Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Karl Hagstrom Miller
W. C. Handy

When composer W.C. Handy published the first major collection of blues songs in 1926, reimagining pop tunes as folk songs, he explicitly framed the blues as folk music.

Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow

Publisher: Duke University Press
Length: 384 pages
Author: Karl Hagstrom Miller
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-03
Excerpt (footnotes excluded) from the ‘Reimagining Pop Tunes as Folk Songs’ chapter of Segregating Sound: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow by ©Karl Hagstrom Miller (courtesy Duke University Press, March 2010).

How the Blues Became Folk Song

Prior to the mid-twenties, practically every commentator, with some minor exceptions, understood the blues as a commercial style. The blues were a successful, almost viral, product of the music industry and professional songwriters. Academic collectors were particularly slow to associate the blues with folklore. Between 1888 and 1930 the “blues” were only mentioned in eleven articles in the Journal of American Folklore. E. C. Perrow’s landmark collection of southern folk songs (1912) never used the word except in the middle of one song lyric: “I’ve got the blues; I’m too damn mean to talk.” Howard Odum’s important collection of black secular songs (1911) printed the word twice, again in lyrics: “I got the blues, but too damn mean to cry” and “I got de blues an’ can’t be satisfied.’ Perrow and Odum published their collections before the blues craze had taken hold, and they probably remained unaware that such lines might belong to a new genus of southern folk song. Neither provided any commentary on the subject.

The white folklorist Walter Prescott Webb, on the other hand, published a monumental example of blues-like lyrics in 1915, well after the beginning of the commercial craze. He transcribed the “ballad” from a black Texan named Floyd Canada, who, Webb tells us, “says it is sung to the tune of ‘The Dallas Blues.’” Webb called Canada’s song “The Railroad Blues.” These solitary uses of the term “blues” are telling. “The Dallas Blues,” supposedly known to Webb and his readers, was one of the earliest commercial blues hits. The tune interestingly enough begins with a line echoing Perrow and Odum: “I’ve got the blues but I’m too mean to, I said mean to, I mean to cry.” The white composer Hart A. Wand published the song in 1912, and African American touring groups, including the popular Rabbit Foot Minstrels, were performing it on the road by 1914. The song was closely related to “The Nigger Blues,” published by Leroy White in 1912. It was familiar enough to operate as a shorthand for identifying a song’s melody, but it did not fit within the folk framework. Webb thus employed the blues as a popular commercial genre. “Ballad,” the term he used to describe Canada’s song throughout the article, suited his needs much better. This would change within a few short years.

W. C. Handy was more responsible than anyone for establishing the blues as folk music. The successful composer helped inaugurate the commercial blues craze with songs such as “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues.” Eventually, he became a major advocate for applying the folkloric paradigm to the blues. Handy did not use the term “folk” to describe the blues in his earliest writings on the subject. In newspaper articles written between 1916 and 1919, Handy began to establish his reputation as an authority on the history and meaning of the genre. What would become some of his most famous anecdotes—indeed some of the most important and ubiquitous early blues narratives—first appeared in print in these articles.

He related first hearing the blues around southern plantations and train depots and told the now-infamous story of being upstaged by a local blues band in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during a performance in 1903. Handy clearly identified the blues as a collective invention of the African American South. He deflected apparent suggestions that he alone had created the form by insisting that the blues were a product of the “peculiar harmonies and perfect rhythmic characteristic of our race.” He nevertheless framed the music as a commercial genre, both in its local southern habitat and in the nation at large. As a writer for the Freeman explained in 1917, Handy “is known the world over for his success in writing a number that was destined to set everybody dancing or trying to refrain from making an effort to dance. This dance success is The Memphis Blues. But he did more than write a dance. He ushered into musical composition a new form.” Neither Handy nor writers profiling the composer identified the blues as folk music.

When he published the first major collection of blues songs in 1926, reimagining pop tunes as folk songs however, Handy explicitly framed the blues as folk music. Blues: An Anthology featured fifty piano arrangements that outlined a history of the genre. The anthology began with several spirituals and work songs. It then provided a large number of blues songs, featuring several of Handy’s own compositions, before concluding with complex, blues-inspired compositions, including some by white composers. This evolutionary narrative leading from simple folk songs to sophisticated compositions was reinforced by a substantial introductory essay by the writer Abbe Niles based on his conversations with Handy. Niles launched his essay by unequivocally stating, “To summarize the story of the blues: They began as a form of Afro-American folksong.” Niles then detailed the lyrical and musical development of what he called “folk-blues.” The song collector Guy B. Johnson began a review of the anthology by declaring, “The blues present the unique spectacles of a form of Negro folk song becoming the most important single type of popular song in America.” It was a dramatic reinterpretation of the music that had first attracted Handy for its “commercial potential.”

A number of things had changed between Handy’s first articles and the publication of his anthology. The explosion of race records in 1920 had established urban blues as one of the most popular genres in the country. This made Handy’s argument that the blues was a distinctive dance music rather passé. Everybody had the doggone blues. At the same time, the commercial success of the blues, Handy feared, obscured its roots in southern black culture and among African Americans in general. Just as Johnson was doing with ragtime, Handy searched for a way to reestablish the black ownership and character of the blues during the early 1920s. One minor attempt involved his effort to create a new genre he called “gouge,” a synthesis of black musical styles that, according to the African American Pittsburgh Courier, “is a bit above the level to which his beloved blues have descended.” Handy published “The Chicago Gouge” in 1924. Its chorus outlined a recipe for combining blues, jazz, ragtime, and the Charleston in one musical stew. The gouge never caught on with the public. Yet if his attempt to define a pan-generic black music in the commercial realm failed, he had more success when he began having conversations with folklorists about his beloved blues.

Between 1923 and 1926, a handful of significant writings characterized the blues as folklore. W. C. Handy made his mark on every one of them. Works by the white authors Dorothy carborough, Carl Van Vechten, and the team of Howard Odum and Guy Johnson began from the presumption that the blues was a commercial entity that did not belong in a collection of folk music. They each used interviews with Handy or descriptions of his music to reframe the blues as folklore. Dorothy Scarborough helped set the formula with an article aptly titled “The ‘Blues’ as Folk-Songs” in 1923.The article gained larger circulation when she included it in her book On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs (1925). “Blues, being widely published as sheet music in the North as well as the South, and sung in vaudeville everywhere, would seem to have little relation to authentic folk-music of the Negroes,” Scarborough began. “One might imagine this tinge of blue to the black music to be an artificial coloring—printer’s ink, in fact.” She then told of tracking down Handy, “the man who had put the bluing in the blues,” and interviewing him on the subject.

To my question, “Have blues any relation to Negro folk-song?” Handy replied instantly:

“Yes—they are folk music.”

“Do you mean in the sense that a song is taken up by many singers, who change and adapt it and add to it in accordance with their own mood?” I asked. “That constitutes communal singing, in part, at least.”

“I mean that and more... They are essentially racial, the ones that are genuine,—though since they became the fashion many blues have been written that are not Negro in character -- and they have a basis in older folksong.”

The rest of the article used the interview with Handy as its main evidence to describe the form and function of “this modern folk-music.” Carl Van Vechten, the white music critic, novelist, and ubiquitous Harlem presence, followed the same formula in a pair of influential articles for Vanity Fair in 1925. After talking with Handy, Van Vechten declared, “Like the spirituals, the blues are folksongs... although those that achieved publication or performance under sophisticated auspices have generally passed through a process of transmutation.”

Perhaps the most dramatic reinterpretation of the blues as folk songs came from the sociologists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson. They collaborated in 1925 to publish The Negro and His Songs, a large collection of African American religious and secular selections, many of which were culled from Odum’s previous academic journal articles. They equated reimagining pop tunes as folk songs “blues” with “popular hits” and emphatically insisted that they were “not folk songs.”By the following year, the authors had reversed their opinion. Citing Handy and Scarborough, their next book maintained that the blues were “straight from the folk as surely as the old spirituals.” The shift provides a clear example of the emerging recognition of the blues as folk music.

For illustration, the duo culled lyrics from various sections of their previously published collections and recategorized them as examples of the blues. They then provided a fascinating analysis of the ways in which informants had remembered and combined lyrics from blues recordings and sheet music. Commercial songs had become the raw material for orally transmitted folk songs. Odum and Johnson declared, “It is no longer possible to speak with certainty of the folk blues, so entangled are the relations between them and the formal compositions.” They failed to acknowledge that neither they nor anybody else had ever talked about “folk blues” until well after the music had been established as a top-selling genre.

Photo (partial) by ©Martin Miller

Karl Hagstrom Miller is an Assistant Professor who teaches in the History Department and the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas, Austin.

Refiguring American Music: A Series Edited by Ronald Radano and Josh Kun ©Duke University Press, 2010

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