Tom Strini

This week at the MSO Pops

By - Sep 17th, 2009 01:26 am
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
W.C. Handy, with his cornet, at age 19

W.C. Handy, with his cornet, at age 19

The Milwaukee Symphony will open its season with a Pops program based on the Blues.

At first blush, something might seem a little off about that. Here’s why:

In the 1950s, a small army of ethnomusicologists scoured the South in search of authenticity. They marshaled a small army of what they deemed the real thing, elderly bluesmen untainted by commercial considerations. They were inevitably African American, slurred of speech and limited in guitar technique. Blindness was considered a musical plus.

That image persists today as the one and only true and proper blues, and it’s certainly an important branch of blues idiom. But that isn’t the only way to play the blues, and it never was.

The climax of the MSO’s program will W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” certainly in an over-the-top arrangement. (You have all those great players there, you have to let them flaunt it.)

Handy (1873-1958) was no mush-mouthed farm hand with a guitar. This son of a Florence, Alabama, preacher was a trained organist and a dedicated student of the cornet. He knew the European classical tradition. He traveled widely, in his youth, as the music director of a highly regarded black minstrel show that once toured Cuba. Handy organized little orchestras and taught his musicians how to read notes. He was an excellent singer. He taught Western music at Alabama Agricultural College for Negroes for two years.

But Handy was also acutely aware of the appalling social conditions around him and the music that grew out of it. He listened carefully to mush-mouthed farm hands and their cigar-box guitars and banjos. Handy heard their monotonous laments, with the same four-bar strains repeated again and again. Handy thought he could do something more sophisticated with that raw material. And he did.

Handy was explicit about it in his autobiography. Instead of repeating the opening line three times, he repeated it once, slightly altered, as in St. Louis Blues:

“I hate to see… that evenin’ sun go down,”

“I said, I hate to see… that evenin’ sun go down,”

with a new, third line to complete the thought:

“‘Cause my baby, he’s gone left this town.”

Instead of just sitting on the same chord and repeating the same bit of tune, Handy moves from tonic to subdominant to dominantand varying his melody. In crafting this structure, Handy was not behaving like an instinctive folk musician. He was behaving like a composer.

Handy also behaved like a composer when he appropriated a Habanera rhythm he’d heard in Cuba. The non-standard bridge of “St. Louis Blues” goes far beyond the usual scope. It has two distinct musical ideas, and it almost like a little development.

I don’t know for sure whether Handy arranged the music for a 1929 film of he song, but he was involved in it and suggested Bessie Smith for the starring role. Smith bends notes and moves rhythms freely, and that’s blues style, but note the formality of the elaborate arrangement around her.

The idea of somehow elevating blues and jazz with trained musicianship and orchestral/choral forces was in the air, and Handy was breathing it. He organized a Carnegie Hall concert of his music in 1928 that featured a Rhapsody-in-Blue sort of apotheosis of the blues.

Handy and his partner, Harry Pace, were good businessmen. In 1912, Handy sold his “Memphis Blues,” considered the first published blues song, for $100. It became a big hit and he resolved never to be burned again. He and Pace formed their own publishing company and followed up with “St. Louis Blues,” an even bigger hit. In 1917, Sophie Tucker recorded it, and “St. Louis Blues” became the first million-selling blues recording.

Tucker was a Russian Jew who came to the United States in 1900. She could sing and she was a brash stage presence. She was also a large woman; vaudeville managers made her up in blackface to play the “Mammy” stereotype. Tucker was so convincing that she could make a habit of stripping off a long glove to shock the audience by exposing a lily-white arm at the end of her shows. Later, she abandoned the black face and made herself into the first “Red Hot Mama.”

Tucker played a crucial role in establishing “St. Louis Blues” as the song that changed everything. Without the blues, as defined and established by Handy, there is no jazz, no rock and no country music, as least as we know it.

If Sophie Tucker could sing the blues, the Milwaukee Symphony can play the blues, too. The language of the blues can support many dialects.


Vocalist Carmen Bradford

Who: Milwaukee Symphony Pops, with guest conductor and trumpeter Jeff Tyzik, vocalist Carmen Bradford, trumpeter Byron Stripling, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and drummer Steve Moretti.

What: “Nothin’ but the Blues”

Where: Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 18-20)

How Much: $25-$93, and the MSO ticket line, (414) 291-7605 and the Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206

Sources for essay: “America’s Songs,” by Philip Furia and Michael Lasser; “The American Songbook,” by Ken Bloom;;and

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *