September 1999 Edition
This month we are featuring another purely American musical art form, the Blues. Born in the Mississippi Delta and nurtured in my home, Memphis, the blues have had an enormous effect on the development of Western popular music.
The blues were created around the turn of the century by talented musicians who managed to use music to express some of the deepest and most troubling human emotions ever portrayed by music. The early music was not documented and it was only later, around 1912, that composers began writing blues music. Much of what makes the blues the blues cannot be written down, it comes mainly through the emotion and expression of the performer.
Regardless, many expressive works have been written by the greats such as W.C. Handy (see our Blues page for information about Handy) and by other lesser known and unfortunately forgotten composers of that great era. For more about the blues, its history and the musical stucture, stop by our Blues Page for more information.
The Memphis Blues|
Music by: W.C. Handy
Lyrics by: George A Norton
Cover artist: unknown
This song is one of the earliest blues compositions published. The original music was written by Handy in 1912 and in this 1913 version, Norton added lyrics and the subtitle states, "Founded on W.C. Handy's World Wide "Blue" Note Melody". The song has sometimes been called "Mister Crump" as it is said that the song was written for E.H. Crump, a Memphis politician seeking election. (Crump went on to establish a political dynasty in Memphis that lasted till the 1950's).
In this song, you can hear the "blue note" which makes its self clearly heard in bar four of the chorus (right on cue according to the structure of a classic blues song). For more information about the famous "blue note" see our Blues Page. In many respects, Handy's composition were the foundation for all written blues. As a pioneer in developing the genre, he has no equal.
Listen to this original blues work.
Music & Lyrics by: W.C. Handy
Cover Artist: unknown
If Handy was the "father of the blues", Beale Street in Memphis was its home. During the early 20th century, Beale Street in Memphis was the home of the blues and many of the most famous blues musicians in the world. This work by Handy extolls the virtues, glitter and musical heritage of beale Street.
In the mid twentieth century, Beale Street fell into disrepair and neglect. In the 1980's Memphis revitalized the area and it is now a thriving center for genuine blues music, shows and great restaurants. Today, Beale Street is enjoying a new greatness, perhaps greater than in handy's times.
This song fully exploits the blue note and its emotional effect on the music.
Hear this interesting old song.
Those Draftin Blues|
Music & Lyrics by: Maceo Pinkard
Cover artist: DeTacakcs
For as many subjects that could bring on depression or a blue mood, there was a song about them. This one is a subject that depressed many a young man from the first World War through the 70's till the selective service draft was discontinued. It wasn't just the guys who got the blues over this either. Here we have a young woman lamenting the loss of her man to the draft.
The music is terrific, a slow draggy song with great use of grace notes to give the feeling of sort of a stutter step walk. You can just visualize someone with the blues walking along with their head down, dragging their feet wishing the blues would go away. The lyrics tell the sad story:
Listen to this classic blues lament.
"When Un-cle Sam, calls out your man
Don't sigh, and cry
be-cause you know he cert'n-ly can't re-fuse
To hold him him back, might make him slack
Just say, you've got,
Those draft-ing blues.
The Alcoholic Blues
Music by: Albert Von Tilzer
Lyrics by: Edward Laska
Cover artist: Unknown
One prominent subject related to the blues is booze and drunkeness. The next two songs relate to that issue and the effect of prohibition which was introduced in 1919. This first one tells the story of a man who fought for this country in the war and who is upset with the government and "Mr. Hoover" for taking away his booze. Part of the lyrics express this thought:
When Mis-ter Hoo-ver said to cut my din-ner down
I nev-er e-ven hes-i-tate, I nev-er frown;
I cut my su-gar, I cut my coal
But now they dug deep in my soul
The lyrics go on to enumerate all the drinks he wants and will miss "since they amp-u-ta-ted my booze". Musically, the song is pretty expressive but seems a little more upbeat than some of the other blues songs featured. Nonee-less, if you listen you can hear the distinct blues pattern and that wonderful blue note exactly on cue in measure four of the chorus.
Listen to this song.
I've Got the Prohibition Blues (For My Booze)
Music & Lyrics by: Carl Zerse
Cover artist: Starmer
Here we have another prohibition song written in 1919. I guess one good thing that came out of prohibition was an opportunity for songwriters to sell some songs and an opportunity for the blues (songs) to become more prevalent. In this work, we hear the point of view of a person who is really suffering some intense withdrawal from booze.
I nev-er knew that I'd miss you
The way I do Boo-Hoo, Boo-Hoo
An-heus-er Busch has ceased to bloom,
Now my life is filled with gloom.
How very sad. Musically we are still strictly within the blues pattern, again, listen for that blue note at the fourth measure of the chorus.
Listen to "The Prohibition Blues".
The Wabash Blues
Music by: Fred Meinken
Lyrics by: Dave Ringle
Cover artist: unknown
As time passed, the blues evolved and in many cases, the use of the word blues in some songs was not at all an indication that a song was a true blues work. Such is the case for some of the songs that we have in this month's gallery such as "The Wang-Wang Blues" and "The Teepee Blues". One of our most popular works at parlorsongs, "the Limehouse Blues" is not a true blues piece musically speaking. Composers began using the term blues as a title enhancment and ignored the musical definition.
Later, arrangements of some of these songs got us even further from the true blues construct. That is the case for this song. Once you listen to it, you will clearly hear that this is no blues song in this form. The original work however, more closely fit the musical pattern.
Listen to this arrangement of "Wabash Blues".
The St. Louis Blues
Music & Lyrics by: W.C. Handy
Cover artist: unknown
After that, a return to the master seems appropriate. Arguably, one of the most popular blues songs ever composed was Handy's St. Louis Blues. Here we have it in it's original form, as written and first publishe by Handy and his Pace & Handy music company of Memphis, Tennessee. The melody is one that is instantly recognizable and has been recorded and used in countless movies over the last 85 years. Speaking of recordings, here is a snip of one of the earliest recordings of St. Louis Blues.
One interesting thing I learned about this piece in creating the mid file is that the chorus to this piece is actually a melody from another Handy blues piece, "The Jugo Blues". How interesting it is that his most famous melody is actually a different one than we believe it to be.
If you havn't also visited our Blues Page, check it our before you leave us as there is some information about Mr. Handy and the history of the Blues you may find interesting.
Listen to "The St. Louis Blues".
Be sure to visit this month's gallery for more great songs, including "The Wang Wang Blues", the "State Street Blues" and a redeux of some of our favorite featured works you may have missed.
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