W.C. Handy is widely recognized as the first to introduce the Blues to mainstream audiences in America. William Warfield, a legend of American theater known for his stage portrayal of Porgy in George Gershwin's folk opera, is heard reading W.C. Handy's description of the Blues in an encore performance this week on Riverwalk Jazz.
“The Blues is a thing deeper than what you'd call a mood today. Like the spirituals, it began with the Negro. It involves our history, where we came from and what we experienced. The Blues came from the man farthest down. The Blues came from nothingness, from want, from desire, and when a man sang or played the Blues, a small part of that need was satisfied from the music. The Blues goes back to slavery, to longing."
It was 1903 when W.C. Handy heard the Blues for the first time. He was making his living as a municipal bandleader, traveling through the South, teaching local musicians how to play Sousa marches and Strauss waltzes for Sunday afternoon performances in small town parks.
Waiting for a train in Tutweiler, Mississippi, as his famous story goes, Handy happened to hear a black guitar player sitting by the train tracks, singing a song about the Yazoo-Delta railroad lines. Handy thought it was the 'weirdest' music he'd ever heard, but it captured his imagination and set him off in a new direction in music that resulted in his composition “Yellow Dog Blues.”
W.C. Handy went on to collect, compose, arrange and publish hundreds of Blues compositions. His work legitimized and commercialized the Blues, which up until that time had been folk music enjoyed mainly by rural black populations.
This week The Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrates the Blues with performances by jazz icons who have graced the stage of The Landing over the years. Kansas City bluesman Jay McShann, blues shouter Joe Williams, trumpeter Clark Terry, pianist Dick Hyman and reedman Bob Wilber join The Band to honor America's original roots music—The Blues. William Warfield presents passages from W.C. Handy's autobiography, The Father of the Blues.
“My father, who was a preacher, used to cry every time he heard someone sing the old spiritual 'March on I'll See You on Judgment Day.' When I asked him why, he said, ‘That was the song they sang when your uncle was sold into slavery in Arkansas.’”
Photo credit for Home Page: "Yellow Dog Blues" Sheet Music, 1919. Image courtesy wikipedia.com.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2008