REVIEW: What, Exactly, Is the Blues?
I don’t say this often, but the blues was on my mind this week. Specifically, the songs written and/or published by W. C. Handy. Not exactly a household name like Scott Joplin (who experienced a major posthumous career comeback in the 1970’s). However, Handy was actually one of the key figures in the popularization of the blues, and therefore, American music.
The tale of W. C. Handy was the focus of New York Festival of Song’s delightful and illuminating recent concert. It turns out that Handy is sort of Salieri to Jelly Roll Morton’s Mozart, if you will, and there’s an intriguing back story to Handy’s lack of fame as the twenty-first century creeps on. Steven Blier, pianist and artistic director of NYFOS regaled the audience at Merkin Hall on Wednesday, November 14, with music and amusing connective stories, in an evening titled “W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues.” Fascinating program notes by program consultant and music historian Elliott Hurwitt, delve into the complex history of the blues, and Handy’s role in music history. Hurwitt appeared on NPR’s Here and Now:
W. C. Handy had an early music education, and soon found his way into the traveling minstrel circuit (an intersection with relevant history, given the recent reminder of the history of “black-face” with Megan Kelly’s recent problems on NBC). In his travels, he encountered the folk music resounding in the southern regions he travailed. He listened, and with his knowledge of music theory and notation, wrote it down. He listened, and with his skills as an arranger, began arranging the music for dance band, and when he moved to Memphis, playing that music around town at weddings and funerals. Then he began a publishing company, championing not only his own creations, but the music of other African-Americans. He listened, documented, augmented, and championed the music of his people, of his peers.
Handy’s compositions bear more resemblance to Scott Joplin’s rags than they do to the improvised wailing, jazzy blues of B. B. King, which I think most modern audiences would associate with “blues,” per se.
Handy’s music is an earlier incarnation, in a sense, pre-dating “jazz” as we now understand it. First, it was not meant as something to be improvised upon, but a clear composition, with a beginning, middle, and end. In fact, his songs have contrasting sections: in the case of 1914’s “St. Louis Blues,” there’s a middle section in a minor key, with a habañero rhythm (Handy had visited Cuba recently). But you also hear the familiar twelve-bar phrases that have come to define the style, as well as the ubiquitous “blue” note.
Handy, who spent in his later years in New York City, appeared on Ed Sullivan’s television program “The Toast of the Town” in 1949.
Handy’s songs are full of musical humor and surprise, with witty lyrics that often have a bawdy sense of humor. One of his most significant accomplishments was as a publisher, and NYFOS sampled songs of Handy’s, as well as songs by others he published. With a bouncy, jocular energy, a company of four vocalists, and four expert musicians, led by Blier at the piano, presented a rich selection of songs that spanned a wide slice of history.
Shereen Pimentel possesses a shimmering soprano and bright stage presence in such gems as Shelton Brooks’s “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider Has Gone” of 1913. Lucia Bradford’s warmly glowing mezzo-soprano brought intense yearning to Eddie Green’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and expertly dispatched humor to Fowler and Bradford’s “He May Be Your Man (But He Comes to See Me Sometimes).”
Justin Austin’s poised, smiling baritone charmed in Handy’s “Beale St. Blues” and, in duet with Pimentel, the delightful “Hesitation Blues.” Then there was the surprising vulgarity of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” from 1938, in which Austin and Bradford had great fun with lyrics such as “Monkey butt, funky butt take it away / funky butt, stinky butt take it away…”
Joshua Blue’s rousing, focused tenor brought ravishing phrasing to the Latin-inflected “Negrita,” a 1935 song with lyrics by Handy and music by D’Arteaga. But, it was his noble account of the evening’s most remarkable find, a powerful setting by Sammy Heyward of text by Langston Hughes, “(Checkin’ on the) Freedom Train,” wherein the full impact of this music and its intersection with American history was most acutely felt.
The performers’ instant rapport with the audience, and the winning musicianship of the instrumentalists — Blier’s band played with a feel that transported us away from 21st Century Manhattan to the sultry Mississippi Delta, Vince Giordano moving from upright bass to tuba to guitar with equal virtuosity, and Scott Robinson exuding joy on a variety of winds and brass — made for an evening that was stimulating and educational, but moreover, emotionally touching.
At first glance, W. C. Handy’s music may seem a mere reminder of a quainter time. Yet none other than George Gershwin wrote to Handy that the “ ‘St. Louis Blues’ was the father of all my blues.” Even if Handy was but one of many early observers and chroniclers of the phenomenon of the ‘blues', he listened, transcribed, incorporated it into his own musical voice, and through his entrepreneurship, he seized upon and facilitated its proliferation and evolution. Whether that’s commercialization or championship, I think it’s clear he loved the music. And we are all different for it.
Listen — Handy’s blues is everywhere a part of our lives.
NYFOS, in its 31st Season, is new to me, and I will certainly be adding it to my regular NYC musical agenda. I love the breadth and versatility of their offerings, and the integrity of interpretation fostered by Blier and Michael Barnett, the Festival’s co-founders.
Upcoming programs include: