St. Louis Blues Through the Years

For my final blog post, I wanted to focus on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and how it has evolved and survived throughout the years as a jazz standard.  I am particularly interested in its history because I will be performing the Bob Brookmeyer arrangement with Jazz 1 on Friday, November 22nd at 7:30 pm in the Pause Main Stage (hey, nobody said we can’t use these blog posts to advertise!)

The song itself first originated from W.C. Handy’s Blues: An Anthology, which Handy used to portray blues music as folk music (even though there were some complications with classifying it as such.)[1]  But nonetheless, it was touted as such by Handy as “The First Successful Blues Published.”  Its success not only comes from its publishing, but arguably its legacy as a standard as performed by various blues and jazz artists.  For the sake of the length of this blog, I am going to include 5 performers who are icons for their place in jazz history: Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra.

In Bessie Smith’s version, she ignores the tango-like interlude and the beginning she enters with the melody and the 12-bar blues form, accompanied by an organ and none other than Louis Armstrong responding on trumpet to her lyrics [2].  Her version may not be authentic to Handy’s original composition, but she owns this version and it well represents the NOLA jazz sound:

Moving into the swing era, with the likes of big bands such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and, as I will present here, Glenn Miller.  The Glenn Miller Orchestra was very well-known for its standards like “Pennsylvania 6-5000” and “In the Mood,” but when Glenn Miller was enlisted to serve in Europe during World War II, he made sure to keep his music going.  Here is his version of St Louis Blues presented as a march:

From the Swing era, jazz musicians started to get a little more adventurous with exploring different textures in rhythm and harmony.  Musicians like Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie were at the forefront of the bebop era by taking old standards such as St Louis Blues and creating bebop-ified version of their roots in Handy’s composition.  Here is Dizzy Gillespie’s version, this time featuring the tango interlude that could likely be attributed to Dizzy’s fondness of Afro-Cuban music as he explored in “Manteca” or “A Night in Tunisia”:

On the other side of the same coin, West Coast cool jazz coexisted with bebop as a mainstay in jazz music in the ’50s and ’60s.  Still using the St Louis Blues standard, Dave Brubeck also uses that tango beginning, but goes into the form with a lighter feel in comparison to Dizzy Gillespie, which is apparent in Paul Desmond’s improv solo, which couldn’t possibly be lighter or more laidback:

To close the blog post, I leave you with Bob Brookmeyer’s arrangement of St Louis Blues as performed by the Thad Jones/Mel Louis Orchestra.  While it may not necessarily be faithful to Handy’s original idea for St. Louis Blues, it represents a culmination of St Louis Blues’ place in jazz history:


[1] Hagstrom-Miller, Karl. “How Blues Became Folk Music” in Segregating Sound (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010). 241-274.

[2] Smith, Bessie. “St. Louis Blues” on Nobody’s Blues But Mine. Future Noise Ltd., 2008, Streaming Audio.

Doc Evans and Happy, Traditional Jazz

After realizing this blog post was due 3 days ago, I decided to search the term “Jazz” in the Manitou Messenger database just to see if there was anything of note.  Lo and behold, I found an advertisement for the Carleton graduate and cornet player Doc Evans and Dixieland Band in the October 23rd, 1959 edition:


(The only available records of Doc Evans were at Carleton, so here’s a recording I found on YouTube)

The advertisement seemed a little bit strange to me.  By calling his music “traditional” and “happy” jazz, it implies that his music being aesthetically “happier” makes it somewhat significant in the spectrum of jazz.  I would agree that Dixieland jazz is much peppier sounding, but it still seems like a weird emotional signifier in the context of jazz, which isn’t always the most jubilant music.  While I am also in Dave Hagedorn’s History of Jazz course, I should also point out that this advertisement and performance take place in 1959, which is a rather significant year for jazz in that it was the same year in which Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue released (and it is still the best selling jazz album of all time).  Obviously the comparison of Doc Evans to Miles Davis is a bit silly, but I think there is an implication that Doc Evans performs jazz the way it traditionally has been in contrast to Miles Davis and his iconoclastic approach to jazz.  Just for the sake of comparison, here’s “So What” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

After learning about how jazz had been commodified throughout the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s by featuring primarily white jazz artists like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Bix Beiderbecke, and many others for consumers who were also primarily white, it does not seem unsettling to me that Doc Evans would be presented as such.  In fact, even the earliest recordings of jazz were from white groups such as the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917.  It’s likely that Doc Evans took it upon himself to learn jazz as it was “traditionally” performed and played in the Dixieland/NOLA style of the ’20s and ’30s because that was easier for him than learning the growing trend of swing and bebop.  Or it could have been the only thing for him to learn in Northfield, Minnesota.


[1] “Doc Evans brings Dixieland to delight Ole jazz fans.” Manitou Messenger, October 23, 1959.

“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression Part II: Electric Boogaloo

After my previous blog post, I left feeling somewhat incomplete about Virgil Thomson’s opinion of American opera not having a distinctive voice and how Thomson ignored George Gershwin’s works entirely, especially Porgy and Bess.  I wanted to investigate further if there may be a possible reason why Thomson made such an omission.  While I could not find any readily-available correspondences of Gershwin, I did manage to discover an interesting transcription of a letter by a University of Michigan undergraduate student that was discovered in the DuBose Heyward archives held by the South Carolina Historical Society.  This letter was written “about a year and a half before Porgy and Bess‘s premiere in September of 1935″ to DuBose Heyward, the author of the novel Porgy, which was the source material for Gershwin’s opera.  After discussing his early work on the music and the script, he describes seeing 4 Saints In 3 Works, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson:

I saw “4 Saints In 3 Acts”, an opera by Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson, with a colored cast. The libretto was entirely in Stein’s manner, which means that it has the effect of a 5-year-old child prattling on. Musically, it sounded early 19th Century, which was a happy inspiration and made the libretto bearable – in fact, quite entertaining. There may be one or two in the cast that would be useful to you. us [handwritten]. [1]

It is as though Gershwin saw Thomson’s opera as an opportunity to say “I like what you’ve done with this, but watch me do it better.”  If so, that is one hell of a flex on Virgil Thomson.  However, after reading some of the correspondence between Thomson and Gertrude Stein, I would imagine that Thomson felt that his work had not payed off to the reception that he had anticipated:

21 April [1934]

Dear Gertude

The opera is closed now for the summer and everybody has had a lovely time about it and I must say that in every way it was very, very beautiful and of course there were some who didn’t like the music and some who didn’t like the words and even some who didn’t like the decors or the choreography but there wasn’t anybody who didn’t see that the ensemble was a new kind of collaboration and that it was unique and powerful and I wish you could have seen the faces of people as they watched and listened. [2]

The letter continues with the logistics of their arrangements of the publishing rights split 50-50 between Thomson and Stein, which seemed to be an uphill battle for Thomson to demand an equal split between the composer and the librettist, but that’s a topic for another day.

Out of these correspondences from the same time-frame, I would imagine that there might have been some animosity between Thomson and Gershwin from Porgy and Bess standing the test of time as an “innovative” opera compared to Thomson’s 4 Saints in 3 Acts, which has not received the critical success that Gershwin did.  Perhaps that might explain why Thomson chose to not discuss Gershwin in the particular section of the reading from last week.  He has every reason to take personal offense to think Gershwin stole his thunder with Porgy and Bess and it certainly speaks to the idea that Gershwin frequently rode the line when it came to writing music from inspiration and straight-up stealing.


[1] Sobolak, Frances. “Making Porgy and Bess – The Letters,” The Gershwin Letters, University of Michigan, February 26, 2016,

[2] Thomson, Virgil. “Letters to Gertrude Stein, 1926-38.” Grand Street Vol. 7, No. 2 (Winter, 1988). 50-70. DOI: 10.2307/25007076

“Porgy and Bess” and American Operatic Expression

In the last Virgil Thomson reading, I was rather intrigued by a particular quote of his towards the end when he closed the chapter of “American Musical Traits” with some musings about America’s role in the opera genre:

“What Americans are wrestling with chiefly (and the British too) is opera- trying to make our language serviceable for serious dramatico-musical expression.  I cannot predict the success or failure of this enterprise.  I merely point out that American music, having become by now a musical speech notably different from European, is testing its maturity on the problem that has ever been the final test of a musical idiom, namely, can you put it on stage?” [1]

Being as this was written in the 1970s, I honestly was not sure if Thomson is trying to claim that American opera does not have its own identity or that American opera had not existed up until then.  Either way, it seemed interesting that he would bring up the importance of composers like Edward MacDowell or Charles Ives in their roles as composers that encapsulate the American classical tradition and disregard someone like, say, George Gershwin and his opera “Porgy and Bess.”


It seems odd that Thomson would disregard Gershwin’s contribution to the American opera genre (and I certainly argue “Porgy and Bess” to be a part of it, especially if the Met Opera is currently performing it).  Perhaps Thomson has a rather elitist perspective of American music in how it relates to European music rather than influences from African-American folk song traditions or African music.  He hardly acknowledges the role it plays in the landscape of American classical music for sure by only mentioning the use of blue notes or blues/jazz genres and their relation to Asian musics, which seems to be a strange point, but whatever floats his boat I guess.

The likely omission of African-American-inspired music by Virgil Thomson demonstrates the idea that the characteristics found in such music were not regularly accepted by music historians or musicologists as a part of American music and rather it became an other, which could be referred to as “black American music.”


[1] Thomson, Virgil. “American Musical Traits” in American Music Since 1910, ed. Anna Kallin and Nicolas Nabokov (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971) 14-21.

[2] Gershwin, George. “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” New York: Gershwin Pub. Co., 1935.

Bam-a-Lam: The Confusion Behind Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”

Many people are well-aware of the classic rock one-hit wonder “Black Betty” by Ram Jam and its legacy in film, television, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture entertainment. Personally, I quite enjoy the song and I find it to have a great percussive groove and a catchy melody with some rather interesting rhythmic modulations and shifts. (Link below in case you may not be familiar with the song)

Ram Jam – Black Betty (Official Audio)

However, not many people might not be aware of its origins, especially in the context of black American music.  Ram Jam did credit the blues and folk artist Leadbelly for the origin of their cover and it was advertised as a cover, as can be seen by Richard Cromelin’s mixed review of Ram Jam’s concert at the Starwood in Los Angeles [1]:

[Here is Leadbelly’s version of Black Betty]

While Leadbelly has been typically credited as such, he cannot fully take credit for something he recorded as a folk artist, as Henry Edward Krehbiel argued that folk songs needed to be birthed originally by a group of people rather than an individual artist [2].  The source of the song is regularly contested as well as the original meaning of what a “Black Betty” could have been, whether it be an object or a person.  Some sources claim “Black Betty” could have been used as early as the beginning of the 19th century to describe a musket or a liquor bottle, and it is very plausible those could be meanings that would be applied to the Black Betty in the song.  One source I found particularly interesting was our favorite folk song collectors, John and Alan Lomax.

In their collection of songs of the Southern chain gangs, the Lomaxes documented “Black Betty” sung by “a convict on the Darrington Farm in Texas” and what they understood “Black Betty” was:

“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about.  She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons… where […] whipping has been practically discontiuned…” [3]

Being that Leadbelly was also a member of Texas prison chain gangs, its very plausible that he learned the song and many others there, and there may also be a trail that could be investigated further into the musics of enslaved blacks in the US.  Therefore, this demonstrates a rather interesting transmission of music from a possible origin in slave songs to white musicians like Ram Jam.  They did manage to give credit to the artist who had a definitive recording, which I find to be at least somewhat conscious on their efforts as recording artists in the American popular music scene, but it should be worth noting the influence of black folk music that was felt as late as the 1970s and that we are likely still feeling today.


[1] Cromelin, “Ram Jam at the Starwood”

[2] Krehbiel, “Songs of the American Slaves,” 22

[3] J.A. Lomax, A. Lomax, “American Ballads & Folk Songs,” 60


Cromelin, Richard. “Ram Jam at the Starwood.” Los Angeles Times (1923-1995), Nov 12, 1977. 1,

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. “Songs of the American Slaves” in Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1914), 11-28.

Lomax, John A., Lomax, Alan. “Songs from Southern Chain Gangs” in American Ballads & Folk Songs (New York: Macmillan Co., 1935), 57-86.

Outrage All the Way!: Jingle Bells, Racism, and Unfair Media Portrayal

After last Thursday’s session, Dr. Epstein told me about an academic journal article that proved the popular Christmas carol, “Jingle Bells,” has its origins in blackface minstrelsy.  Lo and behold, I did encounter the article written by Dr. Kyna Hamill, a theater professor at Boston University, with damning evidence about a beloved Christmas song that many of us so innocently learned as young children.  She drew evidence from various songs about sleigh-riding and how many lyrics between these songs were shared between one another [1].  One similarity she found was in its original title (“One-Horse Open Sleigh”) to a lyric in the 4th verse of Stephen C. Foster’s “Brudder Gum” (see below):


While the article makes some very interesting insights as to how the song came into being and how its racial history has been lost to the passage of time, it came with its fair share of praise and unfair share of relentless criticism.  A particular example can be found in a feature on Fox News’ daytime show “Fox & Friends,” which features Dr. Carol Swain, a former political science professor from Vanderbilt, debasing Dr. Hamill’s work as a mere ploy of the “liberal agenda” to “destroy Christmas.”

Professor claims ‘Jingle Bells’ is rooted in racism

This segment was truly meant to sensationalize a very thorough examination on America’s “swept-under-the-rug” racial history of “Jingle Bells” by attaching it to the various attacks that conservatives believed they faced (e.g. War on Christmas and liberal indoctrination.)  By vaguely pulling one quote out of Dr. Hamill’s article and framing a discussion around much larger concepts in the sociopolitical sphere of American culture, Fox News wildly misrepresented Dr. Hamill’s work as a deeper examination in popular American culture and wrote it off as simply destructive.

What also peeves me about this segment is the purpose of Dr. Swain’s role on the show.  By simply having a PhD and an academic career, this gave the impression that her take as an academic gave her credibility with her remarkably vapid arguments.  Perhaps it was simply that she wanted to shill her new book, but by mocking another academic, she allowed Fox News to portray her as a maverick professor taking on the “liberal agenda.”  It may also be worth noting that by being a black woman, Fox News may be taking advantage of Dr. Swain as a token commentator on race issues, and while she is very much entitled to her opinions, Dr. Swain cannot be the overall representation of all African-Americans in regards to this issue.

It is disappointing to see how Fox News portrayed Dr. Hamill, but it is not out of character for their role as a news outlet.  The same could probably go for many of the other major news broadcasting companies in the United States and the world, but when Dr. Hamill decided to go against the grain of popular American culture and uncover one of its many black-eyes, her image took a significant beating as the scapegoat of the “liberal agenda.”


[1] Hamill, “The story I must tell,” 376

[2] Foster, “Brudder Gum”


Foster, Stephen. “Brudder Gum,” New York, NY: Firth and Pond, 1849.

Hamill, Kyna. “’The story I must tell’: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire,” Cambridge University Press 58, no. 3 (September 2017): 375-407,

Pierpont, J. “The one horse open sleigh,” Boston, MA: Oliver Ditson, 1857.


The Darktown Comics Banjo Class: A Glance At Currier & Ives Lithographs

For this blog assignment, I decided to go the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Catalog and simply search the term ” banjo” to see what would show up.  I was primarily interested in what is still documented in the public perceptions of African-American banjo players based on this quote in Rhiannon Giddens’ address at the IBMA Business Conference in 2017:

“To understand how the banjo, which was once the ultimate symbol of African American musical expression, has done a one-eighty in popular understanding and become the emblem of the mythical white mountaineer… In order to understand the history of the banjo and the history of bluegrass music, we need to move beyond the narratives we’ve inherited, beyond generalizations that bluegrass is mostly derived from a Scots-Irish tradition, with ‘influences’ from Africa.” [1]

Many of the results consisted of photographs of white banjo players or artists’ depictions of African-Americans, which were usually black men sitting on a chair playing the banjo either in minstrel clothing or in “plantation” clothing, which demonstrated what kind of rabbit hole I was entering.  However, I was most struck by this lithograph from Currier & Ives dating to 1886 being the top result:


It was definitely off-putting to see a very caricatured depiction of African-Americans as the first result for just the word “banjo” with no other filter given to the search.  I thought this was some sort of anomaly at first, but the I went back to the search bar to look up “Darktown comics banjo,” and the database returned with two results: one of the first image I found and the other being the “response” to the first comic:


There are a few things that are very striking to me in both images besides the highly stereotypical presentation of their anatomical features.  First, all of the people in both lithographs are wearing very formal clothing with the men in suits and the women in Victorian dresses.  After glancing at several other lithographs from this series, this theme is not uncommon, because the purpose of displaying African-Americans in clothing that belonged primarily to the upper class seemed to be making a satire of stereotyped depictions of African-Americans.  It is as though this series is like an alternate universe where African-Americans run the world, but their stereotypes act as their guiding principles, making them have irrational judgement compared to white audiences.  This also goes into the second point, where the musicians sitting in the group decide they cannot play in a rigid sitting position, so they can only perform by getting rowdy or “loose.”  The artist uses these two comics to create a joke in the “setup-punchline” sense, which seems quite strange, but also not off-kilter for this time period.

While I was originally going to discuss the presentation of banjos and their relationship to African-Americans, I couldn’t help but not comment on these rather obscene comics and how they were somehow considered acceptable enough to be printed.  After browsing Google further, I found that some of these prints in the Darktown comic series are being reproduced and sold on Amazon of all places [HistoricalFindings Photo: Darktown Comics,Darktown Fire Brigade,Chief,Firefighters,1885,African Americans], which would only make sense if it was used for an academic purpose, but otherwise, I do not know who would purchase these or why someone would need it.

If you are curious as to any of the other Darktown comics presented by Currier & Ives, here is a rather expansive blog post by a historical archivist: []


[1] Giddens, Rhiannon “IBMA Business Conference 2017”

[2] The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key

[3] The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune


Giddens, Rhiannon. “IBMA Business Conference 2017 – Keynote Address.” IBMA Business Conference 2017. September 23, 2019.

Teoli, Daniel D. “Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection.” Daniel D. Teoli, Jr. Archival Collection (blog), May 13, 2018.

The Darktown Banjo Class-off the Key: “If yous can’t play de Music, jes leff de banjo go!”. Photograph. Library of Congress; Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019.

The Darktown Banjo Class-all in Tune: “Thumb it, darkies, thumb it-o how loose i feel!” . Photograph. Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Catalog. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2019.

MacDowell vs. Ballard: A Comparison of American Indian Identity in Classical Music

As we discovered in our readings last week, Edward MacDowell’s “Indian” Suite for Orchestra represents a point in American music history where composers felt obligated to present the Indian identity in their compositions.  This is often referred to as the “Indianist” movement inspired by Antonin Dvorak in his use of Native American and African-American thematic elements used in his prolific Symphony No. 9 “New World.” 1 However, we look back on it today as a example in a long line of misunderstood interpretations of the American Indian identity by primarily white people at the top of a hierarchy, whether it be at the helm of a government entity or a religious, social, or cultural sphere.  To drive the point home, here is an excerpt from an article written by Henry Finck as a tribute to Edward MacDowell’s legacy.  This particular excerpt was written in response to hearing the “Indian” Suite performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

“The Indian suite played at this concert was interesting from many points of view, which I can touch on only very briefly.  It is based on genuine American Indian Melodies.  The introduction has almost a Wagner touch thematically, but it is note for note Indian, and there is also a curious Northern ring in some of the theme… we might say that the MacDowell suite is civilized Indian music.” 2

By presenting the notion that MacDowell refined American Indian songs to become more “civilized,” Finck asserts that American Indian music is something uncivilized or perhaps “savage.”  This perception of Native American culture by Americans was commonly accepted and was a longstanding notion in the use of programs sponsored by the United States government, with one of the many examples being the use of Indian Boarding Schools as a way of brainwashing American Indian children into becoming more “American.”

While the “Indianist” movement did portray a negative connotation of Native American music, it would later inspire other composers to counteract with their own take on how American Indian identity should be portrayed in classical music.  Take for example, “the father of Native American Composition,” Louis W. Ballard:


As a Quapaw Cherokee Indian, Ballard wanted to blend the styles of Western classical music with “the music and dance traditions of his culture.”  He studied with several different composers in the 1940s and 50s, such as Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Carlos Surinach, Felix Labunski, and Bela Rosza, meaning that he was very dedicated to the craft of composition in the style of Western classical music.  As a composer, he wrote several pieces of varying instrumentation from solo works like the one presented here by Italian pianist Emanuele Arciuli  (Louis Ballard: Four American Indian Piano Preludes, Emanuele Arciuli, piano,) to woodwind quintet pieces with Native American flute, ballets, symphonies, and even a chamber orchestra piece titled Incident at Wounded Knee, which was commissioned and performed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1974.  Alongside his compositions, he also served as the National Curriculum Specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1968 to 1979 and wrote American Indian Music for the Classroom which served as a curriculum “for teachers who wanted to incorporate American Indian music in classroom instruction.” 3

With his contributions to American music, Louis Ballard and several other Native American composers provided their unique voice from the precedents set by composers like MacDowell and Dvorak to write “Indianist” works.  Even Ballard himself accredited Dvorak’s prediction as an inspiration to compose his music, saying that “‘…[he] was in good company when [he] took up [his] pen to express the sufferings of [his] people, their regeneration and hopes for a better future life…'”

1. Blim, “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians” 1
2. Finck, “An American Composer” 448
3. Berkowitz, “Finding a Place” 4-16

Berkowitz, Adam E. “Finding a Place for the Cacega Ayuwipi within the Structure of American Indian Music and Dance Traditions.” Florida Atlantic University, May 2015. 4-16
Blim, Dan. “MacDowell’s Vanishing Indians.” AMS, 2016. 1
Finck, Henry T. “AN AMERICAN COMPOSER: EDWARD A. MACDOWELL.” Century Illustrated Magazine (1881-1906), 01, 1897. 448,