Blues means what milk does to a baby.
Blues is what the spirit is to the minister.
We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt,
our souls have been disturbed.
As waggish musicians are wont to say,
‘You should always have a W. C. Handy’
Whilst jazz was simultaneously emerging in New Orleans and Chicago, like all music at the time, the only way you could hear it was by being there at a live performance, or by taking advantage of the huge, burgeoning printed sheet music industry and playing the popular tunes yourself, at home. Yet towards the end of the 19th century, something exciting happened.
Emile Berliner (1851–1929) was a German-born American inventor, and alongside all the other attempts at recording sound, such as his own cylindrical machine, which he dubbed ‘the gramophone’ in 1887, (a system already in use via the machines of the equally inventive Thomas Edison), in 1888 he managed to surpass cylinders by using discs. Yet such devices were still, for many, simply fascinating playthings.
Putting music on a disc was one achievement, but trying to stabilise the speed of the turntable was a different challenge.
So Berliner teamed up with Eldridge R. Johnson, an engineer, who designed a clockwork spring-wound motor. In 1901, Berliner and Johnson knew that together, they had something impressive, so they joined forces. The Victor Talking Machine Company was formed.
By 1902, recordings were being made by performers sitting in a studio, playing into the large horn of a gramophone. The recordings were made onto thick wax discs. By 1902 the immensely popular operatic celebrity, Enrico Caruso, essentially became history’s first recording star as one of the earliest performers to embrace the new technology, ‘cutting’ his first record, Vesti le gubba from Pagliacci. It sold more than a million records.
Against the tragic backdrop of the Great War of 1914-18 (although it must be remembered that the USA did not enter the war until April 1917) African American music making had developed into a variety of vibrant styles. Jazz had taken off in the south and as far north as New York and Chicago, and jazz scenes were developing in places as far apart as Kansas City and Los Angeles. All the accrued cultural heritage of struggle and deprivation experienced through two centuries of slavery, the continuing racism, the immense transcendent outlet of the spiritual and various European influences had all fused together to create a new, improvised and uplifting musical form. Cutting its own swathe through this was yet another means of expression. Unlike the spiritual, this wasn’t religious, but secular. This was the Blues.
Like the word ‘jazz’ there are numerous theories surrounding the origin of ‘blues’ as a musical appellation. Its provenance, when studied closely, is quite surprising. Because of the way we now think of the blues it simply sounds too hip and modern for the word to have a history prior to the birth of jazz. We can confidently sidestep the ‘official’ first musical mention from 1912, in W.C. Handy's Memphis Blues because long before Columbus, in Britain as far back as 1385, the adjective ‘blue’ meant ‘low spirited’. There are other historical examples, one quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) which tells us of it being in use in 1741 for ‘depression, low spirits.’
|David Garrick in his 'Blews'|
outfit, no doubt ...
‘I am far from being quite well, tho not troubled with ye Blews as I have been’.
‘The blues’ is also a diminutive of blue devils, bad little demons associated with despondency, depression and sadness. Blue devils have been with us since 1616, from a poetry collection entitled Times’ Whistle:
‘Alston, whose life hath been accounted evill, And therfore calde by many the blew devill’.
If we need any further proof of the provenance, in 1798 George Colman the Younger wrote a one act play, set in France entitled The Blue Devils.
As a musical style, yes, the term ‘the blues’ has been around since 1912, which inevitably takes us to ‘the Father of The Blues’ William Christopher Handy (1873 –1958). The first publication of blues sheet music was Hart Wand's Dallas Blues in 1912 but the prominence of W. C. Handy dominates the genre’s history.
As this story deals with the way in which R&B musicians were frequently the victims of appalling treatment and skulduggery over money and royalties, it is a sad fact that such dubious dealings, although mainly the province of some promoters and managers throughout history, should have coincided with the rise of recorded music, and have continued up to this day. Memphis Blues was Handy's third composition, but his first blues. However, it began life as a political campaign song in support of Edward Hull Crump (1874-1954), who was running for Mayor in Memphis in 1909. It was originally an instrumental entitled Mr. Crump, with a bit of a jive/rap vocal thrown in to help ‘Boss’ Crump, one of the early builders of the modern Democratic Party and eventually one of the South’s most powerful politicians, on his mayoral way. The mayoral campaign kept Handy busy all over town, assembling bands and musicians to give repeated performances of Mr. Crump. The lyric seems simple enough:
Mr. Crump don't 'low no easy riders here
Crump don't 'low no easy riders here
We don't care what Mr. Crump don't 'low
We gonna bar'l house anyhow
Mr. Crump can go catch hisself some air.
However, even in 1909, almost five decades after emancipation and the Civil War, there are still West African roots here. West Africans always had what were known as ‘songs of derision’, so although Mr. Crump is a campaign song, it has all the hallmarks of the Southern black man’s penchant for ‘telling it like it is.’ It pulls no punches, yet at least Crump was a ‘straight’ politician, and by all accounts not like the rabid segregationists of later decades. Others in the Crump Camp were more devious.
|Beale Street, Memphis.|
Needless to say, but once Theron had bought the copyright, he knew that he’d make a fat profit because there’d be no royalties due to Handy until the copyright ran out. It would be 1937 before Handy could re-claim his highly successful composition, and when he completed his first book on the blues, he had even been refused permission to include the song.
This notorious episode did however convince Handy to form his own successful publishing company, Handy & Pace.
As an early demonstration of the felonious way in which African American performers would be treated by publishers, managers, promoters and record companies, W. C. Handy’s Mr. Crump/Memphis Blues experience is an early milestone of cynical opportunism. It seems poignant that under the revised song’s later title, Memphis Blues, that Handy could pen such a magnanimous verse as:
‘Folks I've just been down, down to Memphis town,
That's where the people smile, smile on you all the while.
Hospitality, they were good to me.
I couldn't spend a dime, and had the grandest time’
Of course, there’s always another side to every story. In his book The Country Blues,
Samuel Charters writes:
‘Handy later complained bitterly that he was cheated out of the rights to his
song, but the man who bought the rights from him was acting in good faith and
had as little idea as Handy did the song would become so successful.’
If that’s the case, then Theron Bennett must have been a saint among his peers. As will be seen, the practice of grabbing copyright and composer credits from innocent artists became one of the big bonuses
in being a publisher or a record producer, jobs which were often combined. For example, Lester Melrose, rightly famed for recording many of the greatest country blues artists for RCA and Columbia for their Chicago ‘race music’ subsidiary, bragged that he had recorded 90% of all the black music African Americans were dancing to across the USA. Dedicated though Melrose was to bringing the blues to a wider audience, he only paid artists a recording fee, and made sure that before they left the studio they had fully surrendered the compositional copyright to their songs over to him. Thus, with no artistic, creative or musical skills, Melrose is said to have gained royalty payments for up to 3,000 blues compositions, whilst not writing a note or a word of any.
This would appear to be true, as his tax return for 1938 shows him making a
staggering $139,000 – a huge income for the time. Melrose was able to retire to
a splendid villa in an orange grove in Florida, where he died in comfort in
It didn’t take long for the word ‘blues’ to become a popular addition to a song title. A new musical structure had developed. Primarily a vocal form, lyrically, it wasn’t religious, but secular, although it contained echoes of slavery and field hollers through its call-and-response pattern and the syncopated rhythms of work songs and spirituals. Its hallmarks were a repeating harmonic structure with melodic emphasis on the flatted or “blue” third and seventh notes of the scale. Its common form featured a 12-bar phrase using the chords
of the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of the major scale.
With the advent of the gramophone, records began to match the popularity of sheet music. Although a white Broadway star, Marie
Cahill recorded The Dallas Blues in 1917, and the early 1920s saw the first black blues recordings, and women led the charge. Mamie Smith (1883-1946) was the first African American singer to record.
Her 1920 Crazy Blues, written by Perry Bradford, an experienced Minstrel and Vaudeville performer, was to be followed in 1923 by Ma Rainey’s (1886-1939) Boll Weevil Blues. Fine vocalist though she was, in a variety of popular styles, Mamie Smith wasn’t really a blues singer, but Crazy Blues sold 10,000 recordings the first week and 75,000 within a month. Ma Rainey certainly was a blues singer and went on to make over 100 recordings. These early recordings, with their jazz accompanists; would soon earn the title ‘classic blues.’
By the end of the 1920s the blues, especially due to classic female artists, had become a major element of African American and American popular music. It even had exposure, often due to Handy’s arrangements, to white audiences in theatres and clubs, such as the Cotton Club and numerous Beale Street venues in Memphis through special blues shows organised by the Theatre Owners Bookers Association The record industry began recording blues performers. New labels such as Okeh Records, Paramount Records and the American Record Corporation, all found it worthwhile to record African American music.
NOTES & SOURCES
 Berliner invented many other products, such as an early version of the helicopter, the acoustic tile and a loom which enabled the mass-production of cloth.
 Gent, R.C. (Ed.) The Times Whistle: A Naïve Daunce of Seven Satires and other Poems. English Text Society, London 1616.
 Avakian, George: Liner notes to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Long Playing Record, Label: Columbia CL 591 Canada, 1954
 Charters, Samuel - The Country Blues. New York: Rinehart. 1959 Reprinted as The Country Blues: Roots of Jazz by Da Capo Press, with a new introduction by the author 1975
 Reich, Howard and Gaines, William: Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton Da Capo Press, New York, 2004.