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  • “The Best Notes Made the Most Votes”W. C. Handy, E. H. Crump, and Black Music as Politics
  • Mark A. Johnson (bio)

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W. C. Handy on the 1909 Memphis mayoral campaign: “Beale Street was expected to cast a lot of votes, and it was squarely up to us to get them.” W. C. Handy, The Memphis Blues, Theron C. Bennet Co., 1912, courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

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In 1909, three white politicians—Edward H. Crump, Joseph J. Williams, and Walter W. Talbert—vied to become the next mayor of Memphis. Each of the candidates utilized traditional campaign tactics to win the office, such as speeches, rallies, advertisements, and posters. In a common move among southern office-seekers, they also employed black musicians to campaign on their behalf. As African American musician and bandleader William Christopher Handy explained, “[I]n Memphis as in Clarksdale it was known to politicians that the best notes made the most votes, and there came a time when we were called upon to do our bit for good government.”

The 1909 Memphis mayoral election provides a particularly compelling example of a common relationship between white politicians and black musicians during the Jim Crow era. It advanced the careers of Handy, a musician who became known for compositions including Beale Street Blues, and Crump, a Democrat who dominated Memphis politics from 1909 until 1948. According to Handy, Crump hired his band because “Beale Street was expected to cast a lot of votes, and it was squarely up to us to get them.” By employing black musicians, Crump and other white southern politicians hoped to attract key votes, but black musicians like Handy also seized the opportunity for their own purposes. Performing on behalf of a campaign provided economic opportunity and access to white audiences. In addition, it allowed black bands to manipulate white southerners’ stereotypes of African Americans, and thus, to resist oppression. Handy used his music to influence Memphis politics and to help a white politician gain power, but he also seized the opportunity to gain power for himself and his race. To play their respective roles, both Crump and Handy relied on a long tradition of using music for political purposes, which had its roots in slavery.1

A Long Tradition

Early relationships between black and white Americans and black music, which developed during slavery and changed after emancipation, helped shape the ways in which each group later used black music for political purposes. In the first contact between Europeans and Africans, travelers remarked that African people possessed a natural musical ability and made better music than any other race. Thomas Jefferson expanded on this idea in later years, writing, “[In] music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time.” His statement stood in sharp contrast to other characterizations he put forth, including “never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration.” Perhaps that is why he questioned the very talent he praised, asking, “[whether] they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run [End Page 53] of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved.” In contrast to European styles of music, African music, from the white southern perspective, seemed childlike and primitive. By observing African slaves playing music, many white Americans assumed that slaves enjoyed their lives and their status and characterized the African people as fun loving and joyful.2

For the most part, white slaveholders encouraged enslaved people to play and sing at work, and many African Americans embraced the opportunity. They sang songs, usually in call-and-response form, to set the pace of work, to lessen the monotony of a long day, and to lift the spirits of workers. Enslaved people used the music to make their work more endurable while also reinvigorating their African culture in the New World.3

Often at the encouragement of their masters, African Americans also played music and sang songs on their own time, specifically in the evenings and on Sundays, as well as...


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