Posts Tagged ‘W. C. Handy’

Furry Lewis (March 6, 1893 – September 14, 1981) was born Walter E. Lewis to Greenwood, Mississippi sharecroppers, Victoria and Walter, Sr. His father left before he was born, and his mother moved him and his two sisters to Memphis near the turn of the century. She did wash, cooking and cleaning to provide for them. Young Walter attended school through the fifth grade, where he picked up the nickname “Furry”, before taking work as a delivery boy to help provide for the family.

youtube: Judge Harsh Blues

Furry made himself a cigar box guitar with screen door wires for strings and began playing on Beale Street corners for spare change. He recounted that W.C. Handy noticed the youngster and bought him his first real guitar. A neighborhood man, named Blind Joe, taught him to play “Casey Jones” and “John Henry”— old songs about legendary figures from American tall tales— songs that would become Furry’s staples.

By his teens, Furry Lewis was not only performing on street corners, but also in saloons and for house parties. He left Memphis to join the Dr. Willie Lewis Medicine Show as a comedian hawking oils and medicines. During these travels he was exposed to the guitar playing of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Memphis Minnie, and fellow Mississippi blues guitarist and compatriot, Jim Jackson.

In 1916, Furry Lewis lost a leg in an accident while hopping a freight train in Illinois. He spent a month in a railroad hospital in Carbondale, and was later fitted with an artificial limb. He returned to performing on Memphis street corners, Beale Street saloons, and in jug bands— along with Gus Cannon, Frank Stokes and Jim Jackson. He also took work hauling freight from riverboats, yard work and deliveries. In 1923, he became a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department. Furry held this job, sweeping up around Beale Street, until his retirement in 1966.

In 1927 and ’29 he cut some recordings for the Vocalion label at the Memphis Auditorium, along with a number of his contemporaries. The 23 sides for this label were the most prolific for a single Memphis performer at the time. They documented Furry’s slide guitar technique and humorous songs. The tune “I Will Turn Your Money Green” contained the classic line, “Been down so long, it looks like up to me”.

youtube: Furry’s Blues

Furry continued to play around Beale Street through the Depression and succeeding decades in his flashy style, often playing guitar behind his head. Samuel Charters, noted blues researcher and author of The Country Blues, rediscovered Furry Lewis in 1959. This began a period of popularity spawning performances at folk and blues festivals and recordings for the Prestige and Folkways labels during the 1960s, and opening shows for rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, through the 1970s. He was featured in Stanley Booth‘s book, Rhythm Oil, and the Burt Reynold’s movie, W.W. And The Dixie Kings. This led to many talk show appearances where he would retell funny and poignant stories about his life— and, of course, play “Furry’s Blues”. The State of Tennessee made him an Honorary Colonel in 1973, the first of such among African-Americans.

By the end of the ’70s, he was losing his eyesight to cataracts. Furry Lewis contracted pneumonia and died in 1981 at the age of 88. He was among the most beloved of all Memphis musicians. His grave has two headstones, one larger— purchased by his fans. It reads, “Bluesman”.

youtube: Sid Selvidge on Furry

youtube: When I Lay My Burden Down

image credits: Dan Dalton; Jim Marshall; Alain Frappier

Medicine shows were directly related to minstrel shows and vaudeville, and they provided many early Memphis musicians with employment. In the 1800s, minstrel shows were wildly popular with both races, but they fed the white stereotypes of blacks and became even more mean-spirited as the Civil War approached. The racism of the minstrel shows makes them difficult to stomach today, but the variety acts (called the “olio”), comedy, dance, and music gave many Americans their first exposure to African-American music and culture.

After the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves performed with minstrel shows, medicine shows, and circuses, with the newly gained freedom to travel and to make a living playing music. William Henry Lane was a dancer and among the earliest black minstrels to gain notoriety. A performance in Memphis by the Georgia Minstrels in 1896, drew the largest indoor paid audience known to the city— 4000 blacks and 1000 whites— according to the African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Freeman. Many of the features of minstrelsy carried over into the medicine shows.

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Quackery and entertainment hit the road as medicine shows peddled patent medicines and elixirs of dubious efficacy. Musical performers drew crowds in small rural settings and larger Southern and Midwestern towns. An old actor who had turned to “doctoring” would hawk syrups that were mostly alcohol— or pass off a nickel box of axle grease as a cure for rheumatism. The performers would soften the crowd up for the “doctor”, whose pitch was expected to be just as entertaining. Audiences were often receptive to the chicanery because it was the only entertainment of that caliber they got to experience.

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The Memphis medicine show performers were in the Mississippi delta every summer and many hokum blues numbers were popularized this way. W. C. Handy was the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. Ida Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie got their start with minstrel shows. Louis Jordan, Brownie McGhee and Rufus Thomas worked for a variety troupe, originally founded in 1900 by an African American, Pat Chappelle, called The Rabbit’s Foot Company. Many old time country acts like Roy Acuff, Jimmie Rodgers, Dock Boggs, Fiddling John Carson, and Uncle Dave Macon also entertained blacks and whites alike in traveling medicine shows.

In the early 1900s, medicine shows transitioned into vaudeville and Memphis-oriented performers found work in a more permanent circuit of theaters. An Italian-American businessman on Beale Street, F. A. Barrasso, and his brothers founded the Theatre Owners Booking Association, which specialized in a touring circuit of theaters for black performers throughout the U.S. It began with 31 theaters and had more than 100 at its peak in the 1920s. The reputation that TOBA was a difficult organization to work for caused performers to joke that the acronym stood for “Tough On Black Asses.” This circuit helped disseminate Memphis blues music to theater audiences throughout the nation.

image credits: buckaroo; Country Music Hall of Fame; misanthropoetry; Library of Congress

Who can explain why certain musical trends catch fire? In the 1920s and ’30s, jug bands became popular, growing out of an older string band tradition. Jug band music is loose and irrepressible, good-time party music— made from any odd assortment of instruments: fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, washboard, wash tub bass, harmonica, kazoo and, of course, a whiskey jug. In Memphis, two figures were central in the jug band craze: Gus Cannon and his Jug Stompers, and Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band. These groups were popular among white, as well as black audiences, often performing at parties, on the corners of famous Beale Street, the Peabody Hotel, and on the back of trucks as advertisements for nearly anything.

Gus Cannon (September 12, 1883 – October 15, 1979) was born on a plantation in northern Mississippi, the youngest of 10 brothers. He handmade his first banjo from a pan and a raccoon hide, and began entertaining in his teens for levee building camps and sawmills. He settled for a time in Clarksdale, MS where he learned to play some fiddle and guitar from members of W. C. Handy’s orchestra.

After moving to Memphis, Cannon recorded under the name “Banjo Joe” for Paramount Records, but having witnessed the popularity of Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band, he formed Cannon’s Jug Stompers. The Jug Stompers recorded for the Victor label and produced a total of 26 sides.

youtube: Cannon’s Jug Stompers

Will Shade (February 5, 1898 – September 18, 1966), also known as Son Brimmer, was a native Memphian and was among the first to bring the jug band craze to town. He formed the Memphis Jug Band as a loose-knit, rotating group of musicians with endearing names like Tee Wee Blackman, Hambone Lewis, and Jab Jones, often sending out several incarnations of the same group. These bands played a mixture of low-down blues, gospel, ragtime, pop ballads, novelty numbers and anything that would make their audiences dance. Shade’s group was the more recorded, with over 60 sides for Victor between 1927 and 1930.

youtube: Memphis Jug Band

Jug band popularity declined in the 1930s, but these musicians continued making their kind of music and were rediscovered by revivalists in their later decades. Cannon’s song, “Walk Right In”, was made into a pop hit in the 1960s by The Rooftop Singers, and he performed on the revival circuit with Furry Lewis and Bukka White. Because of the popularity of “Walk Right In”, Stax Records released an album of the same name in 1963 with Will Shade joining his old rival, Gus Cannon.

youtube: Walk Right In

Gus Cannon died in October 15, 1979 at the age of 96. Will Shade died of pneumonia on September 18, 1966, and in 2008 a group of Memphis musicians held a fundraiser to purchase a headstone for his grave. The influence of The Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers was to be later felt in the iconic Memphis group, Mud Boy and the Neutrons.

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image credits: R. Crumb; Herald Mosley; U.S. National Park Service; Jim Shearin; George Mitchell

Music has always coursed through the veins of this Southern town on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The ghostly echoes of its music’s prehistory still ring off of the Indian burial mounds there. The work songs of slaves unloading cargo from riverboats— and their blood and sweat— permeate the river landings. History needs a tangible record, however. Documentation. With a tip of the cotton picker’s straw hat (purchased at A. Schwab’s dry goods store) to those who came before, I can think of no other way to begin this blog about the history of Memphis music than to pay tribute to the Father of Memphis Music- W. C. Handy.

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was an educated musician born in Florence, Alabama, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister. He claimed to be influenced by the sounds of rural Alabama and by the complex rhythms of his fellow workers’ shovels at a foundry in Florence. He played a number of musical instruments and performed in minstrel shows that toured the U.S. and Cuba before the turn of the 20th century, but he is known to Memphians as a trumpeter due to his famous statue.

Handy became a music faculty member at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes and taught from 1900 to 1902. In his travels through Mississippi, he used his remarkable memory and ability to transcribe music to document the blues he heard there. He wrote in his 1941 autobiography, Father of the Blues, of a train station encounter in Tutwiler, Mississippi: “A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept… As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars….The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” He described music he heard while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi as the “kind of stuff associated with cane rows and levee camps” and deemed it “haunting”.

youtube: Memphis Blues

Performing music was more profitable for Handy than teaching it, so he established his own band in Memphis, Tennessee around 1910. He composed the great “Memphis Blues” originally as a campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate (and soon-to-be notorious “boss”) Edward Crump. It was published in 1912 and brought the first sounds of the 12 bar blues into the homes of America and the rest of the world. The foxtrot dance step was inspired by it, and Handy sold the rights to the song for a mere $100. His popularity continued to increase, however, as he authored the “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”, basing them on popular dances like the one-step and the tango. He was among the first published composers to convey the distinctive idioms of blues music— blue notes, slurs, the three chords and three four bar phrases— which he had heard on the Delta cotton plantations and on the levees of St. Louis.

youtube: St. Louis Blues

W. C. Handy found it difficult for an African-American to get his works published, so he moved to New York City in 1917 where he established his own successful publishing company. He wrote an impressive work entitled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs in 1926, and in 1938 published W. C. Handy’s Collection of Negro Spirituals. An RCA movie was made based on his “St. Louis Blues” and starred Bessie Smith. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the “Beale Street Blues” while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust.”

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Handy died in New York City of pneumonia on March 28, 1958.

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image credits: Q.T. Luong; Greg Cottrell; Michael Ochs Archives