Jim Holthouser | Way Down South Where the Blues Began: A W.C. Handy Piano Anthology

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Way Down South Where the Blues Began: A W.C. Handy Piano Anthology

by Jim Holthouser

This album is derived from "Blues an Anthology" and is based on W.C. Handy’s original piano arrangements of songs he wrote or published. Only minor liberties have been taken - for interpretation, musicality and brevity.
Genre: Blues: Piano Blues
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  Song Share Time Download
1. The Memphis Blues (Mister Crump)
3:19 $0.99
2. St. Louis Blues
2:59 $0.99
3. The Yellow Dog Blues
2:33 $0.99
4. Hesitating Blues
3:02 $0.99
5. Joe Turner Blues
3:20 $0.99
6. Florida Blues
2:52 $0.99
7. Beale Street Blues
2:45 $0.99
8. Long Gone
2:55 $0.99
9. Aunt Hagar's Children
2:39 $0.99
10. The Basement Blues
2:36 $0.99
11. The Atlanta Blues
2:48 $0.99
12. Chantez-les bas
3:15 $0.99
13. Way Down South Where the Blues Began
2:33 $0.99
14. A Typical Stomp
1:11 $0.99
15. Careless Love
2:51 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Way Down South Where The Blues Began

01 – Memphis Blues (Mister Crump) (1909 - 1912)

In Memphis during the early 1900’s, politicians used bands to attract and sway crowds of potential votes. There was no better way to stay in the minds of voters than sending them home with a tune to whistle. In 1909, during a tight mayoral race in Memphis, W.C. Handy wrote a song for Edward Hull Crump’s campaign called Mr. Crump. Crump won the race and served as mayor from 1910 through 1915, and again briefly in 1940.

After the election, Handy repurposed the Mr. Crump melody, renaming it Memphis Blues. This song set a new trend in American music and contributed to the rise of jazz. The composition is a piano rag written in 12-bar blues form with three distinct individual sections.

While Memphis Blues proved to be one of Handy’s most significant and celebrated works, it was also a personal commercial disaster. Handy attempted to self-publish the piece but was scammed by a slick white publisher from Denver who convinced the musician the piece wouldn’t sell. Handy decided to cut his losses and sold the rights for $50. Over time, Memphis Blues proved to be a gold mine for the new owner, ultimately selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Handy, who’d given up ownership rights, did not benefit economically from the song until the copyright expired nearly three decades later. However, he did retain rights to authorship credit from the start, which helped build his name as a blues composer.

02 – St. Louis Blues (1914)

Celebrated as the most famous blues song in history, Handy’s St. Louis Blues is a woman’s story of unrequited love, and its opening line “I hate to see the evening sun go down”* is a reference to Handy’s earlier days in St. Louis when, jobless and homeless, he slept in horse stalls, vacant lots, pool halls, and on the cobblestone banks of the Mississippi. The misery of his experience left an indelible mark, and when he sat down to write St. Louis Blues years later, the whole song “seemed to spring so easily out of nowhere, the work of a single evening at the piano.”*

St. Louis Blues is a rag written in blues form and style. It contained all the ingredients for a 1900’s mega hit: the first section is written in the traditional 12 bar blues form with three lines of verse punctuated with blue notes. Blue notes are flattened 3rd, 5th or 7th notes, which mimic a slide from minor to major common in the African American vocal style. The midsection is a strain of distinct habanera – or tango - rhythms, so popular in the day, and written in a minor key. St Louis Blues was the only blues piece to be written as such until the 1920’s. The final section is an infectious, foot-tapping shuffle. The piece was an immense success from the first night Handy’s orchestra introduced it.

St. Louis Blues became a national sensation when Marion Harris, the Jazz Vampire, recorded it in the early 1920’s. Blues singing legend Bessie Smith followed suit in the mid 1920’s. Written in the days before hit records, St. Louis Blues became a million-selling sheet music phenomenon. It also became the inspiration and title for the 1958 film St. Louis Blues, a story broadly based on the life of W. C. Handy and starring some of the biggest names in music of the day: Nat King Cole, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt and Mahalia Jackson.

03 – Yellow Dog Blues (1914)

The story of Yellow Dog Blues goes all the way back to Handy’s first encounter with the blues in Tutwiler, MS. One night, at the Tutwiler railroad station, Handy nodded off while waiting for a delayed train. He awoke with a start as a black man sitting next to him started plucking a guitar. The man pressed a knife on the strings, which produced a moaning, haunting effect, similar to that of a Hawaiian guitarist using steel bars against the strings. The song was a simple sentiment expressed in three lines and set to a kind of earthy folk music familiar in the South. The song was Going Where the Southern Cross’ the Dog, and Handy never forgot it.

The singer explained he was headed to Morehead, MS, where the north and southbound railway and the east and westbound railway crossed. The railway lines were the Southern and the Yazoo & Delta, also known as the “Yellow Dog,” abbreviated to Y&D. (Dog was railway slang for a local or branch line.) He was simply going where the Southern crossed the Dog. Years later, still inspired by the tune he encountered at Tutwiler, Handy wrote and published a piece originally called Yellow Dog Rag, later changing the title to Yellow Dog Blues. Like Memphis Blues and St. Louis Blues, it’s a rag written in blues form and style with three distinct strains.

04 – Hesitating Blues (1915)

Hesitating Blues tune is taken from on an old black southern spiritual. One version was published in 1914 by Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton, and Art Gillham, called Hesitation Blues. Another version was introduced by Handy a year later and labeled Hesitating Blues. Both versions of the melody are the same; however, the lyrics tell different stories. Smythe, Middleton and Gillham’s version is about a woman searching for a new lover; Handy’s Hesitating Blues is a story of frustrated lovers unable to get through on the phone.

Hesitating Blues is significant, as it marks a major stylistic change in Handy’s compositions. As a music genre, ragtime, with its syncopated or “ragged” rhythms, enjoyed immense popularity between 1895 until the late teens of the Twentieth Century. Handy’s major works up to the time he published Hesitating Blues, compositions such as Memphis Blues, Jogo Blues, St. Louis Blues and Yellow Dog Blues, were ragtime compositions blended with blues form and style. As a musician and publisher in a competitive music market, Handy kept an ear close to the ground and tailored his programs and compositions to his audiences. As ragtime waned in popularity, Handy altered his style, retaining the form and distinctive elements of folk blues, but smoothing out the hyper syncopation of ragtime.

Hesitating Blues has been performed by a wide variety of artists in different styles. Today’s the song is a jug band standard and is also played as blues and sometimes western swing.

05 – Joe Turner Blues (1915)

Joe Turney was the brother of Pete Turney, the one-time governor of Tennessee. Joe had responsibility for taking black prisoners from Memphis to the penitentiary at Nashville. More often, he took them to the farms along the Mississippi River. Their crimes were minor at best, when there were crimes at all. The object of the arrests was to provide needed—and free—labor during planting and harvest seasons.

To begin the process, Joe Turney would start a game of craps. The dice would roll till the required number of laborers had been drawn into the game. At that point, the law would descend upon the men, arrest as many as were needed, try them for gambling in a kangaroo court, and then turn them over to Joe Turney. Turney had a cruel way of handcuffing eighty prisoners to forty links of chains, and from this situation grew many kinds of verses. Convict leasing programs—sometimes called “zebra laws”—began in earnest during Reconstruction, and the Turney system in Tennessee was finally outlawed in 1896.

In Handy’s Joe Turner Blues, Joe Turner (a corruption of Turney) was no longer the long-chain man; he was the masculine victim of unrequited love, just as the singer in St. Louis Blues was the feminine.

You’ll never miss the water
Till your well runs dry;
Till your well runs dry.
You’ll never miss Joe Turner
Till he says goodbye.
Sweet babe, I’m goin’ to leave you
An’ the time ain’t long.
If you don’t believe I’m leaving,
Count the days I’m gone.

06 – Florida Blues (1916)

Handy led a multidimensional life, wearing and juggling a number of identities. There’s Handy as folklorist; Handy as composer and musician; and Handy as entrepreneur and publisher.

Florida Blues is an example of Handy’s work as an entrepreneur and publisher. Following his unfortunate experience selling Memphis Blues, Handy and his friend Harry Pace formed the Pace and Handy Music Company in Memphis. As a publisher, Handy could better control his musical assets, and as he'd figured out, the real money in music was not in performance but in publishing with its on-going royalty streams. Years later, when the Pace-Handy partnership folded, Handy and his brother Charles reorganized the company and named it The Handy Brothers Music Company, which is still in existence today. Handy published all his own works, and when spotting a good commercial opportunity, he added others’ compositions, such as Florida Blues, to his company’s catalog.

Florida Blues was written by William King Phillips and arranged and published by Handy. Recruited from Jacksonville for Handy’s Memphis band, Phillips was a remarkable clarinetist who doubled as a saxophonist. The piece is one of the very first blues songs ever recorded.

07 – Beale Street Blues (1917)

In the aftermath of the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870’s, black Memphis businessman Robert Church bought land around then-named Beal Avenue. It proved to be a smart investment; Church’s bet led him to become the first black millionaire in the South.

Beal Avenue’s modern-day character truly emerged in the early 1900’s when black entrepreneurs opened clubs, restaurants and shops along the famed street. Church’s purchase of the area created economic opportunity and a degree of equality for black Memphians. In a time of great racial injustice, Beale Street became widely known as “Main Street of Black America.” During Handy’s years in Memphis, Beal Avenue was a magnate for black artists, writers and entrepreneurs. It was where Handy worked, wrote, lived and thrived. Following the success of Beale Street Blues, the city of Memphis changed the name from Beal Avenue to Beale Street.

In the years leading up to Prohibition, a movement was afoot to curb the rowdiness and vices of Beale Street. Politicians like Boss Crump ran on a platform of reform; and concurrently, there was pressure from excursion boat operators to pass a local option law to shift the liquor trade from Beale Street to their boats. After a number of attempts, the reformers succeeded. Liquor was outlawed, saloon operating hours reduced, and the brothels were closed.

The hustle and bustle and colorful characters of Beale Street served as a great source of creative inspiration to Handy, and to him, the changes marked the sad end of an era. For this reason, and many others, including on-going acts of racial injustice and violence, Handy relocated his family and publishing company from Memphis to New York. Beale Street Blues commemorates black artistic life and is a nostalgic farewell to his creative home.

08 – Long Gone (1920)

Cultures around the world often create heroes and paragons who model and reinforce cultural norms and values. Johnny Appleseed, George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Davey Crockett are but a few examples in the U.S. Members of the underclass create their own heroes who challenge established norms and values. A century ago, Old John was one such hero.

In southern black folklore, Old John was a wily slave with a talent for outwitting his master without detection. Over time, the mythological Old John morphed into Long John, an escapee from confinement, initially from slavery, and later from the institution that replaced it: prison. Lost John, for example, had shoes with heels at both ends, so pursuers couldn’t tell which way he was going when he escaped. In his composition Long Gone, Handy and his lyricist Chris Smith built on the Long John mythology with their hero Long John Dean from Bowling Green and new stories of eluding capture.

09 – Aunt Hagar’s Children (1921)

As an African American growing up in a deeply religious home in the South, Handy often heard the story of Hagar, the slave woman in Genesis. Hagar was owned by a man named Abraham whose wife, Sarah, was unable to conceive. In desperation to produce a son, Abraham turned to Hagar who birthed a son, Ishmael. Thereafter, Sarah also conceived and bore a son called Isaac. Sarah became jealous of Hagar and Ishmael and demanded Abraham "cast out this slave woman and her son." Distressed, he cast them out. God then told him: "As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also because he is your offspring.” The nations that ensued were Israel, the descendants of Isaac, and the Arab Nations, descended from Ishmael, making Hagar the symbolic mother of early African civilization and, by extension, African Americans.

Handy had a remarkable gift for being able to hear music and rhythms and recall them later when needed. The beginnings of this tune came from the singing of a washerwoman Handy happened to overhear, as she was taking her husband’s frozen garments from the clothes-line on a cold night. In a mournful voice, she sang these words: “Yo clothes look lonesome hangin’ on de line.” Years later, Handy wrote the song on one knee in Brownlee’s Barbershop in Chicago and “tested” his new material that very evening in a performance. According to Handy, there is no purer melody among the blues than that of the final strain of Aunt Hagar’s Children.

10 – The Basement Blues (1924)

The years 1922-24 unquestionably became the worst of Handy’s life since he had been down and out in St. Louis in his early 20’s. Now, Handy was in his late 40’s. His business was in debt; his partner in the business had taken him to court; and Handy was considering bankruptcy. To feed his family and keep his business afloat, he sold his home on Harlem’s fashionable Strivers’ Row, and to top it off, Handy was battling blindness. Luckily, by 1924, with his health improving and his fortunes changing, Handy composed and published two new blues that year: Basement Blues and Atlanta Blues.

Columbia had commissioned Handy to write a song; the request was for something “low-down”. When presented with the song, a company executive complained that the piece wasn’t low-down enough, to which Handy responded, “I don’t know how I could get it low-downer, unless I wrote it in the basement.” “Basement!!! That’s it,” cried the executive!* A slam dunk title was all the song needed. And so Basement Blues came to be.

11 – The Atlanta Blues (1924)

In 1916, the Handy Band performed a concert in Atlanta, in the great auditorium where the Metropolitan Opera Company played its spring engagements. Handy brought artists from New Orleans and gave Handy’s daughter Katherine, then 12, her debut as a singer. They drew crowds totaling seven thousand people, made the front pages, and stayed a week. It was a huge success! Eight years later, Atlanta Blues was written to commemorate a career high point for Handy and as a gesture of gratitude to the city for its overwhelming support.

In creating Atlanta Blues, Handy married two folk songs. The verse is a strain of a tune Handy recalled from childhood whose name is unfortunately lost. The chorus, however, is the based on the better known Make Me a Pallet on the Floor, a song tied to a significant event in Handy and blues history.

One night in 1905, Handy and his band were performing in Cleveland, MS at an all-white event when someone slipped him a note asking the band to play “some of our native music”*. He played an old-time Southern tune, but was later asked whether a local African American band could play a few numbers during the band’s break. Three young men with a battered guitar, mandolin, and a worn-out bass took the stage and played the simple, repetitive strains that appeared to have no beginning or end. Handy described the music as “haunting” and “primitive” and wondered if anyone beside small towns would support this kind of music. The answer wasn’t long in coming. A rain of silver dollars began to fall at the band’s feet – the local band made more money in a few minutes, than Handy’s nine musicians earned the entire engagement. For Handy, this was a moment of epiphany: he began to understand the beauty – and opportunity – of black folk music. Yes, it needed polishing, but based on the audience’s reaction, Handy knew it contained the right stuff, it hit the right emotional spot. Immediately, Handy began arranging black southern folk music and incorporating it into his performances, one piece being Make Me a Pallet on the Floor.

Years later, recalling that moment of awakening, Handy remarked, “That night, a composer was born, an American composer”.

12 - Chantez-les Bas (1931)

A Louisiana love song, Chantez-Les Bas is the only New Orleans-style blues in the Handy repertoire. Handy never visited New Orleans, but during his early years as a band leader he played many engagements in Baton Rouge. On one occasion, when his band serenaded a young lady at night, a neighbor asked them in the local Arcadian French patois to pipe down, “Chantez-les bas” or, in English, “Sing ‘em low”. Handy loved the sound of the words (“Shawn-tay-lay-bah”) and years later incorporated them into one of his blues compositions.

The song was written in 1931, one of the few blues songs of importance published by Handy’s company in that decade. Chantez-Les Bas gained little traction initially, but was picked up in the 1940’s by swing sensation Artie Shaw. The song’s popularity peaked in the 1950’s when Louis Armstrong included it in his all-Handy LP in 1954.

13 – Way Down South Where The Blues Began (1932)

In downtown Memphis, there is a monument to Judge Walter Malone, on which his poem Opportunity is inscribed. Inspired by the honor Memphis bestows on her sons, native and adopted, Handy set this beloved poem to music as a choral arrangement. Its debut performance was sung by 1,200 voices and accompanied by the St. Louis Symphony. In due time, Handy was presented with an achievement award by the St. Louis branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians. As a gesture of gratitude to the region that had given him such opportunity – and his ensuing fame and fortune - Handy wrote Way Down South Where the Blues Began.

Traditional Black Southern Music – The Roots Of The Blues

Abbe Niles, a Wall Street attorney and good friend of Handy, was a passionate collector of sheet music and records, a good amateur pianist, author, and a man with a deep interest in American popular and folk music. Niles and Handy socialized for years, talking about music, folklore and working together editing manuscripts. W. C. Handy’s Blues – An Anthology, published in 1926, was one product of this friendship, the first serious treatment and discussion of African American music up to that time.

The first 14 pieces in the Blues Anthology are examples of traditional spirituals, pats, stomps, and folk blues that Handy recalled from his childhood in northern Alabama. Handy and other blues writers took great inspiration from – and sometimes incorporated – traditional African American songs like these. The melodies, rhythms and underlying emotions were the DNA of what we know today as the blues.

Two examples of traditional music that inspired Handy are included in this CD:

14 - A Typical Stomp, is a modern dance tune with a fast tempo and a heavy beat; the name also applied to house dance parties.

15 - Careless Love, a sentimental folk song, which was later used for the chorus of Handy’s blues song, Loveless Love, in 1921. Both of these examples are Handy’s own arrangements.


“Father of the Blues – An Autobiography” 1941 - by WC Handy
“Blues – An Anthology” 1926 - Edited by WC Handy and Abbe Niles
“W.C. Handy – The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues” 2009 – David Robertson
“Mr. Crump Don’t Like It – Machine Politics in Memphis” 2008 – G. Wayne Dowdy
The Memphis Public Library – Memphis Collection
The Library of Congress

Liner Note written by, Kate Holthouser, Jim Holthouser and Alan Reitano
Engineered, Mixed & Produced by L . Alan Reitano
Cover Photo: L Alan Reitano



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