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CHAPTER TEN Symphonies and Movies, Spirituals and Politics, and W. C. Handy as Perennial Performer, 1927–1941 W. C. Handy, who as everybody is supposed to know, wrote the ‘St. Louis Blues’ [is] playing around vaudeville theaters in the East now, in an act composed of old-timers. —The New Yorker, August 26, 1933 Handy, as a composer of the blues, and Niles, as its celebrator, had but one artistic divergence during their friendship of three decades, over the symphonic possibilities of African American music. The published blues were for Niles—like the spirituals of black churches—a seemingly naïve but sophisticated American art that was in no way inferior to the symphonies by the nineteenthcentury European Romantic composers. Not all American performers and arrangers of the blues with musical ambitions agreed with Niles. Paul Whiteman had enjoyed great success throughout the 1920s conducting highly orchestrated versions of the “St. Louis Blues” and other blues and spirituals. In promoting the orchestral performance by his musicians of what was titled a blues-based “rhapsody” in 1924 by its composer, George Gershwin, Whiteman had sent a letter to his supporters emphasizing his hope that “eventually our music will become a stepping-stone which will be helpful in giving the coming generation a much deeper appreciation of better music.” Such a deliberately provocative statement of the “better music” of classical compositions dismissed both the secular black folk songs and the religious spirituals that Niles had found so artful in Handy’s creation of the blues. Niles published his rebuttal in a New Republic magazine article of the late summer of 1926, criticizing Whiteman by name, in which Niles argued for black folk music as no mere “stepping-stones” but equal in artistry to, for instance, Antonín Dvor̆ák’s celebrated romantic symphonies with their use of American folk melodies. “Dvor̆ák’s use of Negro themes doubtless helped the spirituals toward recognition,” Niles conceded, but with lawyerly emphasis he then categorically argued that such songs in symphonies “invigorate the latter only at the expense of the former; it is by no means written that the New World Symphony will outlive ‘Go Down Moses.’” As always, Handy was more ambiguous artistically in his ambitions for African American–inspired music. On the one hand, he publicly dismissed most symphonic arrangements of the blues or spirituals. In an image that recalled Booker T. Washington’s insistence upon the mechanical and agricultural skills, Handy declared that such arrangements reminded him of “a farmer plowing in evening dress.” Yet, the idea of a symphonic arrangement of the blues was very much in the intellectual air of America throughout the 1920s. The well-received score in this nation by the French composer Darius Milhaud, of his 1923 ballet La Création du Monde— inspired by his earlier visit to Harlem and celebrating the creation of a new, presumably African American–influenced world—incorporated melodies from the “Livery Stable Blues” and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. A year later, the most popular American symphonic use of blues was heard in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, first performed in concert on February 12, 1924. Handy attended this Aeolian Hall premier performance in New York City, and that night he heard his own blues compositions “glorified,” as he put it, in Gershwin’s score. As noted earlier, Paul Whiteman conducted, and although the night’s symphonic program prior to the performance of Gershwin’s piece included a number of adaptations of earlier blues, none was Handy’s. Whiteman led his Palais Royal Orchestra in introductory pieces of what he termed “true jazz” of the previous decade, but Symphonies and Movies, Spirituals and Politics 197 had selected such songs as “Livery Stable Blues” by the New Orleans–based Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” of 1911 by Irving Berlin instead of “The Memphis Blues” of 1912 for semisymphonic treatment. But when the time came for the final orchestral performance of this concert, and Gershwin took his place at the piano, the composer’s new Rhapsody immediately became heard as the merging of the “genius of Handy” with the “genius of Gershwin,” in the words of the later classical pianist and scholar Henry Levine. Levine finds at least one dozen of what Handy called melodic “snatches” of “Beale Street Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Memphis Blues” within Gershwin’s score, including the score’s celebrated grandioso finale. Handy at this time did not personally know Gershwin—they were...


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