Some Jazzy Blues… And Also Ragtime?

Sheet music is always super exciting. Well, maybe not always. But, that statement probably would have fit popular sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th century as evidenced by all Tin Pan Alley composers, lyrists, and producers who churned an exorbitant amount of music. Looking through the Sheet Music Consortium, one such piece caught my eye because it not only seemed connected to our class discussions on Tin Pan Alley, but also our classes on Jazz and the Blues.

Tom Delaney (1889-1963). Jazz and blues composer.

“The Jazz-Me Blues” were published by Palmetto Music Publishing Company in New York in 1921, and were written by Tom Delaney, who surprisingly, seems to be a bit of an enigma in my academic research sources.1 What I did find was that he lived from 1889 to 1963, was an African American composer, and he wrote a lot of jazz and blues songs that were popular in the 20’s and later.2 “The Jazz-Me Blues” are one of his songs for which there are many later recordings, a lot of them include a full band and exclude the vocal line.3 Maybe this is the way that Delaney meant for the piece to eventually be performed, as the cover of the music pictures what appears to be an all-black jazz band, and the piano arrangement was just for individual household consumption.

The cover of “The Jazz-Me Blues” by Tom Delaney, published in 1921.

Something else that is interesting about the cover is that it differs from the sheet music covers we looked at and talked about in class. Most of those depicted fictional scenes or characters, a famous singer or performer, or racial caricatures if depicting black people. Perhaps this is a notable band, and separated from the time, we don’t know that. But what is important is that the fame of the band is not what is being used to sell the music unlike the ones in class. It also is worth noting that this is a positive portrayal of black Americans; not a caricature. Is that only because right above are the words “Jazz” and “Blues”, which were connected to blackness? Or, was this music written for a different audience and purpose than what we looked at in class?

Turning the page to look at the actual provides other examples of the coupling of certain music and race, albeit in a perhaps more covert manner. The melody relies on syncopation, even mentioning the word “syncopation” in conjunction with what jazz is. This is one of the sonic markers of blackness that we spoke about in class. Additionally, the lyrics talk about jazz and “jazz-time”, as well as “ragtime” and, of course, “blues”. Again, these are all musical genres that at the time were considered black.

Another interesting portrait is painted by the lyrics:

Down in Louisiana in that sunny clime,

They play a class of music that is super-fine,

And it makes no difference if it’s rain or shine,

You can hear that jazz-in music playing all the time.

It is almost as if the people in Louisiana do nothing but sing, dance, and play jazz. Yet, this also can be read in conjunction with the last line: “I’ve got those dog-gone low-down jazz me, jazz me blues”, implying that life is really is great as long as you have jazz, which seems to thus celebrate jazz.

The first page of sheet music for “The Jazz-Me Blues“.

Ultimately, in thinking about how Rydell argued that sheet music was responsible for normalizing public attitudes, I wonder about what message this song spread.4 I’m not sure. On the one hand, it seems to reinforce a lot of the musical black stereotyping we have talked about in class. Yet, on the other hand, it does come across a celebration of jazz, and, according to some sources, it was this composition, among others, that helped Delaney get out of poverty. Perhaps, like much of life, the answers are not as clear as they may at first appear.

 

 

Delaney, Tom. “Jazz me blues”. New York: Palmetto Music Co., 1921. Retrieved from: http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/metsnav/inharmony/navigate.do?oid=http://fedora.dlib.indiana.edu/fedora/get/iudl:338252/METADATA&pn=3&size=screen.

2 The Commodore Master Takes. Recorded February 28, 2006. Universal Classics & Jazz, 2006, Streaming Audio. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Crecorded_cd%7C695030. (Delaney birth and death dates)

Harris, Sheldon. “Thomas Henry ‘Tom’ Delaney.” In Thomas Henry ‘Tom’ Delaney, 877. New Rochelle, NY: Da Capo Press, 1994. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Creference_article%7C1004410925.

3 Search for “Tom Delaney” and “Jazz-Me Blues” in Alexander Street. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/jazz/search?searchstring=tom%20delaney&is_lti_search=&term%5B0%5D=jazz%20me%20blues.

4 Robert W. Rydell, “Soundtracks of Empire: ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ the War in the Philippines, the ‘Ideals of America,’ and Tin Pan Alley”, European journal of American studies [Online], 7-2 (2012). Accessed on March 22 2018. DOI : 10.4000/ejas.9712.

Racial Colorblindness, Privilege, and the Monterey Pop Festival

The Monterey International Pop Festival in June of 1967 stands as a revolutionary musical event in which new and diverse performers captivated audiences and defined a new genre. The festival is notorious, even today, for providing an escape from the tumultuous socio-political climate and spreading messages of peace and togetherness. If we truly want to study these historical events with integrity, though, it is essential to challenge the notion that Monterey Pop transcended race in the way people say it did.

Monterey International Pop Festival, 1967

One way to analyze this idea is through an in-depth look at Otis Redding and his groundbreaking performance at the festival. An African American soul and blues singer from Georgia, Redding was relatively unknown at the time of his performance. For this reason, the universal praise from mostly-white audiences appears to be a win for African American culture – a true transcendence of race through music. On some level, this might be true; it’s likely that audiences genuinely enjoyed Redding’s performance, and Redding seemed to be all in on the hippie culture. What often gets swept under the rug, though, is that this reflects a larger phenomenon of neglecting to appreciate the rich and complex cultural history from which Redding and his soulful music emerged. A newspaper article written in August of 1967 subtly hints at this idea. 

“Memphis Sound, a Western Smash” from Milwaukee Star, 1967

The article from the Milwaukee Star describes the early beginnings of Memphis soul/blues music in the San Francisco “hippie” culture. The author(s) attribute this to the popularity of Otis Redding’s performance at Monterey. Much like other literature on the festival, there is no explicit mention of race or how it was diminished. However, a close reading of the article, in my opinion, highlights an overall lack of appreciation for the black folk origins of Redding’s music. Furthermore, the author(s) speak with an optimism that suggests these black origins will now be recognized and understood by hippies in the West. Though soul and blues music definitely gained a larger audience because of Redding’s performance, I would be hesitant to say that this appreciation came to fruition in a complete and integral way.

Two present-day articles about the festival highlight this lack of understanding. First, one account from Consequence of Sound addresses Redding’s surprising catapult to fame, placing special emphasis on the peaceful nature of the festival that allowed hippie audiences to appreciate a performer like Redding. Yet, the article neglects to mention race, further negating Redding’s complete story and the history from which he emerged. More explicitly, one retrospective article from Billboard features written testimonies from who were at the festival 50 years ago. One account, talking about Redding’s performance, writes: “This whole audience of white, middle-class kids started screaming and acting like they were black. ‘Lord have mercy! Right on brotha!’ It was a little bit racist.” It’s likely that those white kids at the festival thought they were spreading love and acceptance, but this nevertheless demonstrates the racial colorblindness and privilege associated with the festival. The fact that this is one of few sources that mentions race highlights the erasure that did, and still does, occur. The festival was groundbreaking and peaceful, and did many wonderful things for Redding and music like his. Regardless, it’s important to acknowledge this lack of complete understanding, and work towards a more thorough appreciation of the origins of black soul music.

Sources:

Author Unknown. “‘Memphis Sound:’” A Western Smash.’” Milwaukee Star, August 12, 1967. Accessed April 4, 2018 from the African American Historical Newspaper Collection. SQN: 12CCE7DB1A225690.

Flynn, John, Randall Colburn, and Tyler Clark. “How Janis Joplin and Otis Redding Conquered Monterey Pop Festival.” Consequence of Sound. June 18, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2018. https://consequenceofsound.net/2017/06/how-janis-joplin-and-otis-redding-conquered-monterey-pop-festival/

Tannenbaum, Rob. “The Oral History of Monterey Pop, Where Jimi Torched His Ax & Janis Became a Star: Art Garfunkel, Steve Miller, Lou Adler & More.” Billboard. May 26, 2017. Accessed April 16, 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/7809491/monterey-pop-oral-history-jimi-hendrix-janis-joplin.

Mahalia Jackson, Developing Hybridity, and the Inescapable Political Machine

Mahalia Jackson (from the Jimmy Haynes collection at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

If I’ve learned anything from the past few years of music history courses, it’s that music of all kinds has a complicated and intertwining history. Music doesn’t exist in a bubble, and often, the development of assumed distinct musical genres depended on contemporaneous cultural and musical influences. Rock and Roll is no exception to this statement. In fact, this 1969 article from the Chicago Defender argues that Rock and Roll owes many of its musical traits from the Gospel genre. Despite the apparent disparity between Gospel and Rock and Roll, Earl Calloway, the article’s author, argues that the chord progressions and “uninhibited style of singing” found in rock music are derived directly from gospel music sung in church. Mahalia Jackson, who Calloway mentions later in the article as one of the first Gospel singers to break into pop culture, is a perfect example of this hybridity. In fact, Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Rock stars like Little Richard count her among their major influences and the syncopation that can be heard in songs like ““Move On Up a Little Higher,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” served not only to popularize Gospel music (“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” reached the top 100 on the Pop charts), but as a foundation for later rock idioms. Take a listen to “Move on Up a Little Higher” and see if you can hear some Rock and Roll:

Article from Chicago Defender

In listening to Jackson’s recording, however, it is also evident that the Gospel style she used didn’t develop in a vacuum. Thomas Dorsey, who some (like Richard Crawford in his book American Musical Life) identify as one of the founding forces in Gospel Music worked and toured with Mahalia Jackson to develop the Gospel Sound. What is impossible to ignore in these recordings is the similarity it has to earlier Blues traditions. Mahalia Jackson drew inspiration for her vocal technique from the likes of  Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. However, instead of traditional Blues topics for her songs, she sang sacred music. Mahalia Jackson demonstrates the increasing readiness of popular music in the 20th century to change and rely on the music that came before it while influencing the music that would come later. While Gospel certainly was and is a distinct tradition from Blues or Rock and Roll, the interaction between these genres cannot be denied.

While the article from the Chicago Defender and the photograph of Jackson now housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame demonstrate the complicated history of musical development and transmission, they fail to acknowledge another fundamental part of music: politics. Musicologists and musicians alike, myself included, sometimes like to think of music as apolitical. I find it all too easy to hide behind theoretical analysis and stark historical facts when considering the development of musical genres. To do so, however, is to help erase and negate narratives of privilege and oppression that infected all aspects of history, including our beloved music.  Mahalia Jackson’s recordings and life as a whole serve as an example of how music works as part of an inescapable political system. Her music was an influential part of the Civil Rights movement. She worked with Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the Civil Rights campaign and even sang at the 1963 March on Washington. By the very value of her identity (being a black woman in the 1960s), she and her music had no choice but to be deeply embedded in the social struggles of the 1960s. Click the play icon below to listen to this interview where Jackson speaks about her struggle to maintain Dr. King’s policy of nonviolence when confronted with egregious acts of racism throughout her career and in her personal life.

As interesting as Mahalia Jackson’s involvement with the developing hybridity of popular music in the 1960s is, equally important are her efforts to mobilize music as a political tool.

Sources

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Henry Pleasants, et al. “Jackson, Mahalia.” Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed October 17, 2017http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2249902.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Mahalia Jackson.” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Accessed October 17, 2017. https://www.rockhall.com/inductees/mahalia-jackson.

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Pop Culture in Britain and America: 1950-1975

 

 

“Spider” John Koerner

“Spider” John Koerner, a prominent blues musician, was born in Rochester, New York in 1938. He grew up in New York, and eventually found himself studying for an engineering major at the University of Minnesota. This was short lived because it was there that he met the legendary Dave “Shaker” Ray.1

Koerner’s blues career was basically jumpstarted through this encounter. The two musicians jammed together often and formed a steadfast friendship. Koerner even wrote his most famous hit, “Good Time Charlie’s Back in Town Again,” after Ray stopped in to visit him once.

While visiting Ray in New York, Koerner also met harp player Tony Glover. The three of them formed what was arguably the most well known, yet unofficial, folk trios of the 1930s2. They played many gigs together, always providing a great time for their audiences as well as themselves.

Dave and Tony were kind of livin’ in Minneapolis cause that was home to them and they had things holdin’ ’em there. I had the chance to travel and I could get the work so I started travelin’ around. Then we’d just meet whenever we were in the same town together and play jobs whenever anybody was willin’ to put us together.3 ~Koerner

Their performances were well known to be enjoyable for both the audience and the performers. Koerner always made it a good time for everybody, and it was well appreciated by all those who saw and knew him. One of the last times the group got together was a prime example of this.

It was kind of weird. We played the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. We played one night opposite the Who. We were very drunk and fairly well stoned and we had practiced together just a couple of hours. It was kind of shakey but we had a good time.4 ~Koerner

In his solo performances, Ray’s influence in his life could also be seen clearly. When he performed at the Quiet Knight in December 1968, he was introduced as having been influenced by Ray from a young age.5 He grew up listening to him from a young age, and this transitioned into his own playing. Another time, when he returned to perform at the Gaslight, his audience “remembered” and requested that he play “Good Time Charlie’s Back in Town Again” which he wrote for Ray. When describing his performance, Koerner said…

Tony Glover calls it the oatmeal shake, cause it looked like you dipped your hand in a bucket of oatmeal and tryin’ to get it off by shakin’ your hand6 around. ~Koerner

Koerner was an amazing performer who had both talent as well as a charismatic and fun presence. He was greatly influenced by Dave Ray, as well as Tony Glover. Ray’s influence especially could be seen throughout his entire life, and it goes to show you how a simple chance encounter can truly go a long way. Koerner never expected success to find him when he was planning on becoming an engineer, but it did just that.

1 Joe Klee. “Spider John’s Back in Town.” Rock, January 3, 1972 (henceforth Klee).

2 ibid. 

3 ibid. 

Klee, Joe. “Spider John’s Back in Town.” Rock, January 3, 1972. http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/Contents/ImageViewer.aspx?imageid=988853&pi=1&prevpos=905675&vpath=searchresults

Chicago Daily Defender, “Quiet Knight Presents the Blues.” Chicago Daily Defender, December 31, 1968. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stolaf.edu/hnpchicagodefender/docview/494406297/B715397467854A86PQ/1?accountid=351

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Kay Starr, and the Relentless Rain (reign) of Systemic Racism

Let’s Save Negro Music1, written by John Henry in the Freedom periodical in New York, is interesting to me and relevant to our class discussion for a number of reasons. Primarily, it contains an interesting contemporary perspective on 1950s cultural appropriation. I can’t speak for my classmates, but it was news to me that cultural appropriation was discussed at all in that time. So, though the term ‘cultural appropriation’ itself may be a more recent invention, it is simultaneously refreshing and disheartening to know that it was discussed so long ago, relatively speaking. In the article itself, John Henry goes into detail on how white artists were capitalizing on America’s fascination with African American music, especially the Blues, and making significant capital in the process. One example that he uses is that of the popular singers Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Kay Starr. Henry says:

“[T]he country’s musical taste, shaped as it is by the hucksters, calls for denuding this music of its social meaning born in the struggles and hopes of Negro people. . . Hence you get Kay Starr’s best-selling “Didn’t it Rain.” But who remembers Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s great rendition of this exciting Biblical story? Get the two records and see which “moves” you more. That is, if you can find Sister Tharpe’s.”

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Henry’s striking assessment of the situation is both refreshing and depressing. To elaborate, on the one hand it is good to know that the issue of cultural appropriation is not some passing millennial fad, (not that I thought it was in the first place) but has been talked about extensively before now, and is rightfully reaching a boiling point at last. However, on the other hand, it is disheartening that such an issue has been discussed for so long and still not have reached any sort of conclusion. Whether that is due simply to it’s complexity, or to society’s stubborn insistence to turn the other cheek, I cannot say, though I would hypothesize that it is some combination of the two. Regardless, for what it is worth, when looking for recordings of the aforementioned “Didn’t it Rain”, I made an encouraging discovery. Not only was Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition2 easy to find, but there were many different recordings of her singing it. As for Kay Starr’s? Even though I searched multiple databases, it was nowhere to be found.

Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”

Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues” was the first successful recording of a song by a blues singer. “Crazy Blues” is an important contribution to black music, but it presents some ethical problems. Mamie Smith’s success with “Crazy Blues” came as a surprise to record labels, but they soon realized that making records of blues songs was profitable. A newspaper article by a black writer from 1921 talks about the exploitation of black musicians by phonograph companies. The companies used these musicians of color to sell blues music to black record buyers, but still excluded other musicians of color who performed different kinds of music. This picking and choosing of what music to produce and sell contributes to the problem of erasure in black music. There are certain kinds of music that are recorded and preserved, but others aren’t, even if they are equally important.

“Crazy Blues” also brings up concerns with the development of blues. According to Elijah Wald, the discovery of race records by white people led to their reinterpretations and creation of new definitions that became very different from the original source. Karl Hagstrom Miller also acknowledges the fears of some people and their worry that the success of blues that stems from commercial record businesses covers up the Southern rural roots of blues. There were other arguments against Smith that mentioned that since she was from Cincinnati, she was not connected to the blues roots and was not a real blues singer. There are also complaints of Smith’s abilities as a blues singer, criticizing that she was not any better than other white singers.

Yet, Smith has been a key contributor to the development of blues, specifically the blues that became established and accepted. Wald defines blues as whatever the mass of black record buyers called the blues. This second newspaper article from 1920 calls Mamie Smith, “the only colored girl that sings for records, which we all like to hear.” Even though Mamie Smith’s recording contributed to record companies that not only perpetuated racial inequalities, but possibly altered the advancement and preservation of blues, it doesn’t change the fact that she was popular in the black community as a blues singer and helped define the true meaning of blues.

Sources

After You’ve Gone. Recorded June 18, 2014. 2014 Railroad, 2014, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017.

“At the Howard Theater.” Washington Bee. December 18, 1920. Accessed October 9, 2017.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Gussow, Adam. “‘Shoot Myself a Cop’: Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’ as Social Text.” Callaloo, 25, no. 1 (2002): 8–44.

“In the World of Music.” Washington Bee. February 19, 1921. Accessed October 9, 2017.

Miller, Karl Hagstrom. Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Wald, Elijah. Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Crazy Markets for Crazy Blues

Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith wasn’t a blues singer. Today, however, we know her as one of the most influential figures in the creation of the blues music industry. So what exactly happened?

Smith began as a cabaret singer, but one fateful day in 1920, Sophie Tucker, another singer, coudln’t make it into Okeh Record’s recording studio. Smith was givena chance to ake her first recording, That Thing Called Love, and after that was recruited to make an another recording of a song called Crazy Blues. Though Smith was not by trade a blues singer, she made the record anyway. After it was released, the record sold over 75 000 copies in just a few months. This success is especially notable, as this record was the first recording of a blues song by a black singer.

In addition to being widely commercially successful, Crazy Blues has greater economic and social implications. This recording  heralds the beginning of an entirely new music market. The popularity ofthe song caused the Okeh Records and several other labels to sign more black female blues singers to produce “race records”. Intially, these “race records” were sung by black musicians and were intended for black listeners, but soon the form of classic blues represented by these records became popular across racial lines. Mamie Smith’s record paved the way for countless black musicians to break into the blues market.  Take five minutes and listen to noted activist Angela Davis talk about Mamie Smith’s significant contribution to the music industry in this interview with NPR’s “All Things Considered”.

Article from Front Page of Washington Bee, December 18th, 1920

Further evidence of the new blues craze can be found in this article from the December 18th, 1920 issue of he Washington Bee, an African American historical newspaper based in Washington D.C.. Situated neatly on the front page, this small notice of an upcoming performance at the Howard Theater exemplifies the excitement stirring around the new musical possibilities illuminated by Smith and her record. The author of the article heralds Smith as “one of the most-talked-of women who ever parter her lips to pour forth melodies…”. Not only does this article encapsulate Smith’s increasing fanbase, but also the uniqueness of her position in society. Smith, as a woman of color, was the highest paid among Okeh Records singers. This newfound ability to turn blues into money and record sales was profitable not only for musicians, but also for record companies and theaters. Companies began to find out that if they could contract a blues singer they could make a quick buck . This recording, and the subsequent boom in “race records” ushered in a entirely new and relatively untapped musical market. Before this record, music wasn’t being marketed toward black audiences. Rather, black folk music was idealized to fit white musical standards. While this recording and these newspaper articles may still reflect the capitalist pandering that musicians are so often wont to do, they also reflect a change in the way the msuci industry looked at its consumers. Mamie Smith and her record Crazy Blues opened up an entirely new market to the music industry while simultaneously creating a pop-culture phenomenon. And I think that’s worth noting.

Works Cited

“At the Howard Theater.” Washington Bee (Washington D.C.), December 18, 1920. Accessed October 10, 2017. African American Historical Newspapers,.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Oliver, Paul. “Smith, Mamie.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2017, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/41390.

“Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market.” NPR. November 11, 2006. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://www.npr.org/2006/11/11/6473116/mamie-smith-and-the-birth-of-the-blues-market.

Sultry Divas. Recorded September 30, 2008. Columbia River Entertainment, 2008, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/be%7Crecorded_cd%7Cli_upc_723723519221.

 

Where is THAT in the blues?

W.C. Handy is the “Father of the Blues”

Headline: Seen and Heard While Passing; Article Type: News/Opinion
Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana) • 09-26-1914 • Page 6

W. C. Handy became the “Father of the Blues” when he titled his autobiography that same name in 1957. However, this legacy started decades sooner, when Handy published the first “blues” with “Memphis Blues” in 1912. This blues became an immediate commercial success.

I was interested by the fact that “Memphis Blues” was the first blues ever written down, so I tried to find an early review of the work. In 1914, an Indianapolis newspaper, Freeman, ran a review of Handy praising the “Memphis Blues.” What surprised me most was a comment near the end of the article,

[Memphis Blues’] rapid increase in popularity everywhere makes it a psychological study and it is bound to become a classic of its kind just as the real Negro compositions of Will Marion Cooke, Scott Joplin and other Negro composers are now considered to be the only real expression of the Negro in music and the only genuine American music.

 

The “only genuine American Music?” Have you heard “Memphis Blues?” In case you have not, here is an early recording of it from 1944 by Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band

Does that sound a little like ragtime to you? To me, “Memphis Blues” simply does not sound like what I know as The Blues. Of course, is this a problem? Furthermore, who am I to decide what the blues should sound like? Well, thankfully, we have musicologists for that.

In Elijah Wald’s book, Escaping the Delta, notes:

“[experts argue] that Dock Boggs was a blues singer but that W. C. Handy’s songs were ragtime… Musicologically, that makes sense.” 

So I’m not crazy! There is something going on in “Memphis Blues” that makes it feel like ragtime instead of a blues! A further look at the sheet music published by W.C. Hardy indicates something unique… “Memphis Blues” is not in a standard 12-bar form! Its a 16-bar form. A 12-bar like figure appears in the chorus, but it is not clearly laid out.

Perhaps this was just an initial form that became updated over time. Perhaps my notion of “the blues” is simply chronologically later. I looked into another take on “Memphis Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and as you can hear it is just the same confusing 16-bar form.

But this track also brought me to the bonus track on this album. The bonus material includes an interview of the producer of the track with W.C. Handy himself regarding Louis Armstrong. I was surprised to hear how much Handy emphasis “naturalness.” Handy thought that audiences most liked Louis because he brought a “pride of race” to his playing.

I struggled to understand why Handy valued “naturalness” so highly. Especially when he took samples of black musical culture, polished it, and commercialized it. I think perhaps Handy gave a title to the movement of the Blues, but he soon watched it expand to engulf several different genres and become mainstream popular music. As the consumers enjoyed the folk aspect of the music, Handy tried to make this more of a selling point to his music. He soon began to place a lot of value on Authentic Black American Music, after the fact of Memphis Blues’ initial publication.

So why don’t I think of the Memphis Blues sound as “The Blues?” Well, likely it is due to the influence of Robert Johnson as recorded by the Lomaxes and other influences. This may have led to the B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton sounds that I associate with the blues today. To know for sure  I would have to start looking into Robert Johnson’s history.

Nevertheless, Handy should be praised for being the Father of the Blues, even if some of his music feels unauthentic to me. As Wald comments in Escapign Delta,

“to say that the artists who gave the music its name and established it as a familiar genre are not “real” blues artists because they do not fit later folkloric or musicological standards is flying in the face of history and common sense” (7).

Wald highlights an important point. Handy certainly put a lot of work into the genre, and he should be remembered for that.

Works Cited

Handy, W., & Bontemps, A. (1957). Father of the blues : An autobiography. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.

Handy, W., & Handy’s Memphis Blues Band. (1994). W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.

Willie Bunk Johnson/ Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band: Bunk & Lu [Streaming Audio]. (1990). Good Time Jazz. (1990). Retrieved October 10, 2017, from Music Online: Jazz Music Library. 

Whitney, S.H. (1914, September 26). “W.C. Handy, Composter of the Memphis Blues, the Man Who is Making Memphis Famous.” Freeman, pp. 6. Retrieved from newsbank.com.

What Makes the Blues So Doggone Hard to Define

In a quest to find the “bluesiest of blues” tracks, I recently took a deep dive into my ten-year-old iTunes library, and all that I found was sheer bewilderment. How can tracks along the lines of  “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and “Layla” by Eric Clapton be on the same “bluesy” spectrum as Muddy Water’s “Mannish Boy” or Ray Charles “What’d I Say?” Or even more specifically: how can any of these songs be placed on a level playing field when they all contain elements of different genres ranging from rock-n-roll to folk to jazz.

I think that this can partly be understood through the notion that “blues” music has served largely as a marketing term over the years, and while it undoubtedly has certain roots in the oppressed African American community, it has since transformed into countless different forms and styles. In order to approach this broad claim, I think one doesn’t have to look any further than the headlines, advertisements, and recordings of one of the original “blues queens:” Mammie Smith.

http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/be%7Crecorded_track%7Cli_isrc_723723519221USY9R0910356

Through her rendition of Perry Bradford’s “Crazy Blues”, Mammie Smith reached near-overnight stardom, becoming one of the first first recorded African-American “jazz-blues” singers. The song, which tells a somber story concerning unrequited love, may lyrically display a “romantically blue” atmosphere,” but the instrumentation and vocal performance tell otherwise. Rather than a rhythmically ambiguous, anguishing melody sparsely accompanied and improvised upon, the track contains a tight band, consisting of sweeping trombones and light, gliding clarinets, evoking more of a comical and polished sound. Along similar grounds, while Mammie Smith sings with great conviction and soul, she seems to performing in a relaxed, theatrical style with a masterful contralto voice. With an overall recording style leaning more towards a light-hearted and professional popular music medium, “Crazy Blues” demonstrated it’s marketing prowess by spreading across the U.S., earning both Smith and Bradford a fortune.

Smith’s “blues” act serving as a marketable genre can also be seen through her performances alongside her “Jazz Hounds Orchestra.” In the Savannah Tribune’s January 22, 1921 issue, an article is written in anticipation for Mammie Smith’s live performance at the Savannah Auditorium, describing her show as being

“…greeted by capacity audiences at every point, in one city alone she sang to an audience of over 11,000 paid admissions.”

 

Whether or not W.C. Handy’s famous stories of “discovering the blues” in the poor, rugged country is embellished and romanticized, serving audiences as large as these requires a hip, spirited, and theatrically expanded sound that is initially and popularly defined as “blues” in the music of Mammie Smith. The article even goes on to describe Smith’s shows as containing a wide set of acts, including a “well known juggler and a celebrated ventriloquist,” which only further emphasizes the performance-based, comical, and marketable basis of the early 1920’s “blues.”

Over the last century, different musical and social trends have led the blues market to a wide array of strains and styles, spanning from Jagger to Charles. While folklorists can still only speculate any folk-based or cultural roots of the “blues” that were picked up by early visionaries, the beginning of the 1920’s “blues”-mania is centered around the highly marketable and popular form of soulful and lively tunes, including Smith/Bradford’s “Crazy Blues.”

Link to news article:

http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_product=EANX&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=J57Q58LNMTUwNzU5MTQwNi4yNzM1ODU6MToxMzoxMzAuNzEuMjQyLjUx&p_action=doc&s_lastnonissuequeryname=20&d_viewref=search&p_queryname=20&p_docnum=4&p_docref=v2:11CCCBEC43F62EDE@EANX-11E7581B13A079A0@2422712-11E7581B1F220C08@0-11E7581B4FA109A0@Mamie%20Smith%20and%20Her%20Jazz%20Hounds.%20Appear%20at%20Auditorium%20February%209th

Sources

Kernfeld, Barry Dean. The new Grove dictionary of jazz: Smith, Mammie. Vol. 3. London: Macmillan Reference Ltd., 1997.

The Savannah Tribune. “Mammie Smith and her Jazz Hounds. Appear at Auditorium February 9th.” The Savannah Tribune (Savannah, Georgia), January 22, 1921, 11E7581B13A079A0 ed.

Sultry Divas. Recorded September 30, 2008. Columbia River Entertainment, 2008, Streaming Audio. Accessed October 10, 2017. http://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/be%7Crecorded_cd%7Cli_upc_723723519221

Wald, Elijah. Escaping the delta: Robert Johnson and the invention of the blues. New York: Amistad, 2005.. 

What’s a Stavin’ Chain?

In 1938, American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton came together to lay down the definitive timeline for the birth of jazz. Their recording session resulted in a 9-hour collection of Jelly Roll Morton songs and interviews between Morton and Lomax. In the first song recorded during these sessions, Winin’ Boy Blues, Morton sings the lines

I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name

I can pick it up and shake it like Stavin’ Chain’s

 

(Caution: this song contains some of the most explicit lyrics I’ve ever heard)

The phrase Stavin’ Chain stood out to me. What exactly is a Stavin’ Chain? Upon investigation, I found that this is not the only instance of a blues/jazz singer singing about Stavin’ Chain. There were songs by Lil Johnson (Stavin’ Chain) and “Big” Joe Williams (Stavin’ Chain Blues) that refer to Stavin’ Chain. From browsing various blues forum websites, I have found a variety of interpretations to what a Stavin’ Chain is. Some say it is a tool used to make barrels. Others claimed that Stavin’ Chain is a figure in African-American folklore famous for conducting trains. One man claimed that it’s an expression for having sex. Luckily, I was able to find an interview between Lomax and Morton about this very subject in Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.

Taken from the recording Bad Men and Pimps

Lomax: And what about Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll: Stavin’ Chain, well he was a pimp. Supposed to have more women in this district than any other pimp.
Lomax: Did you actually know Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll:  No, I heard everybody talk about him, never get into his way…
Lomax: What what did you hear about him, this is very interesting cause, you know, they have a song about Stavin’ Chain
Jelly Roll: Well, you know, he slept like Stavin’ Chain.
Lomax: Good tune, too.
Jelly Roll: Yes, I like the tune, I can’t, couldn’t  memorize the tune, you know…
Lomax: Popular around New Orleans as well.
Jelly Roll: Yeah, at one time it was. Let’s see… that was around….19….8.
Lomax: Was Stavin’ Man a white man or colored one?
Jelly Roll: A colored one.
Lomax: Supposedly good looking.
Jelly Roll: Yes, he………. Women was supposed to be crazy about him.

As it turns out, Lomax knew this Stavin’ Chain character that Morton was singing about. Stavin’ Chain, also known as Wilson Jones, was an American blues musician that Lomax photographed and recorded in 1934. Stavin’ Chain was famous for his sexual prowess became a legend in the American blues scene. I’ve found that American blues music is one with an extremely rich history and is full of similar, obscure references. Hours of research can be done unpacking and contextualizing the lyrics from this music. For being able to do this, we owe much gratitude to Alan Lomax for preserving this music for future study and enjoyment.

Sources

“Bad Men and Pimps.” YouTube. February 11, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwxP8uT-zQ4.

“Jelly Roll Morton – Winin’ Boy Blues – Library of Congress 1939.” YouTube. June 02 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxkvu_gWlQI

Lomax, Alan 1915-2002. “Lomax Collection.” [Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson,” Lafayette, La. (fiddler in the background)]. January 01, 1970. Accessed October 02, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660070/.

“Winin’ Boy Blues.” Community Guitar Home. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://www.communityguitar.com/students/Songs/WininBoy.htm.

Odetta Who?

When many people think of American folk music, some of the first musicians that comes to mind are Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. Few people know of Odetta Holmes, known simply by her stage name Odetta. Her name isn’t even mentioned in the Wikipedia “American Folk Music” page! Most people know her as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” due to her influential role she played as an activist and blues/gospel musician.

Odetta in the Chicago Defender

Odetta in the Chicago Defender, 1964

[1]

However, Odetta started off not as a folk singer, but instead earned a music degree at Los Angeles City College. She went on to tour with a musical theater group performing “Finian’s Rainbow,” which was, fittingly, about prejudice. As she toured, she discovered that enjoyed singing in the coffeeshops late at night, infusing her music with the frustration she experienced growing up. In a 2005 National Public Radio interview, she said: ”School taught me how to count and taught me how to put a sentence together. But as far as the human spirit goes, I learned through folk music” [2].

Cover of Ballads and Blues

Cover of Ballads and Blues

[3]

Odetta released her first solo album, “Odetta Sings Ballad and Blues,” in 1956. This album would turn out to be influential for a certain Bob Dylan. He stated in a 1978 Playboy interview that “the first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” after listening to this album in a record store. He learned all the songs and found something “vital and personal” in her singing [4]. Not only did her music draw Bob Dylan to folk music, but she also met Joan Baez, another popular folk musician, and Baez cites Odetta as one of her primary influences as well [5]. Two of the biggest names in American folk music were influenced by a woman and social activist that would later go on to perform at the 1963 march on Washington, march with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, sing for presidents Kennedy and Clinton, as well as perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

I think that’s pretty neat

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

Ad for Odetta next to an ad for Bob Dylan in the Berkeley Tribe, 1969

[6]

Odetta singing Muleskinner Blues, 1956

Bob Dylan Singing Muleskinner Blues, 1962


1.”Photo Standalone 23 — no Title.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) (1921-1967),  Jan 25, 1964. 10, http://search.proquest.com/docview/493137885?accountid=351.
2. Weiner, Tim. “Odetta, Voice of Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77.” NYTimes.com. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/03/arts/music/03odetta.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Accessed March 9, 2015)
3. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues, Expanded CD Cover.” 1956. wikipedia.org.
4.”Playboy Interview: Bob Dylan.” http://www.interferenza.com/bcs/interw/play78.htm (Accessed March 9, 2015)
5. Baez, Joan. And a Voice to Sing With: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009, p. 43.
6.”No Title.” Berkeley Tribe (1969-1972), 1969. 22-23, http://www.rockandroll.amdigital.co.uk/Search/DocumentDetailsSearch.aspx?documentid=1065486&prevPos=1065486&vpath=searchresults&pi=1

A Muddy link from Blues to Rock

As blues gained popularity through publication and performances it became blended with other types of popular music. Blues and rock music were obvious candidates for combination, both drawing on folk instrumentation and sharing similar subjects. In Chicago, which was a hotbed of blues music when many black musicians migrated to Chicago to leave the South. Possibly the most influential musician of the blending is McKinley Morganfield AKA Muddy Waters. Waters got his start at home in Mississippi when Alan Lomax traveled there on behalf of the Library of Congress in 1941 and again in 1942. Waters was later released on the album “Down on Stovall’s Plantation” from these recordings.

DownonStovallsThis recording shows us that Muddy Waters is a legit player of the blues from the south and would be taken seriously by white audiences in the North.

In 1943, shortly after Lomax’s visit, Waters moved to Chicago in hopes of making it big as a blues musician. As Muddy Waters made his way as a blues performer he made with friends with Big Bill Broonzy who helped Waters become popular. This article from Cultural Equity highlights some of the connection between Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Muddy Waters was put on singles in the late 40s and through the 50s in Chicago. RecordAdWaters gained popularity from recording Robert John tunes who had been on the blues mind since 1938 from the “Spirituals to Swing” concert in New York (Here’s a short RadioLab episode about this concert and Robert Johnson, it’s great!).

Muddy Waters became very popular in Chicago and was seen as a performer who was keeping the folk in the blues and rock that he was performing. Because he had such a close connection to the south and his history there. The Defender wrote an article to this effect in 1972. Muddy Waters keeps alive an Afro-American culture

The good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow

The blues tradition started with emotion. Albert Murray, a black novelist, commented that the blues were a way for one to “[Confront, acknowledge, and contend] with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all experience.”Drawing from the oral music traditions of “field hollers” and call and response, the blues had a strong presence and role of importance in black American communities starting during the Reconstruction period before segregation laws.

One of the early recordings of Alberta Hunter and Lovie Austin’s Down-hearted blues was done in 1923(the YouTube recording below is from 1939). It follows the typical AABA structure the blues would follow and makes use of call and response primarily between the singer and a clarinet. One thing that can be noted is the inflections Hunter uses as she sings. Many of the accents and emotive inflections she uses in her phrasing would not be written down in the music––such as shortening a note at the end of a phrase, sliding into or between notes and adding accented vibrato to a sustained note.

The subject matter deals with the singer being unhappy in the romantic situation she’s in. Hunter specifically sings about “the man that wrecked her life,” but beyond the relationship, the man could be extended to representing her job or position in society (especially important given the time this piece was written in). In the first verse, Hunter sings that “the good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow,” which is acceptance for the situation that she’s in––something she could have arguably had very much or very little control over to begin with.

 

1. Hogue, W. Lawrence. Discourse and the Other: The Production of the Afro-American Text. Durham, North Carolina, NC: Duke University Press, 1986.

2. Hunter, Alberta and Austin Love. Tennessee Ten: Down-hearted blues. Victor, 1923, audio recording, http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/9323.

St.Louis Blues- A Song Represents “Sexuality”?

Hollywood cinemas in mid-20th century would use blues songs as a means to articulate racial instability in the characterization of women who represented problems in terms of their sexuality, their morality, and their (lower) class status.

The song St.Louis Blues would be an example.

20150303201724

 

20150303203506

Composed by W. C. Handy in 1914, St. Louis Blues was first featured in black vaudeville circa 1916 by Charles Anderson. On the basis of the song’s popularity, Handy has been called “The Father of the Blues”.

The song begins with a woman’s lament for the end of the day: “I hate to see de evenin’ sun go down.” Her man has left her for another woman who had “store-bought hair” and became a temptation too great for him to ignore. Composed in G major, St. Louis Blues is a 12-bar blues that combine ragtime syncopation with “a real melody in the spiritual tradition”. Handy also addressed that features from tango music was also figured in the introduction as well as the middle strain. In the famous Marion Harris version, the tango motif was played by violins, with bassoon’s humorous staccato, creating the image of a lovesick woman, full of lovelorn sadness but still has the longing for life.

Handy writes in his autobiography:

20150303192737

However, did the Hollywood film production interpret the music as W.C. Handy’s interpretation? My answer would be NO- the hardness in life and love relationship was mostly lost. According to Peter Stanfield, Stella Dallas (1937) provided a good example of the complex ideological work that was often performed by blues music. Stella “decay” from a “mother” to a “sexualized” when she laying on the sofa with a sexy pose and playing St. Louis Blues on her phonograph (after seeing all these, Stella’s daughter decided to leave Stella forever). I think it is clear that the symbolic power of St. Louis Blues was shown here, by the “transgressive” female sexuality, the “blackening” of white identity, and “urban primitivism.”

I personally think it is not an occasion that the White society perceived Blues as “primitive” but “sexy” in early 20th century. Sociologist Gramsci’s idea of “culture hegemony” had to play in somewhere. White society would just love to take anything they want to take from black music- they redefined it and distorted it in order to adjust the entertainment of white people, without any further understanding of what the music actually talked about; Yet at the same time, African American musicians seemed already “accepted” the twisted impression in White society since they had to sale their music to white music dealers and singers, in order to make a living.

 

Sources:

Stanfield, Peter. 2002. “An Excursion into the Lower Depths: Hollywood, Urban Primitivism, and St. Louis Blues, 1929-1937”. Cinema Journal. 41, no. 2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225853

David Evans. “Handy, W.C..” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 4, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/12322.

Handy, W. C. St. Louis blues. New York: Handy Bros. Music Co., Inc., 1914.http://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/lilly/devincent/LL-SDV-09808

The Foxtrot: W.C. Handy, the Castles, and an Animal Obsession

W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, in 1941.

From the 1890s to the 1910s, the world changed. A new era was sweeping the nation, the age of ragtime and the blues. As the popularity of this music skyrocketed, people all over America demanded to hear and dance to the music that before had only been available in regional enclaves like St. Louis, New Orleans, and Memphis. Sensing a money-making opportunity, musicians began to compose and play (and sell) what the public wanted to hear. The first musician to leap into commercialization of the blues was W.C. Handy, and his “Memphis Blues” is credited with inspiring the dance known as the foxtrot.

Mr. and Mrs. Castle dancing.

Meet Vernon and Irene Castle, a husband-and-wife dance team at the turn of the century. Through their hard work and numerous performances, they popularized social dancing and brought it from ballrooms into public venues. Needless to say, they were a big deal. As Handy recounts in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, their music director James Reese Europe played the slow “Memphis Blues” between faster dances (like the One-Step) to give the famous Castles a break. Falling in love with the rhythm, the couple decided to create a dance to go with the music. Following the contemporary craze of naming dances after animals (check out the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, and Camel Walk), they originally called their dance the Bunny Hug but later changed the name to the foxtrot.

Maybe like me you assumed that the foxtrot has been around for a very long time. After all, the dance is included with the waltz, tango, and Viennese waltz in the American Smooth category of competitive dancing. But, like with the origins of the blues (while it is a descendent of centuries of African-American music, it is not itself an old genre), you cannot make assumptions about the history of a dance or a musical genre, lest we miss interesting connections like this one.

Armed with this knowledge, take a listen to Handy’s “Memphis Blues” and, if you know it, throw in a little foxtrot.

Click the image to listen to Morton Harvey’s 1914 recording of “Memphis Blues” at the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox.


Handy, W.C. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1957.

Handy, W.C. “The Memphis Blues.” Morton Harvey, tenor. Victor 17657, 1914. Library of Congress National Jukebox, http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/117/ (accessed March 3, 2014).

Johnston, Frances Benjamin. [Irene and Vernon Castle, full-length, in dancing position]. Between 1910 and 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98506505/ (accessed March 3, 2014).

Van Vechten, Carl. [Portrait of William Christopher Handy]. July 17, 1941. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004662979/ (accessed March 3, 2014).

Original Dixieland Jass Band

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/4669

Originally from New Orleans, LA, the Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) was recruited to Chicago in 1916 to perform at Schiller’s Cafe.  There was interest in bringing a New Orleans-style band to Chicago.  After a number of personnel changes, ODJB was booked to perform in New York City.  Starting in January 1917, ODJB took up residency providing upbeat dancing music at Reisenweber’s Restaurant in New York City.

At the time, the center of the music recording industry was New York City and New Jersey.  ODJB had earned their own following in New York and received invitations to record.  In the end of February, the band recorded with Victor Talking Machine Company and recorded two sides of a 78 record under the Victor name.  The song here, Dixie Jass Band One-Step, and Livery Stable Blues were the first songs released on this record.

Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band – Dixie Jass Band One-Step Victor 18255-A, February 26, 1917 Library of Congress National Jukebox

With the release of this record, ODJB gained immense popularity in America.  The members dubbed themselves “Creators of Jazz” having given the American people their first taste of jazz with their record release.  After a successful first release, the ODJB recorded more songs for a total of 25, 2-song records before the group’s disbandment in 1925.

Dixieland jazz is different than what we think of as “jazz” today.  It follows the 12-bar blues model, but instead of having a dominant soloist in the foreground, each of the five players play throughout.  It sounds as if each player is playing his own solo throughout the whole song.  It gives a different flavor of ensemble than we are used to in today’s instrumental music.

One of the primary uses for this music was dance.  The complexity of the music itself and each of the five instruments intertwining with each other parallels that of public dancing.  Everyone dances to the same beat, but each person on the dance floor is dancing his or her own way.  No one looks or sounds the same.  The same applies to Dixieland Jazz.

 

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/4669

John Chilton“Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz2nd ed.Grove Music OnlineOxford Music OnlineOxford University Press, accessed March 2, 2015http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/J339300.

Hammering Out “Our Singing Country”

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C.

[1]

John Lomax and his son, Alan, set out for one of the most ambitious tasks attempted in American folk song history: To travel thousands of miles and collect recordings of as many songs as possible in order to preserve them in the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Early in their travels, they came upon a black guitarist and singer named Huddie Ledbetter. He would later be more commonly known by his nickname, “Leadbelly.” The Lomaxes were very impressed with his repertoire of folk songs as well as his virtuosic skill as a twelve-string guitarist. As a result of his four year imprisonment in the Louisiana’s Angola Prison for murder, he was cut off from hearing the popular music of the day. For the Lomaxes, he was a prime living example of the folk tradition they were seeking out and sought to bring his voice to the American public. After employing him as a driver and servant, they brought him to New York in order to record and promote his “pure folk” sound.

Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn.

[2]

However, in order to make Leadbelly’s music palatable to the public, it seems some edits had to be made. Take the work song “Take This Hammer,” which can be found in the Lomaxes’ collection Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads from 1941 shown here:

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in Our Singing Country

[3]

Library of Congress Recording of prisoners at Florida State Prison singing “Take dis Hammer”

Now compare it to the transcription found in The Leadbelly Songbook, as transcribed by Jerry Silverman in 1962 and recorded by Leadbelly in the 1940’s:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 23.59.57

“Take This Hammer” as it appears in The Leadbelly Songbook

[4]

As you can see, the general notes and rhythms are still the same, with some added notes in Leadbelly’s performance. However, in the Leadbelly version, the controversial verses about the “captain” calling him a “nappy-headed devil” and grabbing his gun are omitted. Also, in Our Singing Country, “Take This Hammer” is considered to be a highly rhythmic song that was sung when a slave worked in a gang in order to synchronize the dropping of axes and to “…make the work go more easily by adapting its rhythm to the rhythm of a song.” (citation) In the field recording, which lacks the dropping of picks but is conveyed through the “wahs” of the men singing, the tempo is considerably slower than when Leadbelly sings it.

If the Lomaxes wanted to accurately portray the pure folk tradition in this song, they would have sent the Florida State prisoners to New York to record it how it would have been performed. But no one would have bought the record or even bothered to listen to it. Instead, they realized that in order for the dying folk tradition to be kept alive they had to bring the style into American popular music. Unlike the folk song preservers of the past, they respected the black musical tradition and wanted it to be accessible to white audiences without losing too much of its authenticity. In doing so, the Lomaxes brought folk music to the American popular music sphere and created a new musical tradition.


1. “Alan Lomax playing guitar on stage at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, N.C,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660160/ (accessed 3/2/15).
2. “Leadbelly, three-quarter-length, profile, facing right, lifting car out of snow, at the home of Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Wilton, Conn,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Lomax Collection, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660303/ (accessed 3/2/15).
3. John A. and Alan Lomax. Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. (New York, Dover Publishing Inc., 2000), 380-381.
4. Moses Asch and Jerry Silverman, The Leadbelly Songbook. (London, Oak Publications, 1962), 45.

Bringing the Blues to the national stage: W.C. Handy

Image

jb_progress_blues_2_e

William Christopher Handy, age 67

Widely acclaimed as “the father of the Blues,” William Christopher Handy experienced humble beginnings. Handy grew up in a log cabin in Florence, Alabama to former slaves. His father, a preacher, believed that musical instruments were tools of the devil and did not support his son’s musical endeavors.

As a teenager, Handy went against his parents’ wishes and secretly saved up to purchase a cornet by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap; he then joined a local band and spent every free minute practicing it. His troubles worsened after his band Lauzetta Quartet disbanded and he spent two years in St. Louis living under a bridge, homeless.

He would later reflect on his early days saying, “You’ve got to appreciate the things that come from the art of the Negro and from the heart of the man farthest down.”

jb_progress_blues_1_e

In 1909, Handy self-published his song “Memphis Blues” while working in several clubs on Beale Street. Since then, the term “memphis blues” is used in lyrics of other tunes to describe a depressed mood.

“The Memphis Blues” is said to be based on a campaign song written by Handy for Edward Crump, a mayoral candidate in Memphis, TN and so is subtitled “Mr. Crump.”

For the 1914 recording of “Memphis Blues” by Morton Harvey, tenor, click the link below: http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/117

The song introduced his style of 12-bar blues and is credited with inspiring the foxtrot dance step by Vernon and Irene Castle, a NY dance team. When Handy moved to New York City, his hit songs “Memphis Blues” along with “Yellow Dog Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” brought Handy’s musical style to the forefront of mainstream American culture.

By moving from Tennessee to New York, Handy was able to spread the Blues to the epicenter of music during the early 20th century. His struggles during his early days allowed him to draw on his tribulations in order to create a genre of music America could call its own.

For more information on W.C. Handy’s life and music, check out this documentary!

Chenrow, Fred & Chenrow, Carol (1973). “W.C. Handy” Reading Exercises in Black History, Volume 1. Elizabethtown, PA: The Continental Press, Inc. p. 32.

Handy, W.C. “Memphis Blues. 1913.” Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Reproduction Number Music #725; 1-3. Web. 2 March 2015.

Van Vechten, Carl, photographer. Portrait of William Christopher Handy, 1941. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-42531 DLC.

Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, pp. 536-537

William Christopher Handy’s “Memphis Blues” Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov (accessed March 2, 2015).

 

 

From Blues to Jazz: Handy to Vaughan

Jazz is a musical style native to the United States, that emerged in the early Twentieth century. Jazz was influenced from Blues music, which was established most notably by W.C. Handy in 1917. Jazz has new sound that incorporates both the African American musical stylings and the European American form of music. This hybridization of the two heritages created a unique style of music which we now call under a big genre “umbrella,” Jazz. In the Library of Congress photo archives, a photo of the reputable Sarah Vaughan was present among many photos of white jazz singers. She became popular in the late 40s and early 50s when Jazz was really hitting it’s stride as popular music, with the likes of Frank Sinatra.

sarah vaughn

Vaughan was highly influenced by the early blues style, of W.C. Handy. Handy’s invention or development of the Memphis Blues, drew on the folk style of the old southern plantation music. The emotional context of this music is heard in the vocal stylings of the renowned Sarah Vaughan. The memphis blues eventually took shape to the 12-bar blues, which also led to the development of Jazz.

While Vaughan represents a big part of the Jazz era, more commonly was the presence of white artists, such as Doris Day, Peggy Lee, and Sinatra. They emulated the sounds of a soulful Vaughan, singing on topics that go back to the days of slavery.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7948/autoplay/true/

“St. Louis Blues” is a great example of an old dixieland jazz band song that evolved over the years. In the recording provided in the above link, the instrumentation, while has elements of a traditional jazz band also still has southern sounds to it… likely from New Orleans. In the video below, the song is presented in a different style of blues and jazz, one that emerged later with artists like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan.

 

Bibliography

Gottlieb, William, photographer. “Portrait of Sarah Vaughan in Café Society (Downtown).” Photograph. New York, N.Y.: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs. Aug. 1946. Online.

http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7948/autoplay/true/

 

Double Appropriation

“Chinaman, Chinaman
wash ‘em laundry all day
Chinaman, Chinaman
smoke ‘em pipe they say OR Wants his freedom that way
He’s got a little China gal
She love him all right,
He love little China gal, too,
So he sings to her ev’ry night
Sung Fong Lou, Sung Fong Lou
Listen to those chinese blues;
Honey gal, I’m crying to you
Won’t you open that door and let me in?
China man cries, baby, won’t you let me in
Chinaman feels his habit (OR lovin’) coming on again.
She cries to him “what’s the matter with you
I got those Ipshing, Hong Kong Ockaway Chinese Blues”

 

Recording of Irving Kaufman singing the Chinese Blues

Recording of Sousa’s Band playing the Chinese Blues

Written by Oscar Gardner, this song was not only published in a Treasury of the Blues by the “father of the blues,” W.C. Handy and recorded by George Gershwin, but also was, according to the critical notes by Abbe Niles, “the first and best by a white man, and had wide popularity in 1915.” [1] Niles’ notes also clarify that “Chinese Blues” falls under the category “blues-songs,” which do not follow the classical 12-bar blues form, but include songs that have any relation to the blues. “Chinese Blues” only fits the blues category in that it tells the story and emotion of the unrequited lover and there are a couple blue, or flatted notes, to the melody. We know that the early 20th century saw a trend of appropriating the blues to label any song that had ragtime rhythms, blue notes, and the longing emotion, even though the blues specifically came out of African American oppression.[2] In other words, Oscar Gardner, a white composer, tapped into the commercial blues genre in anyway he could to make money, and W.C. Handy benefitted by publishing it in his anthology of the blues.

As if this level of mis-labeling isn’t enough, the song also reflects racist stereotypes about the Chinese and their music. While the published music looks like an average ragtime or jazz arrangement, both period performances of it from the Library of Congress (Sousa’s band and Irving Kaufman) recordings emphasize an “oriental sound,” namely flutes slurring up to their notes and percussion including a gong and woodblocks. The lyrics “Sung, Fong, Lou,” though they don’t actually have a real translation in Chinese, also try to evoke the Orient. Additionally, in the lyrics depending on which version you look at, the Chinese are either washing laundry all day in order to get their freedom or suffering from an opium/other drug addiction. So, in sum “Chinese Blues” presents an example of a white composer using a genre traditional to African American oppression to subjugate the Chinese.

[1] Oscar Gardner, “Chinese Blues,” A Treasury of the Blues, ed. W.C. Handy, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926), 184.

[2] Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), Ch. 1, “What is Blues?” 1-13.