W. C. Handy: Memphis Blues

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Song of the Day

Published October 16, 2018

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” was self-published as a piano rag, which Handy sold, lock, stock and barrel, to a clever music publisher visiting Memphis on business in 1912. The loss of royalty income due to this transaction haunted Handy for the remainder of his life. The following year saw two pivotal developments in Handy’s career. He founded Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company with the brilliant businessman Harry Pace; and his “Memphis Blues” was issued as a song, with words by George Norton, who had another smash hit with “Melancholy Baby.” Norton’s words extolled Handy and his band, and the song caught on immediately and nationally, making Handy, a successful regional bandleader, famous, somewhat to his surprise, from coast to coast.

In her performance of “Memphis Blues” in “Belle of the Nineties” (1934), Mae West exemplifies the pizzazz of vaudeville. West, one of the biggest stars of early talking pictures, was steeped in the milieu of early 20th-century stage comedy, and she swaggers through “Memphis Blues” with authority. The house band in the film, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, plays along with a bit of hokum involving a drum stick, without losing a beat. Though “Memphis Blues” wasn’t composed until 1912, Handy had come to prominence as a minstrel band cornetist, conductor, and arranger in the 1890s, and the use of this song as a marker of nostalgia is highly successful.

“Memphis Blues” has a happy ending. Handy’s copyright lawyer, Abbe Niles, kept an eye on the date the song would enter the public domain, and Handy gained control of the property in 1940, in time to profit from his first hit toward the end of his life.

select author’s name to read all of their posts

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!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *