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.

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.

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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:

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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).

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

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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.”

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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.