W. C. Handy: Beale Street Blues

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published October 18, 2018

W.C. Handy named several blues for cities of significance in his life: Memphis, where he lived from 1905-17, St. Louis, where he was a penniless, flea-infested hobo in 1893; Atlanta, where he played some career-enhancing concerts in the World War I era. “Beale Street Blues” is his only masterpiece named for a street, the main drag of the black entertainment district in Memphis. The song was composed in 1916, and in 1917 Handy added words based on his experiences on the thoroughfare. One late night he happened into a local barber shop and asked the proprietor why he hadn’t closed for the evening: “well, ain’t nobody got killed yet” was the reply. The beginning of the chorus, though omitted in our day’s recording, sets the scene leading into the “I’d rather be here…” finale:  “And the Blind Man on the Corner, who sings these Beale Street Blues.”  Handy was a great folklorist. His bandmates would ask why he was always lingering on street corners listening to singing beggars. He always had a pencil and a scrap of paper with him, and the foresight to know what should be disseminated rather than lost in the mists of time.

“Beale Street Blues” was Handy’s farewell to a city he loved, where he had written his greatest works. He would soon head to New York’s Tin Pan Alley and the big time. Among the many musicians he befriended in New York was the pride of Harlem, Thomas “Fats” Waller, a great pianist, composer, and comedian. Fats could also swing the pipe organ, a mighty beast. Most of this 1927 recording is his, with the great blues singer Alberta Hunter limited to a brief interjection: “Ah, play that thing, Mr. Waller, Lord.”  Toward record’s end we are blessed with Ms. Hunter’s rendition of the chorus, and though she mysteriously replaces the word “sergeant” with “surgeon,” the substitution works just fine. Hunter was a Memphis native, born in 1897; she absconded for Chicago aged 11, but would have heard Handy’s inescapable bands in Memphis in her childhood. By 1920, now a cabaret diva, she was making a sensation singing Handy’s latest compositions. Hunter vanished from the entertainment scene in midlife, opting for work as a nurse. She returned to show business in old age and was a sensation all over again.

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Elliott Hurwitt is a music historian with a background in classical music, now specializing in African-American music of the 1890s-1940s. His publications on W.C. Handy include the Dover edition (2012) of Handy’s seminal 1926 Blues, An Anthology, for which Elliott wrote a new introduction and re-edited the song selections to include songs that had come and gone between the 1926 version, Handy’s revised edition (1949) and the versions following his death (1972/1990).  Elliott also added historically important blues from 1912-1919 by Handy’s friends and rivals for the first time in the Anthology.  Elliott won the Barry Brook Dissertation Prize when he got his PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has appeared on NPR and Public Radio International, and is chief historical adviser on the new documentary Mister Handy’s Blues.  Elliott lives in New York City with his wife Elizabeth, Development Director of Music From Copland House.

Elliott is serving as the program consultant on the upcoming NYFOS program W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues on November 14, 2018 at Merkin Hall in NYC. Get your tickets today!

1 Comment

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    Thank you for honoring WC Handy, Father of the Blues. Looking forward to the concert on Nov 14.


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