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.

A New Music Born in New Orleans

New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century was a hotbed of musical innovation. The rich oral traditions of African Americans and the upbeat, commercial dance music of the day collided in the city’s thriving nightlife, ultimately giving rise to a new style of dance music that melded the harmonic and formal idioms of the blues with the rhythmic vitality of ragtime.  This new music was called “jazz.”

The 1917 recording of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band playing Livery Stable Blues (linked below) clearly illustrates the blending of ragtime and blues styles that forms the basis for jazz music.  Each “stanza” basically follows a standard 12-bar blues progression: four bars of tonic harmony, two bars predominant paired with two bars of tonic, concluding with two bars of dominant harmony leading back to the tonic.  This harmonic scheme is paired with catchy melodic material that is reminiscent of popular song.  Clearly meant for dancing, Livery Stable Blues features the driving pulse and jaunty syncopations of ragtime.

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Another key element of jazz music is improvisation; it is likely that most of the music played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was improvised.  In his 1946 article entitled “This is Genuine Jazz,” Douglas S Enefer claims that “real jazz is composed by the executants – both individually and collectively – as they play . . . often the theme may be stated only once; thereafter the melodic line is implied rather than stated.”  This melodic treatment can be heard in Livery Stable Blues: melody lines are clearly stated in the clarinet and trombone at the very beginning, and are varied, embellished, and commented upon in subsequent verses.  Improvising variations in this way is an integral part of the jazz style.

Finally, jazz music is often associated with a spirit of free-spiritedness and abandon.  In Livery Stable Blues, the ODJB takes this freedom to an extreme degree, with rooster crows on the clarinet, horse whinnies on the trumpet, and cow moos on the trombone.  This musical evocation of a barnyard could be understood as a simple comedic gimmick, or could be interpreted as a critique of the extreme formality and stuffiness of classical concert culture.  Either way, it is clear that light-heartedness and subversion are central tenets of the ODJB’s musical style and public image.

New Orleans may have been the birthplace of jazz, but the music quickly spread throughout the nation.  The ODJB itself played in many major cities, including Chicago and New York.  The new style took hold, and jazz continued to evolve and proliferate throughout the world.  Today jazz is studied, performed and enjoyed by a global audience.  

 

Sources

Charters, Samuel. Trumpet around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz. University Press of Mississippi, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, accessed 8 October 2017.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: a History. 1st ed., New York, Norton, 2001.

Enefer, Douglas S. “This is Genuine Jazz.” The Negro, 1 Feb. 1946.

Livery Stable Blues. Rec. March 1917. Vintage Vinyl, 2014. Music Online: Jazz Music Library. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.

The Great Hope of Whitewashing in 1890s ‘Ethiopian Song’

“Would you Paint All the Colored People White?”

The titular question of what the sheet music claims is “Walter Dauphin’s Great Ethiopian Song” sounds simultaneously hopeful and skeptical. One on hand it seems to be pleading to God on high to make the ‘Colored People’ white, easing their lives of trial and hierarchical suffering. On the other, it seems to be asking, “if you could, would you?”

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A closer look at the text of the song affirms that the desired emotion of the song is hope, as the idea of painting them is a scheme for the speaker to do the things he’s been “dreaming” about. Presumably, becoming white would allow this individual greater freedoms previously unable to them. This seems like a truthful sentiment coming from a black person in 1893, but of course thats not really the case. The title page also says “Sung with Great Success by ‘The Eldridges’ and all the Leading Minstrels”, confirming that this was definitely a piece associated with blackface performances, though this doesn’t change the fact that this music is surprisingly and spiritually tender.

On the other end of the spectrum is “When the Black Folks Turn White”, a jaunty tune by Ragtime composer Joe Haydn (Not Franz Joseph). This 1898 composition has an extremely different tone from the Dauphin, with a text stating that God’s creation of African Americans was an accident. The ‘joy’ of the piece then, emerges from humorous impossibility of Blacks ever achieving a better life status.

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While their is a hope for salvation with the coming of the millennium, it doesn’t make sense for this idea to be taken seriously with the light nature of the sheet music, especially compared the religiosity latent in Dauphin’s composition. Instead, the significance of both these pieces is that they deal with the idea not of blackface, but of whitewashing. What does this say about blackface performers that they would be willing to adopt blackface in order to sing about wishing they were white? Is it possible they were actually grateful for the life they were given based on their skin color? Or were they just rubbing it in?


Haydn: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_b0188/#info

Dauphin: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm_b0215/

What sells sheet music?

Have you ever noticed that many ragtime tunes sound the same? Listen to the following two clips for their similar harmonic motion/progressions, the similarity in rhythmic syncopation/complexity, and form. Each have a general intro and short repeated sections, which unless you have become very familiar with the tune are very hard to remember.

The Felicity Rag:

felicityrag

The Ragtime Goblin Man:

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How is it possible that publishing companies could sell something so similar sounding and make it popular? It is clear that the Felicity Rag’s cover draws on minstrel like, simian caricatures, while the Ragtime Goblin Man has an enticing cover with a devil-like character controlling two musicians who according to the lyrics will get caught by the goblin and be made to join his ragtime band. Even thought the tunes’ striking similarity make them seem unmarketable, they have been made unique and sensationalized by their evocative front cover art and titles/lyrics. Publishers, composers, and artists who could appeal to the popularity of minstrelsy, the exotic, or the romantic, had successful marketing strategies for popular music. On one hand, it is problematic to have popular tunes, that “represent” different meanings, sound the same because there is a whole lot more complexity to music across cultural/racial/imaginative boundaries. On the other hand, it would be inappropriate to put a minor mode or augmented second in the ragtime tune that is named for Jewish culture or another Other as was done in Schultzmeier Rag, a Yiddish novelty.172.106.000.webimage

Now, thinking about today’s popular music, with similar harmonic progressions, rhythmic variations, and subjects, the marketing strategies really haven’t changed that much. When you think about the image sold with the music, whether it is the caricatured lifestyle of a celebrity, or the sensational lyrics, today’s popular music continues these successful marketing strategies at the expense of perpetuating problematic stereotypes.

Zip Coon…Dance Tune?

Almost all of us know the melody of “Turkey in the Straw,” whether singing it at summer camp when we were kids or singing along with The Wiggles before school. The song “Zip Coon” is also based off of same melody and was most popular in the 1830’s and 40’s when it was sung in minstrel shows to depict the “coon” stereotype. Despite its controversial racist lyrics, the melody is catchy and works well for dancing.

When minstrelsy was becoming popular, so were the tunes that were being performed. What better way for people to enjoy these famous songs but to dance to them as well? One of the popular dance forms during the 1840’s was the quadrille, which is related to square dancing today. It contained six parts and four couples would dance in a square formation. This composition features six popular tunes from minstrel shows, including “Zip Coon” and “Jim Crow,” and uses these tunes as the six parts of the quadrille. The cover features depictions of many famous minstrel show stereotypes.

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By the 1920’s, slavery was abolished with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 following the American Civil War. However, segregation remained strongly prevalent throughout the United States. The mindset of white supremacy among non-African American citizens pervaded even into their music. In this arrangement of “Turkey in the Straw” by Otto Bonnell and arranged by Calvin Groom, the cover of the sheet music features an African American man playing a banjo.

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Or so it seems.

Upon closer inspection, the depiction of the man is clearly referencing blackface. When compared with the cover of “The Crow Quadrilles,” the large eyes and clown-like red lips are a means of hearkening back to the “good old days” of minstrelsy. The man is also missing teeth and his hands have an animalistic quality to them, characterizing the African American as less than human.

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The tune of “Turkey in the Straw” is set as an innocuous foxtrot in this arrangement with no racial implications. However, with the cover depicting African Americans in such a condescending fashion, it is clear the intent of the music is to invoke a feeling of nostalgia to a time when white men owned slaves. In that case, this piece is not any less offensive today than “The Crow Quadrilles.” Instead of titling it “Turkey in the Straw,” it may have just as well been labeled as a foxtrot based on “Zip Coon.”


1. Ashley, Robert. “The Crow Quadrilles.” New York City, NY: C.T. Geslain, 1845. http://digital.library.temple.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15037coll1/id/6875.

2. Bonnell, Otto. “Turkey in the Straw.” Arr. by Calvin Grooms. New York City, NY: Leo Feist Inc., 1921. http://digital.library.msstate.edu/cdm/ref/collection/SheetMusic/id/24823.

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).