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CHAPTER SIX Mr. Crump Don’t ’Low THE BIRTH OF THE COMMERCIAL BLUES, 1905–1909 My aim would be to combine ragtime syncopation with a real melody in the spiritual tradition. —W. C. Handy, on his first composition of blues songs for a national market, in Memphis, Tennessee The Mississippi Delta has been described as beginning southward from the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. But with as much accuracy it can be described as terminating there. Memphis, the new city of residence for Handy and his growing family , long had considered its commercial and cultural interests to face as much westward and eastward as southward. Located at the extreme southwestern line of the border state of Tennessee, and originally built upon four natural, low elevations overlooking the Mississippi River, the Chickasaw Bluffs, the city in its history contains as many incidents of the old southwestern frontier as it does of the antebellum plantation. Shortly after its founding in 1819, for example, Memphis was visited by the celebrated backwoodsman David Crockett, who hosted a midnight whiskey-drinking party long remembered by Native Americans as one of the greatest debauches by a white man ever to occur on the Chickasaw Bluffs. This frontier settlement, “a tough and uninviting place,” in the words of one southern historian, rapidly became the center for legitimate business as well as vice offered to travelers south of St. Louis and north of New Orleans. By the time of the Handy family’s arrival, the city had established its preeminence as an east-west venue of commerce and culture along the southwesterly flowing Tennessee River valley. Rail connections to Chicago and New York City were good, and four times more passenger railroad lines headed east-west out of Memphis than north-south. Among them at the time of Handy’s residence were the major lines of the Missouri Pacific Railway and the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, making easy transit for ragtime musicians traveling to Tennessee from St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, both of which were then national centers for ragtime composers and players . In particular, Kansas City players were beginning to experiment with songs composed with blueslike twelve measures, rather than the sixteen measures common to ragtime; these songs made their way down the Ohio River Valley from Cincinnati and other Midwestern cities, then eastward along the Tennessee River, not up the Mississippi River. Excursion riverboats from cities in the Midwest also brought to Memphis their commercial musicians, frequently African American, who played in a different style than was heard in the bordellos or on the streets of New Orleans farther down the Mississippi River. In its wide-open vices as well as its music, Memphis in the early decades of the twentieth century continued to compete with New Orleans. In Handy’s day, as well as later, the prostitutes of Memphis were well known by their reputation throughout the Mississippi Delta for carrying a “ration sack” or, variously, a “nation sack” of coins hanging between their legs, which the women would jingle to entice prospective customers as they walked along the Memphis levees . A generation later, the Delta blues musician Robert Johnson made mention in 1936 of his lover’s “nation sack,” in one of Johnson ’s few recorded songs, “Come on in My Kitchen.” In both its legal and illegal commerce, Memphis upon Handy’s arrival also had its Jim Crow codes, with the seating in streetcars legally segregated since 1903 and with separate brothels for white and black patrons, or with black men being admitted only very late, W. C. Handy 110 after “three o’clock in the morning.” The color line also remained in force along many of the railroad tracks in the Midwest and West connecting to this Tennessee city. However, Memphis also was comparatively a refuge from small towns in the South and Midwest for ambitious and educated people of color such as W. C. Handy. Just a few miles down the great, indifferent river, for example, unthinkable in the state of Mississippi, was the franchise by which black males would be allowed to vote. But within a few wards of Memphis, blacks were allowed the franchise, and black males there even were allowed by the city to serve as policemen within the “colored” precincts. Handy’s band employer and briefly his landlord in Memphis , Matthew Thornton, occasionally was employed as a city policeman. These carefully dispensed civil and political rights were granted by a white civic government within...


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