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Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journeyby Peter Guralnickand Robert Santelli and Holly George-Warren and Christopher John Farley
A Century of the Blues
1903. The place: Tutwiler, a tiny town in the Mississippi Delta, halfway between Greenwood and Clarksdale. It is dusk, and the sky is rich in summer color. The slight breeze, when it visits, is warm and wet with humidity.
William Christopher Handy, better known by his initials, W.C., waits on the wooden platform for a train heading north. Handy, the recently departed bandleader for Mahara's Minstrels, a black orchestra that mostly plays dance music and popular standards of the day, is a learned musician who understands theory and the conventions of good, respectable music. He had joined the Minstrels as a cornet player when he was twenty-two years old and traveled widely with them: the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba. In time, he became their band director. Now, some seven years later, here he is, fresh from agreeing to lead the black Clarksdale band Knights of Pythias.
The train is late, so Handy does the only thing he can do: He waits patiently, trying to stay cool, passing the time with idle thoughts, and scanning the scenery for anything that might prove the least bit interesting. Finally succumbing to boredom, Handy dozes off, only to be awakened by the arrival of another man who sits down nearby and begins to play the guitar. His clothes tattered and his shoes beyond worn, the man is a sad specimen, especially compared to Handy, whose clothes bespeak a black sophistication not often seen in these parts.
The man plays and Handy listens, growing increasingly interested in the informal performance. Handy, of course, has heard many people, black and white, play guitar before, but not the way this man plays it. He doesn't finger the strings normally; instead, he presses a pocketknife against them, sliding it up and down to create a slinky sound, something akin to what Hawaiian guitarists get when they press a steel bar to the strings.
But it isn't just the unusual manner in which the poor black man plays his guitar. What he sings, and how he sings it, is equally compelling. "Goin' where the Southern cross the Dog": Most people around these parts know that "the Southern" is a railroad reference, and that "the Dog" is short for "Yellow Dog," local slang for the Yazoo Delta line. The man is singing about where the Southern line and the Yazoo Delta line intersect, at a place called Moorhead. But something about the way the man practically moans it for added emphasis, repeating it three times, strikes Handy hard; the combination of sliding guitar, wailing voice, repeated lyrics, and the man's emotional honesty is incredibly powerful. Handy doesn't realize it yet, but this moment is an important one in his life, and an important one in the history of American music as well. The description of this incident, written about by Handy thirty-eight years later in his autobiography, is one of the earliest detailed descriptions of the blues ever written by a black man.
Handy called his book Father of the Blues. It's a good title for a book — but not, strictly speaking, an accurate one. What Handy did on that railroad platform in Mississippi a century ago was witness the blues, not give birth to it. But there's no disputing that he was forever after a changed man. "The effect was unforgettable," he wrote. Even so, he found it hard to bring the blues into his own musical vocabulary. Wrote Handy: "As a director of many respectable, conventional bands, it was not easy for me to concede that a simple slow-drag-and-repeat could be rhythm itself. Neither was I ready to believe that this was just what the public wanted."
But later, during a Cleveland, Mississippi, performance, Handy's band was outshone — and outpaid — by a local trio playing blues similar to what he heard in Tutwiler. Shortly thereafter, Handy became a believer. "Those country black boys at Cleveland had taught me something ... My idea of what constitutes music was changed by the sight of that silver money cascading around the splay feet of a Mississippi string band," wrote Handy.
In 1909 Handy penned a political campaign song, "Mr. Crump," for the Memphis mayor. He later changed the title to "The Memphis Blues" and published it in 1912. The song was a hit. Entrepreneurially savvy, Handy delved deeper into the music, following it with "The St. Louis Blues," "Joe Turner Blues," "The Hesitating Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Beale Street," and other blues and blues-based compositions. Their commercial success made Handy well-off but, more importantly, solidified the idea that the blues could exist in mainstream music settings, beyond black folk culture. The blues had arrived, thanks to W.C. Handy. American music would never be the same.
♦ ♦ ♦
No one really knows for certain when or where the blues was born. But by the time of Handy's initial success with the music in 1912, it's safe to say it had been a viable black folk-music form in the South for at least two decades. With a couple exceptions, ethnomusicologists didn't become interested in the blues until later, thus missing prime opportunities to document the origins of the music and to record its pioneers. Still, there are enough clues to indicate that the blues most likely came out of the Mississippi Delta in the late nineteenth century.
Like all music forms — folk, pop, or classical — the blues evolved, rather than being born suddenly. So to understand the origins of the blues, you need to take a look at what came before it. You need to go back to the early part of the seventeenth century, when African slaves were first brought to the New World. Europeans involved in the slave trade stripped as much culture from their human cargo as possible before their arrival in the New World. But music was so embedded in the day-to-day existence of the African men and women caught in this horrific business that it was impossible to tear their songs from their souls...
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