W. C. Handy: Chantez-les Bas

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published October 19, 2018

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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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!


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