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CHAPTER SEVEN Handy’s Memphis Copyright Blues, 1910–1913 That melancholy strain, that ever-haunting refrain Is like a Darkies’ sorrow song, . . . the Memphis Blues. —“The Memphis Blues,” new words and arrangement by George A. Norton, 1913 Handy came into my office in 1910, about a year after I was elected,” Edward Crump reminisced in the late 1930s to a Memphis newspaper reporter. Handy must have approached this visit to the new mayor’s office with some trepidation. Even in his initial year of political power, Crump was an intimidating presence. A very tall, truculent-looking man with fiery red hair contrasting with nearly translucent white skin, Crump dressed with a noticeable vanity in custom-made suits with blue silk shirts and showy cravats, which almost distracted a visitor’s attention from the habitually grim set of his prominent jaw. The “Red Snapper” was how the mayor was known by his political associates, although never so called to his face. For his part, Handy had brought something exceptional , and, perhaps, familiarly insulting, to show the new mayor of Memphis. However risky to Handy personally, he felt he must obtain the mayor’s permission in order to use what he handed over. “He had the words of the song written out on a big piece of brown wrapping paper,” Crump told the reporter. “The song” was, of course, Handy’s “Mr. Crump,” which the bandleader had been playing throughout that year to patrons at the Alaskan Roof Garden and at other cabarets in the city. Crump had been seemingly unaware of this song bearing his family name as having been performed with such enthusiasm throughout all the wards of Memphis, where the city’s new mayor was breezily told in song “to catch himself some air.” Yet he that day had found time between serious matters to glance quickly at Handy’s lyrics. “He asked me to read them and asked my permission to name the song ‘Mr. Crump’s Blues,’” the mayor later recalled. It must have been encouraging to Handy that he had been at least allowed to meet with the mayor in his office that day in 1910. Whatever his failings, Boss Crump was no Governor James Vardaman, the die-hard White Chief during Handy’s prior residence in Mississippi. Within limits, Edward Crump was willing to consider African Americans as his constituents, an instance that showed Jim Crow politics could on occasion make for strange bedfellows. Crump from the beginning of his mayoral reign in 1910 knew that his political dominance of Memphis and his future control of much of the state of Tennessee depended upon his ability to deliver the votes of his city as a bloc to his personally chosen candidates of the Democratic Party. Memphis, the most populous city within the state, could—if properly controlled by Crump—outnumber the voters of the rural counties or the returns of the precinct boxes from the smaller cities of Nashville or Knoxville. As blacks were registered in significant numbers within his Mississippi River city, they therefore were an important plurality for Crump in his planned political state machine. Crump’s political machine, including its Memphis black votes, would in fact succeed in controlling elections in Tennessee until the end of the first Truman administration. In 1910, Crump well appreciated the benefits to himself, and to his future ambitions, of a limited franchise for blacks, and he was willing to reward it so long as it was controlled by him. The Red Snapper might have been pitiless toward those who dared oppose him (at least until the 1940s, white politicians from Nashville who opposed Crump avoided speaking in Memphis upon what may have been well-founded fears of murder by the Memphis underworld of undercover police officers ), but among Crump’s better qualities was an inclination to help Handy’s Memphis Copyright Blues 129 those who had helped him, or at least not thwart them. For example , among the first actions he took upon assuming his mayoral office in 1910 was to fund, at long last, a municipal park for the city’s African Americans. Therefore, in regard to this black composer, Crump probably did not care what Handy had sung about him on the courthouse square or along Beale Avenue, or even at a white supper club, so long as Handy helped bring out the African American votes for him. The mayor looked up from reading the words on the brown wrapping paper. “I told him...


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