A Tale of Two Songs


I’m learning to play two piano pieces right now – Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag” and “St. Louis Blues” by W. C. Handy. At one point I realized that these two songs, both of which were written by giants of African-American music, were both published exactly a hundred years ago in 1914. I found the juxtaposition interesting because whereas Joplin’s work signals the end of an era, Handy’s heralds the advent of another…

Scott Joplin was a seminal American composer who almost single-handedly popularized the vivacious syncopations of ragtime music in the late 1800s. Through timeless and indelible compositions such as “Original Rags”, “Maple Leaf Rag” “The Entertainer” and “Sunflower Slow Drag”, Joplin supplied the soundtrack for an entire era. The irresistible off-beat quirks of the rag have become synonymous with the optimism and prosperity of turn of the 20th century America.

W. C. Handy, meanwhile, gave the budding blues music of the early 1900s enormous exposure when he came into contact with Delta blues. It would be a stretch to call Handy the “Father of the Blues” (a description he himself propagated), but he contributed immensely to spreading this musical form with two songs he wrote, namely “Memphis Blues” (the first published song to use the word “blues” in the title) and, more importantly, “St. Louis Blues”, which is arguably the most influential blues song of all time. With this popular composition, the blues reached not only all corners of the United States, but of the world as well.

This song incorporates conventions established by ragtime composers, such as alterations between complementary and contrasting themes. So it has a minor section with a distinct habanera rhythm, giving way to the main theme, which is a standard twelve bar blues. Also, by Handy’s own admission, the piece attempts to combine ragtime syncopation with a spiritual-style melody. He was using these traits of the fading rag tradition as supportive devices for a new song form that would come to define popular music in the 20th century. Even the subject of St. Louis is interesting as this city was strongly associated with Joplin and ragtime.

“Magnetic Rag” was Joplin’s swansong (he would die only 3 years later). It is already an unusual piece for the King of Ragtime with its unconventional mixture of moods. But it is also noted for its C section, which is oddly reminiscent of the nascent twelve bar blues form, and which departs from the ragtime “oom-pah” left-hand pattern, changing to a walking bass line. Interestingly, several bars in this part are often performed with a broken octave boogie-woogie (a type of piano-oriented blues) bassline, which seems strangely suited for this section, fitting seamlessly as in the version by Ann Charters above.

So these are two different songs stemming from two distinct traditions which did in fact overlap here in 1914 (and most likely elsewhere as well). They illustrate and encapsulate, from two opposing angles, the changing dynamic in American popular music of this time.

Delta Blues

I recently started reading a fascinating book about the origins of the blues, “Delta Blues” by Ted Gioia. I’ve always been intrigued by this chapter in music history, which to a large extent will forever be shrouded in mystery, inspiring endless debate and conjecture and stirring the imagination.

The Delta blues is the original blues; the proto-blues, which inspired all the other offshoots and changed the course of music forever. “Delta” here denotes an alluvial plain found alongside the Mississippi river in northwestern Mississippi (not the actual mouth of this great river) and has been called ‘the most Southern place on earth’.

Although no one knows the precise origin of the blues, the Delta is the place where it flourished like in no other. This raw and powerful music, which would revolutionize and reinvigorate music the world over was developed by the impoverished black rural population of this region. These musically untrained farmers and manual laborers sang and used mostly stringed instruments, like the guitar – often constructing them out of everyday objects.

The sound they developed turned traditional music theory, scales and aesthetic on its ear, introducing into music a hitherto unknown mode of expression, equivalent to the introduction of a new primary color or a new dominant strain of DNA into the world. This blue hue of the blues is now present in some concentration in most of the popular music we hear.

Yet it originated simply as a way of expressing the peculiar woes of an oppressed people, who had been practically forgotten by history and by mainstream American society. The sharecroppers who lived on Southern plantations really had little apart from their call-and-response work songs to mitigate their plight of endless toil and racial subordination. On some plantations that served as penal institutions, the blues as well as chants, work songs, hollers and spirituals flourished with even more fervor, literally becoming a means of survival.

So apart from the musical specifics of the blues, with its blue notes, dominant chords and twelve-bar forms is this purely human aspect. And Ted Gioia does a wonderful job of narrating the lives of the legendary and colorful pioneering masters of the blues. All these guys - John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and many others – each left their indelible, trademark stamp on the blues, shaping our definition of what the blues ought to be and inspiring some of the most enduring stereotypes of the rambling bluesman as well.

These people of the soil, who worked the land until they were finally set free by their music, were often elusive, disappearing after recording sessions until tracked down again by scouts. Some were in and out of jail (often for shootings and other violent crime), with serious drinking or drug problems; with affairs and illegitimate children all over the South. Some died in suspicious circumstances, never really being able to shake their underworld entanglements. In some ways, these blues biographies foreshadowed the lives of future rappers and hip hop culture in general.

The blues (the music, the history and the culture) is an endlessly fascinating subject for music lovers, stirring and reinvigorating the imagination (musical or other) with its direct and raw, earthy power.