Folks Went Wild For It: The Memphis Blues
August 3, 2015 6:45 AM   Subscribe

The song Memphis Blues first brought the blues to a wide audience. In 2012, the BBC looked back the history of the song first published in 1912.

W. C Handy was hired in 1909 to help build up the Edward H. Crump for Mayor campaign in Memphis (with music) and wrote an (instrumental) cakewalk for that became associated with Mr. Crump's campaign. Here is his band playing it in 1914 (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

This was not the only song associated with Crump in 1909; there as an already popular anti-Crump tune being played in Memphis joints called Mr. Crump Don’t Allow. (Handy’s band played this song, too) This song, sometimes recorded as just Mr. Crump (lyrics) seems to be a spin on a song called Mama Don’t Allow (for which the Too Sweets claimed copyright for in 1907, but may be older). This version customized in Crump’s honor often ended with the phrase "I don’t care what Mr. Crump don’t allow; he can go and catch himself some air."

Handy published the instrumental song associated with Mayor Crump in 1912 as Memphis Blues (Mr. Crump). Handy may or may not have written Mr. Crump Don’t Allow (in Pee Wee’s Saloon, legend tells us), but the two songs have been getting confused as iterations of the same song for decades because the both share "Mr Crump" as part of their titles.

In 1913, Theron Bennett bought the copyright of the Memphis Blues (Mr. Crump) after misleading Handy about its success (Handy had already experienced a great deal of white reluctance to stock a black man’s music), and went on to make it a big hit across the country. The Theron version (original songbook images) still identify Handy as the original composer (and popularizer), but credited George A. Norton (also known for the lyrics of Melancholy Baby and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) with the lyrics of the Memphis Blues as we largely know them today. Norton's lyrics included Handy in the song and plugged his band. The composer credit and lyrical plug did provide a boost to Handy’s career, even if he did not get royalties from the song after 1913.

…. and here’s the music
Memphis Blues (James Reese Europe, 1919. Instrumental)
Memphis Blues (Marion Harris, 1921. Norton Lyrics)
Memphis Blues (Honey Duke and his Uke, 1926. Instrumental.)
Memphis Blues (Wingy Manone and his Jazz Band, 1935. Instrumental)
Memphis Blues (W.C Handy, 1938. Tutorial version; uses the Norton lyrics. The plug for himself is replaced by a from-his-perspective lyric)
Memphis Blues (1940s Soundie featuring Jeri Sullivan)
Memphis Blues (Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, 1945. Instrumental)
Memphis Blues (Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong w/ Ella Fitzgerald c. 1950 Norton Lyrics have been adapted.)
Memphis Blues Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, 1954. Norton Lyrics updated to be about a trumpeter)
Memphis Blues (Nat King Cole,1958. Norton Lyrics.)

Mr. Crump Don’t Like It (Beale Street Sheiks, 1927)
Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here (Cow-Cow Davenport, 1925. Instrumental)
My Mama Don’t Allow Me (Arthur “Big Boy” Crudip, c. 1940s)
Mama Don’t Want Me To Play Any Skiffle No More (Jimmy Page, 1957. He was 13.)
Mama Don’t ‘low (Roy Acuff and the Gang, 1959)
Mama Don’t Allow No Twistin’ (Bo Diddley, 1962)
Mama Don’t Allow It (Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, 1960s
Mama Don’t Allow No Music (Doc Watson,1975)
Mama Don’t Allow (Jose Feliciano and Bing Crosby, 1970s?)
Mama Don’t Allow (Johnny Cash, June Carter, Carl Perkins, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, and more)
M.A.M.M.A. Don’t Allow (The Muppets with Dudley Moore, 1979 — giving the credit to Charles Cow-Cow Davenport)

W.C. Handy previously on the blue
posted by julen (6 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks julen, I love this sort of "genealogy of music". My mom was a musician, and she loved ragtime, stride, blues, boogie . . . hearing it all together all the time, I just took it for granted that it was all one music . . . but teasing out the real histories and the relationships tells such interesting stories
posted by pt68 at 7:00 AM on August 3, 2015

Sheet music still ruled the roost in Handy's early career, when he set up in business with a man named Harry Pace. Pace, a much younger man, saw that sheet music was doomed when the new medium of 78rpm shellac discs appeared on the horizon, and jumped ship from Pace & Handy to form America's first black-owned record company: Black Swan. This caused a rift bewteen the two men which never fully healed. I've written about Pace's amazing career here.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:44 AM on August 3, 2015

Might also be worth linking to the sheet music for Handy's piano solo and Norton's rework with lyrics. Sheet music publishing may have been doomed, but it had another 30 or so good years ahead of it first.

I love the "That's why we have a pure food law" line in Handy's later "Loveless Love."
posted by enf at 9:03 AM on August 3, 2015

Thanks for the great post, julen.
One of my most treasured possessions is an autographed copy of the sheet music for St. Louis Blues that WC Handy sent to my grandmother in 1943, including a personal note to her typed by him--when he was blind!
posted by rdone at 9:15 AM on August 3, 2015

Stuck inside of metafilter with the Memphis Blues again.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:22 AM on August 3, 2015

Great post, thanks!
posted by languagehat at 11:20 AM on August 3, 2015

« Older "When you want 100 crore, just make a party video"   |   Fairest of Them All - Sequel to Mirror, Mirror Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments