Under the aegis of the 92Y
Tonight host Louis Rosen explores blues in an urban setting and organic crossovers between blues, ragtime, and jazz. We listen to “songsters” who weren’t just blues singers. (The term originated in the late 19th century to describe wandering musicians, usually African-American, in the southern United States.) This session comes with a warning to those easily offended by sexual double entendre “because blues is an earthy form. It’s not the sophisticated, white, Tin Pan Alley concept of love.”
First we listen to one more song from Bessie Smith (1894-1937), a vocalist prominently featured in the last class. It’s a 1925 recording of “Careless Love”- authorship credited to Blind Boy Fuller, but initially recorded by an unknown performer in 1911 for a Black folk collection. Rosen has stressed the genre’s frequent ‘borrowing’ of songs, lyrics, tunes, building on past traditions to create amalgams. Vocal is wide open; horns down and dirty. The song showcases Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) who learned his instrument in reform school and started with blues when he was released.
Two styles emerged from New Orleans at the time, one was piano-based, the other involved a six to eight person band build around what we now call Dixieland. Rosen credits cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931) as a pioneer in the development of ragtime that evolved into New Orleans’ “jass” or jazz (though the term wasn’t as yet coined). The musician and his band were known for a loud, improvisational style using brass instruments to play the blues. He was one of the first to fuse ragtime, rural blues and Black sacred music. No known recordings exist.
In 1898, New Orleans decided it couldn’t eliminate vice, but it could contain it. A red light district called Storyville rose at the edge of The French Quarter. (City alderman Sidney Story wrote guidelines and legislation to control prostitution within the city.) Brothels were called ‘sporting clubs’ or ‘resorts.’ “In its own way it was very segregated. The highest end houses specialized in Octoroons, light skinned African Americans. To compete, the clubs needed music.”
Rosen explains that the history of New Orleans jazz is a collision of Creoles and those who had migrated from plantations. The former were more cultured and educated. They played music from a score, taught music and wrote it. The latter came from a play-by-ear, holler and shout tradition. By the mid 1910’s, in order for either to establish careers, he had to be able to handle both approaches.
Much to his family’s chagrin, Creole Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) began as a “professor” (pianist/sole musician in a house) at the age of 14. We listen to “Honky Tonk Blues,” 12-bar ambling music like a jaded shrug. “Let me be your wiggler till your warbler comes,” Morton sings. “He wasn’t only playing the blues, some of it was ragtime,” Rosen observes.
Some unlikely Europeans took notice of ragtime. In 1918, the third dance of Igor Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat is ragtime. A work in its own right entitled Ragtime; followed, then Piano-Rag-Music. Classical composers Eric Satie and Claude Debussy – “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” were also influenced by the genre. (This is the kind of marvelous gem garnered from Rosen’s series.)
We listen to Morton play two renditions of Scott Joplin’s (1868-1917) iconic “Maple Leaf Rag,” an example of “piano thumping.” The first, a very fast version, is what’s written on paper, essentially listening music. The second, a dance tune, is Morton’s own interpretation now titled “Maple Leaf Stomp.” It’s close to half tempo and filled with blues’ starts and stops.
Perhaps the greatest jazz group to come out of New Orleans in the late teens we’re told, was Joe “King” Oliver (1881-1938) and His Creole Jazz Band. Oliver & Co. took their music to Chicago when African Americans migrating from the south longed to hear a bit of home creating new audience. It was an era of Midwest racial unrest and riots. New arrivals were funneled into a “Black belt” on the south side of Chicago. “For awhile, that part of the city was what we think Harlem was like. State Street (“that great street”- as the song says) was home to Black-owned businesses.”
By 1922, a gum disease made it difficult for Oliver to count on his chops. His 22 year-old protégé, Louis Armstrong, was convinced to move north. It was unusual for a band to have two trumpets, but Armstrong took over the heavy lifting giving the group longevity. Other core members included clarinet and trombone with piano, guitar or banjo then added (later, bass and drums).
“Our idea of songs lasting 3 1/2 minutes was established by the side of a 78rpm record. In clubs, a tune might be twice as long.” The 12 bar “Dipper Mouth Blues “(one of Armstrong’s nicknames), written by Oliver and Armstrong, is a blues performed in the New Orleans style. There’s lots going on, but each strain is sure and clear, embroidered around a central theme. Oliver’s band had nothing written down. It came from improvisa- tion tradition. The only player who could read and write music was pianist/ composer Lil Hardin who would become Mrs. Louis Armstrong.
“Let’s return to some of the popular women vocalists,” Rosen says. “This song is considered so racy, I couldn’t find the lyric online.” Clara Smith (1894-1935), called “Queen of the Moaners,” sings “Whip It to Jelly (and stir it in a bowl)” from 1926: “I wear my socks up to my knees/Whip that jelly with whom I please…” The 12 bar blues arrives with molasses vocal.
Next is Texan Victoria Spivey (1906-1976) performing her own song, “Murder in the First Degree.” “…My man got runnin’ around with a woman he know I can’t stand/There’s only one notch on my gun, and the world’s rid of one triflin’ man…” The first line of every verse is repeated, guitar is twangy, vocal nasal and drawled.
Her “Black Snake Blues” follows. “I probably don’t need to spell out for you what that signifies,” Rosen quips. He identifies one lyric recycled into three songs by different writers that came later. “This is a collective pool everyone’s pulling from.”(The very first recording session on which Bob Dylan played harmonica in New York was for Spivey.)
The host points out that Spivey recorded the same year George and Ira Gershwin wrote the musical “Oh Kay!” We listen to Gertrude Lawrence sing “Someone to Watch Over Me,” a prime example of what Rosen calls “the heart of main street entertainment at the time” – innocent, romanticized relationships and love. It couldn’t be more different. “Women performing the blues were singing what they dealt with in their lives, often no-good men,” he adds, “The earthiness of the blues and not very veiled sexuality couldn’t be mainstream.”
“Downhearted Blues” (Alberta Hunter/Lovie Austin) might’ve made a star of Memphis born Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) but for Bessie Smith recording the song, taking all the thunder. Hunter has a back-end warble and great feeling. The vocalist nonetheless had a solid career until retiring from the late 50s to the late 70s when, at 82, she reemerged to sing at New York’s Cookery in Greenwich Village. (I was fortunate to see her appear. Terrific!)
Eubie Blake/Andy Razaf’s “My Handyman” is sung by Ethel Waters (1896-1977): “He threads my needle, creams my wheat,/Heats my heater, chops my meat…” A lyric for the ages. Waters’ alto is less bright and loud than many of her predecessors. (Two records or CDs called “Copulation Blues” feature these marvelous originals.)
“A lot of African American singers were primarily performing for white people. The Cotton Club was so strictly segregated, a Black performer’s mother wasn’t welcome. Artists had to pass ‘the brown paper bag test.’ If your skin was darker than a bag, you were too dark to appear. A white audience went ‘slumming’ to clubs like these. On the south side of Chicago, you could hire a local guide.”
“White people were listening to white performers with their own versions of the blues.” We watch a 1930 video of Sophie Tucker (1886-1966), known as ‘Queen of the Blues Shouters,’ singing “No One But the Right Man Can Do Me Wrong.” The real hard core blues didn’t get covered by white artists until the 1950s when it was called R & B, a short hop to Rock n’ Roll.”
“I’m trying to give you the sound, tone, and structure of the blues,” Rosen says in closing, “but blues is also an attitude.”
Next week, the Mississippi Delta and rural areas.
“The Blues is the purest home-grown music that America ever produced, a complex, profound expression of life’s essential desires and struggles. It came from places as varied as the Mississippi Delta, the Texas panhandle, New Orleans, Chicago, the Eastern Seaboard and New York City. It is the essential musical language of artists as diverse as Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Bob Dylan.
It also became an essential building block in the American concert music of Gershwin, Copeland, and African-American composers such as James P. Johnson and William Grant Still, as well as important composers today. This semester we’ll explore all of these exceptional artists, rural and urban, folk and classical, past and present, and much more. Awaken—or reawaken—to the power of The Blues, our uniquely American story. “ Louis Rosen
Photo of Mr. Rosen courtesy of Louis Rosen
Opening picture from Shutterstock