people visiting Memphis would request the local hit. Handy became a favorite of his adopted town’s chamber of commerce, and a great symbiotic relationship was born.

In 1913, Handy founded the Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company. Harry Herbert Pace, 11 years Handy’s junior, was a graduate of Atlanta University, where he was a protégé of the great Civil Right leader and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Pace was class valedictorian at 16, a good baritone church soloist, fluent in Greek and Latin, a shrewd businessman, and indefatigable. He was in Memphis not long after Handy’s arrival, taught at a Midwestern college, then moved to Atlanta where he became a mainstay of a black insurance company while handling Handy’s business affairs with his other hand. Very light-skinned, Pace could get a bank loan before the officers in charge realized what had happened. He was constantly alert to changes in product popularity, including the value of recordings and piano rolls, which would come to outsell printed sheet music by the 1920s.

While it lasted, his collaboration with Handy was fruitful. Pace even wrote the lyrics for some of Handy’s songs, though none of the good ones. With Pace minding the store, Handy was freed up to roll out a dazzling string of hits in short order, beginning with his masterpiece, “St. Louis Blues,” in 1914. It had everything necessary to make a hit: an intriguing first section in blues form; a second part with a dotted habanera triple rhythm to take advantage of the new international tango craze—a section also written in a minor key, the first in any published blues, and the only one among the many other blues published prior to 1920; and an infectious, final swinging section. (Years later, in the copy of Rhapsody in Blue he gave Handy, George Gershwin wrote “To W.C. Handy, whose ‘St. Louis Blues’ was the father of all my blues.”) There followed Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues,” an answer song/tribute to his friend Shelton Brooks, whose “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” had been a hit the previous year. Handy followed up with “Joe Turner Blues,” “Hesitating Blues,” the ragtime instrumental “Ole Miss,” “Beale Street Blues,” “Hooking Cow Blues,” “Long Gone (from Bowling Green),” “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” “Harlem Blues,” and “Atlanta Blues,” all between 1914 and 1924.  These were quickly taken up by black vaudeville entertainers, then, to Handy’s great economic advantage, white vaudeville entertainers. “Beale Street Blues” was a big hit in an early recording by Earl Fuller, and “Yellow Dog Blues” a smash record for Joseph Smith’s orchestra, featuring a laughing trombone riff by Harry Raderman. Handy was spending a lot of money, but still making some as an exhaustingly busy touring bandleader. But his newer source of revenue raised his company’s activities to an entirely new level. Harry Pace urged him to set aside the lure of the stage to pursue the recording avenue, knowing that records were rapidly replacing sheet music for home entertainment around the piano. He also saw that Handy belonged in Tin Pan Alley in New York’s Times Square, and convinced Handy to move there to open an office, though Handy’s preference was Chicago, where he had many friends and had even moved his family. But for the second half of his long life he would be a New Yorker, part of the Harlem Renaissance, and a major figure in the world’s greatest entertainment center.

Unable to rent his own desk when he arrived in New York, he soon had his own office, and a burgeoning staff of music arrangers and song demonstrators to show off new publications to entertainers who dropped in. The talent that worked in this office was dazzling: William Grant Still, who would become the dean of African-American classical composers, became a house arranger. Fletcher Henderson, soon to launch the big band craze, was there, dropping a promising career as a chemist to go into music full-time. One summer, the great singer/actor/political activist Paul Robeson was on staff.

The eight years of Harry Pace’s combined business efforts with Handy would prove to be the prime of the latter’s creative success. In 1920, Pace, fed up with his insurance colleagues in Atlanta, moved to New York to take the helm at Pace & Handy full-time. At its peak, the company had an entire building in Times Square. It was fully integrated, a unique situation in entertainment, with black people calling the shots. Several of their traveling song-pluggers were white: chief song demonstrator J. Russel Robinson a gifted ragtime writer from Indiana, worked at Pace & Handy till jumping ship to become pianist with the wildly popular Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who were due to travel to Britain when their pianist suddenly died in 1919.

Pace’s fascination with recordings caused a rift in his partnership with Handy; he couldn’t wait to join the new boom. The break-up of their company, in 1921, would send Handy into his biggest crisis of health and confidence. Pace would at first find success in the first black-owned and operated record company, Black Swan, but he would fly too close to the sun. Over expanding and entangling himself with unscrupulous white colleagues, he got into a mess that convinced him to get out of the music business for good in the mid-1920s. And Handy entered the 1920s in a sudden and precipitous decline: his staff had deserted to go with Pace, he was rapidly going broke, and an old dental implant failed, causing a massive facial infection that ruined his playing ability and blinded him. His climb out of the barrel was torturous: he had to depend on immediate family to keep his office going. He depended on his much-younger brother Charles, who worked in a stock room in the Financial District, and Charles’ wife Ruth, a schoolteacher, to join him after hours, answering mail, filling sheet music orders. This touching show of solidarity kept Handy going. Charles had been a stalwart of Pace and Handy since its founding; now, back from his service in World War he was there to reconstitute the firm as Handy Brothers Music Company, still a going concern since the early 1920s. And old friends dropped in to lend a hand. Fellow freemason and saxophonist Big Charlie Thorpe lent money as needed. Another old friend and colleague, his competitor Clarence Williams, stopped by to pay off his debt to Handy, and his wife, blues singer Eva Taylor, got Williams to lend money in Handy’s hour of need.

A couple of lucky things then happened. His songs began to enjoy massive revivals in the late 1920s; and he met Abbe Niles. (Edward) Abbe Niles was an attorney (Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft) who passionately collected sheet music and records, and became an early reviewer of both. He interviewed Handy in 1925 for a human interest story for the Wall Street Journal, and the two quickly became close friends. Both were the sons of preachers (Niles’s grandfather was Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire) and both had an interest in copyright as well as folklore. In 1926, their co-creation Blues, An Anthology, was issued. The first extensive exploration of the blues topic, adorned with numerous songs by Handy and others, it was an immediate success. Niles would remain by Handy’s side for the remainder of the latter’s life, nagging him about renewing his copyrights, attending parties with him, having him over to his Forest Hills home for private film screenings (though blind, Handy loved movies) and swapping bits of old folklore and humor.

Handy’s 1941 memoir Father of the Blues (1941) cemented Handy’s reputation. (Again, Niles was by his side to guarantee its success). His fame was truly global, and he was sometimes called the “most beloved Negro in the United States.” He toured, appeared multiple times on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show and on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person program, and traveled the country giving inspirational talks in black primary schools.

Tonight’s program offers just a sample of Handy’s work as composer, folklorist, and publisher, with 11 works he either wrote or co-wrote or adapted or compiled, and that he also published. In addition to Handy’s own songs, we hear works of several other composers and lyricists.

Among these is the lovelorn song that gave Handy a well-timed push as he arrived on Broadway, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” This was written in 1917 by entertainer Eddie Green (1896-1950), a stage artist who would find success in Hollywood. The only song of Green’s to hit the top, it was much sought-after by white vaudevillians around 1918–20, and it was mail from these stage stars that brought Handy to the attention of his white landlord. The song also caused a bitter dispute over its actual ownership; entertainers in black vaudeville claimed Green had pilfered it from them. Green’s retorts in the black press were fierce.

Lemuel Fowler was another one-hit wonder like Eddie Green, one of many pianist/accompanist/bandleaders of the early 1920s, such as Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams. He had no connections with Handy, though even his career briefly dovetailed with the Memphis master when Fowler recorded “Florida Blues,” published by Handy and written by his sideman the saxophonist William King Phillips. “He May Be Your Man” falls into a subcategory of blues songs sassing or advising women in matters of the heart. Some of these were revived in the folk/blues revival of the 1960s-’70s, most famously in “Woman be Wise (don’t advertise your man), memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt. Fowler wrote “He May Be Your Man” in 1921 and contracted it to a small publisher that defaulted; Fowler’s contract wandered into the hands of Ted Browne Music, a large, aggressive firm in Chicago. Fowler then claimed the copyright in his own name and sold it to Handy’s rival Perry Bradford, who published it with his own small firm. These men had talent, and a great fighting spirit, but little common sense. Bradford and Fowler behaved unethically, and so did their craftier white rival, who created a bewildering array of identities. In the fracas that followed, called to give a sworn affidavit in Fowler’s legal case, Bradford committed perjury, and was given six months in prison by Judge Learned Hand, then nearing the end of his distinguished service in the Southern District of New York (he was elevated to the New York Court of Appeals in 1924). Fowler and their fellow songwriter Spencer Williams were likewise convicted.

Of the other songs on tonight’s program, Handy wrote or co-wrote the wonderful “Beale Street Blues,” a tribute to the center of black musical life in Memphis; The comic escape song “Long Gone (From Bowling Green),” memorably featured by the Willie Bryant band in the 1930s; “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” whose lyric, by bandleader J. Tim Brymn, celebrates the return from France of James Reese Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters band; “Atlanta Blues,” with its refrain taken from the old folk favorite “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor”; “Chantez-Les Bas,” his New Orleans number, featured only by big band great Artie Shaw till its successes in the 1950s; “Negrita,” co-written with Mexican bandleader Al d’Arteaga, leader of an all-girl band during World War II; and “Shine Like a Morning Star,” a then-obscure spiritual that he recalled as his mother’s favorite. He published “Shake it and break it,” by the prolific music arranger H. Qualli Clark, an old friend from the minstrel show days, and Lou Chiha, known as “Frisco,” a successful xylophonist in vaudeville. “Checkin’ on the Freedom Train” is the one overtly political song in our program, documenting the travels of a train car filled with America’s founding documents that toured the nation after World War II. Jim Crow policies in the south caused a scandal; Boss Ed Crump’s insistence on segregating access in Memphis was one of the factors that brought him down to size. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” was written by Handy’s one enemy, Jelly Roll Morton. He finally published it in the late 1930s, decades after he first wrote it, an error typical of his failure to protect his intellectual property due to paranoia about other entertainers stealing his material.

“Success,” the old saw goes, “has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.”  W.C. Handy was a great success, establishing a family-owned and operated company that has endured since its founding in Memphis in 1913. He supported a large family for decades, with an income of $50,000 a year for “St. Louis Blues” alone, at a time when that was serious money. Strangers in trouble would look to him for a hot meal, a place to lay their head, maybe a night on the town. One such, in the depths of the Great Depression, was future photographer Gordon Parks; he remembered the Handys’ hospitality, and W.C.’s pretty daughter Elizabeth, for the rest of his life. Handy was open-hearted, fun-filled, and a soft touch. Ultimately his family had to move him out of Harlem and up to Westchester to stop him from staying up all night partying with visitors, so he could go back to his publishing office in the morning to continue licensing out his songs to musicians and movie companies, guard against pirates, and welcome visitors ranging from the spirituals arranger Harry Burleigh and ragtimer Eubie Blake to young reporters and actresses. By this time he’d gone blind for the second time and was over 70 years of age. People like Handy don’t exist anymore, but they should. If his story isn’t inspiring, I don’t know whose is.

W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues

For many years, Michael Barrett and I discussed doing a program devoted to the blues, that quintessential American genre. But we were never sure how to tackle such a broad topic. Then our friend, the musicologist and early blues scholar Elliott Hurwitt proposed that we devote an evening to W. C. Handy, and this magically opened up the long-sought path. I’d known about Handy—famous as “The Father of the Blues”—since my boyhood. One of his songs was in some anthology I pored over as a child—could it have been The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs? I found his music sweet and old-timey, redolent of straw hats, picnics, bandstands on summer days.

My early impressions of Handy’s music weren’t exactly wrong, but my recent immersion into his life and work has revealed so much more. He emerged out of the minstrel era, a complex entertainment that simultaneously promulgated racial stereotypes (for white audiences) and mocked them (for African-American audiences). Then, when Handy was in the early years of his professional career, ragtime took the world by storm. Its aggressive use of syncopation proved irresistible to listeners on both sides of the Atlantic, a revolution in popular song as significant as rap and hip-hop in recent years.

W. C. Handy was no exception to rag-mania, and you can hear how he embraced it in one of his early pieces, the iconic “Memphis Blues” [1911]. He himself labeled the piece “a southern rag.” Over a lazy two-step accompaniment, Handy writes a tune that bobs and weaves, occasionally hitting the strong beat but most often darting off the accented bass notes. A bit later in the song, Handy incorporates one of his two major innovations: the main strain of the piece has a melody of twelve-bars. Ragtime—and indeed almost all of American popular song before and after—typically uses a 16- or 32-bar structure. But a classic blues melody is foreshortened like a Manx cat, and you can hear this now-familiar model when the lyric launches into “They got a fiddler there…” The twelve-bar structure isn’t obvious—I had to get the sheet music out and count the measures—but the tune is indeed four bars shorter than the classic popular song melody.

Still, a modern listener accustomed to BB King, Robert Johnson, or Muddy Waters would be hard pressed to identify “The Memphis Blues” as a blues at all. It has more of a sweet Scott Joplin aura. The achier sound that a person might be expecting emerged most notably three years later in Handy’s most famous song, “St. Louis Blues.” For one thing, the twelve-bar structure is more recognizable because it is used in a more traditional way: a twice-repeated lyric followed by an answering line, the gold standard for blues tunes (think “Shake Rattle and Roll”).

But the magic moment comes at the eighth note of the opening melody. That’s where you’ll hear W. C. Handy’s other innovation, the blue note: “I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down”—a flatted note that carries the soulful essence of sadness and catharsis intrinsic to this genre. Next to “St. Louis Blues,” Joplin’s rags sound like John Philip Sousa after too much coffee—or maybe Schubert on acid. They jab crazily at the beats of the measure, but their harmonic language is pure and classic.

Handy didn’t invent the blue note, nor did he think up the twelve-bar song form on his own. He took his inspiration from the street musicians and itinerant players he heard in the south. Their twangy, sliding way of bending a tune became part of Handy’s musical vocabulary, and he was able to write down the unique features of their folk melodies and phrases on music paper. Turning these tropes into songs that appealed to Americans across the racial divide, he created—some would say “commercialized”—something new in American music. Forty years later, Elvis Presley would do the same thing, this time from the other side of the tracks.

I respect Handy as much for his business enterprise and his ethical character as I do for his music. Founding his own publishing company, he was able to promote the music of other African-American artists. Later on he focused on arranging spirituals for both choir and solo singer. And he always lent his voice to freedom-fighting causes. He did not always have good business sense, and frequently needed to be bailed out of financial crises. But they were generally born of generosity and an optimistic view of the world. And Handy was blessed by two business partners who managed to pull him back from the edge of fiscal ruin.

While W. C. Handy’s music was all the rage in the first two decades of the century, it can’t be said that he kept pace with the rapid development of jazz. The dizzy whirlwind of improvisation didn’t interest him—he expected his band members to play what was on the page. Clinging to his early blues style, he went from “old school” to “old fashioned” during the second half of his career. Yet he never lost the love and respect of the younger generation. He may not have remained hip and cutting edge, but he was a beloved icon. He lived long enough to appear on the Ed Sullivan show, dignified and soulful, wearing dark glasses to cover his sightless eyes. And ten days after his death, Paramount Pictures released a biopic called St. Louis Blues. Nat King Cole starred as Handy, and Eartha Kitt as “Gogo Germaine” gave the Handy’s uptight on-screen father a piece of her mind before launching into song. (NB: I am quite sure that this snappy confrontation never happened in reality.)

Preparing for tonight’s concert, I was shocked to find out that Handy was no longer a name to reckon with. Even a musician I know who proclaims himself “steeped in the blues” had never heard of W. C. Handy. “Wow. I thought I was familiar with them all, but I guess the earliest blues guys I know are from the 1930s. You say this cat is the ‘father of the blues’?” “Bro, he wrote the ‘St. Louis Blues.’” “He did? No [expletive]!”

How did Handy descend from brand-name status to near-invisibility? I can think of three reasons. The first is the sudden ascent of Scott Joplin to superstardom in the early 1970s. When Nonesuch Records released an album of Joplin rags played by Joshua Rifkin, the LP became their first million-seller. Rifkin went on to make two more albums of Joplin rags, spurring a revival of interest in the genre. Scholars and historians outdid themselves legitimizing this rediscovered repertoire. Finally, when “The Entertainer” was featured in the 1973 blockbuster movie The Sting, Joplin’s music became part of the national soundtrack, played in airports and on wind-up toys. Suddenly everyone knew Joplin, while Handy’s name-recognition began to fade.

The second reason is a famous 1938 article by Jelly Roll Morton published in DownBeat magazine, in which he attacks Handy for assuming the title “Father of the Blues.” “I invented the blues in 1902,” Morton states. He goes on to accuse Handy of appropriating the music he heard in the rural south, turning his theft into a lucrative commercial enterprise. Morton’s writing is filled with equal parts of ethnomusicology and personal rancor—he was well-known to be vituperative and envious. His article greatly upset Handy, who wrote a strong rebuttal tempered with graciousness and respect for his colleague. Privately, though, he threatened to sue Morton.

The matter might have died out there had it not been for the music historian Alan Lomax, who interviewed Jelly Roll Morton and wrote extensively about him. It was Lomax who kept the rivalry of these two indispensable musicians alive into our times. The complex argument began with the origins of the blues. Did it come from the Mississippi Delta or urban centers like Memphis, Handy’s adopted city? Was it a folk medium with a strong political core, created by an exploited underclass, or a valuable African-American contribution to the nation’s popular song machine?

Of course, it is both. Neither Handy nor Morton owned or invented the blues. And we would be impoverished if we lost either of them. But Morton and his historian Lomax may well have tainted Handy’s reputation. I would like to do what I can to bring this significant artist back into the public eye.

In the past few years I have been aghast at the erosion of our country’s core values, and I know I am not alone in this. Hatred, greed, divisiveness, fear-mongering, and mendacity have grabbed the mike and hijacked the discourse. In these insane times, W. C. Handy is beautiful reminder of America’s true meaning. A person of kindness and optimism, Handy overcame tremendous adversity—racism, poverty, and illness—to create a musical empire that embraced both black and white America. He changed the very sound of our country’s music with the sweet and salty tang of the blue note, and the Ur-American cadence of the twelve-bar blues. His music is black, and white, and rural, and urban. It is for all of us—the multi-colored and multi-cultural united states of America.

Mose Allison: If You Live

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 30, 2015.

Mose Allison was born on a farm outside Tippo, Mississippi, in 1927. He got a college education, interrupted by a stint in the military, and arrived on the New York jazz scene in the early 1950s, a fully-formed musician who soon got steady work as a pianist for saxophonists Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz, and by the end of the decade was releasing albums in his own name. These records on the esteemed Prestige label, with titles like Back Country Suite, Creek Bank, and Local Color, caused something of a sensation. Allison isn’t like anyone else: his laconic drawl is more southern than Elvis Presley’s, many of his listeners assumed he was black, and Jet magazine wanted to publish a feature article on him. In common with such younger colleagues as Dr. John and Van Morrison, he dug deep into the African American tradition, and he showed the wide-ranging musical curiosity of his own contemporary Ray Charles. Once Allison began singing on records he proved to be one of the finest interpreters of Duke Ellington’s songs.

Allison is a great songwriter in his own right: “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,” covered by Bonnie Raitt; “Young Man’s Blues,” covered by the Who; “Parchman Farm,” about the notorious Mississippi prison; “Your Mind is on Vacation”; and several other modern standards. No one can be more analytical, even scientific, about affairs of the heart. Who else has a song of appreciation to a lover that concludes, “Your Molecular Structure—O-Whee!”? Let’s face it, Mose Allison is just the coolest man in the world. On “If You Live,” he advises us not to overtax ourselves since, after all, everything’s going to happen anyway. It’s a beautifully structured, deceptively simple work of art. The setting is Allison’s standard trio; he always had good sidemen for these records, here bassist Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free. The wonderful engineering on this track is by the legendary Rudy van Gelder; he builds an aura around the drummer’s fadeout, increasingly ominous.  Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Champion Jack Dupree: I Don’t Know

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 29, 2015.

Champion Jack Dupree was born in New Orleans around 1910 and died in Hanover, Germany, in 1992. Son of a father from the Belgian Congo and a mother of African American and Cherokee heritage, he was orphaned at two and sent to the same Home for Colored Waifs that had provided a musical training ground for Louis Armstrong just a few years earlier. Dupree taught himself piano and embarked on a career playing in juke joints and brothels around the country. He was a fine chef, and worked in the culinary arts professionally at several points in his life. Dupree came by the sobriquet “Champion Jack” the hard way. Having gone into the boxing ring at the suggestion of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, he fought over 100 bouts and won Golden Gloves titles, among other distinctions. Considering how many punches he must have landed on who knows how many jaws, it’s a wonder he could play piano at all.

In the 1940s and ’50s Dupree worked on the boundaries of rhythm and blues, folk music, and jazz, with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, among other notables. He was a prolific recording artist, cutting many sides in New York, and had a hit with “Walking the Blues” in 1955. By the end of the 1950s Dupree was spending most of his time in England and Denmark, where he liked the career opportunities and relative lack of race prejudice. A plaque commemorates Dupree’s residence in Halifax, England, his home in later years. In the mid-1960s he recorded in London with some of a new generation of blues-influenced rock n’ rollers, including Eric Clapton and John Mayall.

Dupree asks the time-honored question “Why?” The answer, of course, if “I Don’t Know.” He’s accompanied here solely by the electric guitar of Kenn Lending, a Danish musician who worked with him steadily during the expatriate blues-man’s later years. In his solo, prodded by Dupree to “steal a few notes, steal a few notes,” then “take one more, son!” Lending eases into some blistering high notes. Dupree could stoop to the very low humor, and he must have made a terrible adversary. But his rough good nature and hard-earned mother wit are a tonic in a complicated world.

Count Basie: Sent for You Yesterday

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 28, 2015.

They called the Count Basie Orchestra “The Band That Plays the Blues.” Its All-American Rhythm Section (Basie on piano; Freddie Greene on guitar, Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums), was legendary for powering this group, which rose to great popularity in the late 1930s, a bluesier alternative to the more cerebral Duke Ellington sound. Coming out of the rowdy Kansas City scene, the Basie band had illustrious soloists in every section, including Lester Young on tenor saxophone. Here, in its early glory, the band has the miraculous cohesion that made it popular with dancers. It is simultaneously a coiled spring of focus and a loose, funky combo. The band’s soloists are showcased on this record, which dates from February 1938. Only two verses of blues are given to Jimmy Rushing, “Mister Five by Five,” as he was called for his remarkable dimensions. “Sent For You Yesterday (and Here You Come Today)” is credited to Rushing (lyrics) and to Basie as co-composer with Eddie Durham, a brilliant arranger who played both guitar and trombone in the band.  They make us wait for Rushing to come in, but when he does it’s like the cool drink of water you didn’t know you were missing.  A genuine blues tenor, Rushing was hailed as a “shouter,” like Bessie Smith and other, mainly female, exponents of the art.  After Rushing has his say, Harry “Sweets” Edison’s lyrically bluesy trumpet solo leads into an ensemble riff with a family resemblance similar to Fats Waller’s “I Want Some Seafood, Mama.” The energy level rises to a peak, with “Papa” Jo Jones swinging us out at the drums. The verses heard here were classics of the floating blues material found throughout the south; Rushing added others in additional versions of the song captured live over the remaining years of his career. He was also captured on film singing it with Basie, demonstrating that he may have been a fat man, but he was light on his feet.  Here’s the 1938 classic version:

Geeshie Wiley: Last Kind Words Blues

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 27, 2015.

We don’t know a whole lot about Geeshie Wiley, who recorded “Last Kind Words Blues” and a handful of other songs, except that she worked in a duo with L.V. Thomas, who was a lesbian, and they were probably a couple. Wiley didn’t have a lot of luck with men; she is known to have killed her second husband with a knife in 1931, then pretty much vanished into the mists of time, probably returning to Texas, from whence she had journeyed north to record. She and L.V. entered a Grafton, Wisconsin studio of Paramount Records (a division of the Wisconsin Chair Company) with their guitars and cut this record when Wiley was around 22, in 1930; they made 5 other sides, some not released till the following year.

“Last Kind Words” isn’t strictly speaking a blues, but it represents song traditions that are surely older, and embodies blues feeling, hard luck and trouble. It is particularly strong in the eerie, the power to chill the blood: so, wishing you all a [late] Happy Halloween. The text, as with so many blues, is a jumble of multiple earlier songs, some of which must go back at least to the World War I period: “If I die, in the German war…” is a tip-off, and many of the other lines are found in numerous blues from all over the U.S.  Formerly very obscure, this record has become a cult item since it appeared in Terry Zwigoff’s biographical film Crumb in 1994John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2014 article in The New York Times magazine, “The Ballad of Geeshie and L.V.,” brought these inadequately known blues artists to still wider renown. Most recently, Greil Marcus provides a fine discussion of “Last Kind Words” in his latest book, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations, where Geeshie is spotlighted alongside Bob Dylan and the great folklorist Bascomb Lamar Lunsford. It’s about time, too.

Gladys Bentley: Worried Blues

As we prepare for W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues with program consultant Elliott Hurwitt, we revisit his first week hosting Song of the Day. This song was originally posted on October 26, 2015.

Gladys Bentley (ca. 1907-1960) was one of the biggest stars of African-American entertainment in the 1920s, along with Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker among female stars at her level, and her stardom lasted through the 1930s. She was typically seen in a white tuxedo, and never, at least in public, as a woman.  Bentley is generally cited as among the most openly gay major figures of the Harlem Renaissance.  In 1958 she made a memorable appearance on “You Bet Your Life,” and by that point late in her career she was appearing as a woman, and is accompanied by a Nigerian man, who eventually dances to her fine rendition of “Them There Eyes,” joined by host Groucho Marx.

Bentley’s 1928 version of “Worried Blues” is unrelated to other more famous “country blues” songs by that title in the period, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote it. The lyrics are a good example of the complaint-about-a-man genre, with a memorably funny final line.  Here Bentley takes on all three roles, singer, instrumental soloist, and pianist, as on the famous records made by such blues queens as Bessie Smith, who memorably had Louis Armstrong playing cornet obligato fills between Smith’s voice. On “Worried Blues,” Bentley is her own band, scatting spare, bluesy, growled riffs.  While some sources have claimed the pianist is songwriter J.C. Johnson, I suspect the fine keyboard work here is also by Ms. Bentley, who shows in 1958 she would have been more than up to it.

Richard Strauss: Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen

One of my favorite things to do is musical education outreach. I love that I can go into schools and help children learn about incredibly important lessons via music. I often bring in a special song the character of Harlequin in the opera Ariadne auf Naxos sings to the title character. The song has an incredible amount of wisdom, truth, musicality, and beauty in only a minute and 30 seconds. I begin the class with asking the kids to raise their hands if they like being happy. After, I ask them to raise their hands if they like being sad. You can imagine that the kids usually all raise their hands on “happy” and none do on “sad.” I ask them why they don’t like being sad, and most say “because it takes away from happiness.” We then start a discussion on how one (happiness or sadness) cannot exist without the other. Explaining the joy of going “through” something vs staying in it, the value of perseverance, and the true definition of hope and bravery are just some of the incredible lessons learned in my outreach performances. It all comes together in this masterful song inside of an aria by Richard Strauss.

Franz Liszt: Vallée d’Obermann

Lizst’s “Vallée d’Obermann” is my favorite piece of music ever written. I fell in love with it as a child, but resonated more with it as I got older and experienced the challenges of life. Before I knew anything about the piece, what I loved most about it, was that it didn’t seem like a form of escapism. It didn’t allow me to forget about life, in fact, it reminded me of life in a strange way. It sounded to me like wondering, worrying, and a search for something that may never come. Dissonances being as important as perfect harmony; one informing the other. Liszt’s composition made me feel understood at a time when I felt that there wasn’t anyone that could understand my struggle. As pessimistic as that may seem, it was my truth.

Later on in life, I started to read a novel by Étienne Pivert de Senancour entitled “Obermann”. I wondered if it was the same “Obermann” from the Liszt piece. So I did a little research and to my surprise it was! Liszt had modeled his piece after the story of Obermann, a man looking inside himself constantly wanting to overcome hopelessness in order to find a purpose. Unfortunately, he never finds it. Reading this novel shook me to my core. It was about the exact same feelings I had listening to Liszt’s interpretation well before I knew anything about the piece or the novel. As soon as I could, I found a recording of Horowitz playing “Vallée d’Obermann” and listened to it over and over for hours with tears flowing down my face. After my pity party, I had a moment of realization. “This is my purpose.” I said to myself. The fact that Liszt turned this man’s struggle into music that I would hear over a hundred years later and empathize with it, lets me know how powerful music is. I had no doubt in my mind after that moment that my purpose was music. Music helps us heal. Music helps us learn. And sometimes music teaches us that life isn’t always about finding something; searching for it is just as important.

W. C. Handy: Chantez-les Bas

For our final W.C. Handy song of the day we turn to one of his later gems that was a lesser hit, especially at first. “Chantez-les Bas” was composed in 1931, and is the only Handy piece in its genre, a Louisiana-inspired love song. Handy never visited New Orleans, but played many engagements in Baton Rouge and points north and on one occasion, while his band serenaded a young lady by night, a neighbor gently asked them to pipe down, i.e., “Sing ‘Em Low,” in the local patois. The song went nowhere at first, but was picked up in 1940 by swing sensation Artie Shaw, one of the greatest clarinetists of the 1920s-1950s.

The song’s heyday was the mid-late 1950s, when it was selected by Louis Armstrong for his great 1954 all-Handy LP.  Eartha Kitt, one of several musical stars in the 1958 Handy biopic “St. Louis Blues,” was assigned this number for the film, and she delivers it in her inimitable slinky style.  Kitt, along with co-stars Nat “King” Cole and Pearl Bailey, recorded all-Handy LPs in conjunction with the release of the Handy biopic.  All this activity occurred in the year of Handy’s passing from the scene; it was quite a send-off.

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