No Song is Safe From Us

No Song Is Safe From Us - The NYFOS Blog
 |  Elliott Hurwitt

In 1912, when Handy published the “Memphis Blues,” the word blues was used primarily to describe an emotional state—depression, melancholy. Songs specifically about these issues did not come into being until something like 400 years after the first mentions of the “blue devils” appeared in English. Once blues songs emerged, around 1900, they had a single overriding theme: bad luck in love. There were blues about other things—bedbugs, floods, and other irritants and calamities. There were virtually no blues about political matters, not even racial ones, until many years later.




 |  Steven Blier

For many years, Michael Barrett and I discussed doing a program devoted to the blues, that quintessential American genre. But we were never sure how to tackle such a broad topic. Then our friend, the musicologist and early blues scholar Elliott Hurwitt proposed that we devote an evening to W. C. Handy, and this magically opened up the long-sought path. I’d known about Handy—famous as “The Father of the Blues”—since my boyhood. One of his songs was in some anthology I pored over as a child—could it have been The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs? I found his music sweet and old-timey, redolent of straw hats, picnics, bandstands on summer days.




 |  Elliott Hurwitt

Mose Allison was born on a farm outside Tippo, Mississippi, in 1927. He got a college education, interrupted by a stint in the military, and arrived on the New York jazz scene in the early 1950s, a fully-formed musician who soon got steady work as a pianist for saxophonists Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz, and by the end of the decade was releasing albums in his own name. These records on the esteemed Prestige label, with titles like Back Country Suite, Creek Bank, and Local Color, caused something of a sensation.




 |  Elliott Hurwitt

Champion Jack Dupree was born in New Orleans around 1910 and died in Hanover, Germany, in 1992. Son of a father from the Belgian Congo and a mother of African American and Cherokee heritage, he was orphaned at two and sent to the same Home for Colored Waifs that had provided a musical training ground for Louis Armstrong just a few years earlier. Dupree taught himself piano and embarked on a career playing in juke joints and brothels around the country.




 |  Elliott Hurwitt

They called the Count Basie Orchestra “The Band That Plays the Blues.” Its All-American Rhythm Section (Basie on piano; Freddie Greene on guitar, Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums), was legendary for powering this group, which rose to great popularity in the late 1930s, a bluesier alternative to the more cerebral Duke Ellington sound.




 |  Elliott Hurwitt

“Last Kind Words” isn’t strictly speaking a blues, but it represents song traditions that are surely older, and embodies blues feeling, hard luck and trouble. It is particularly strong in the eerie, the power to chill the blood: so, wishing you all a [late] Happy Halloween.




 |  Elliott Hurwitt

Gladys Bentley (ca. 1907-1960) was one of the biggest stars of African-American entertainment in the 1920s, along with Florence Mills, Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker among female stars at her level, and her stardom lasted through the 1930s. She was typically seen in a white tuxedo, and never, at least in public, as a woman.




 |  Justin Austin

One of my favorite things to do is musical education outreach. I love that I can go into schools and help children learn about incredibly important lessons via music. I often bring in a special song the character of Harlequin in the opera Ariadne auf Naxos sings to the title character. The song has an incredible amount of wisdom, truth, musicality, and beauty in only a minute and 30 seconds.




 |  Justin Austin

Lizst’s “Vallée d’Obermann” is my favorite piece of music ever written. I fell in love with it as a child, but resonated more with it as I got older and experienced the challenges of life. Before I knew anything about the piece, what I loved most about it, was that it didn’t seem like a form of escapism.




 |  Elliott Hurwitt

For our final W.C. Handy song of the day we turn to one of his later gems that was a lesser hit, especially at first. “Chantez-les Bas” was composed in 1931, and is the only Handy piece in its genre, a Louisiana-inspired love song. Handy never visited New Orleans, but played many engagements in Baton Rouge and points north and on one occasion, while his band serenaded a young lady by night, a neighbor gently asked them to pipe down, i.e., “Sing ‘Em Low,” in the local patois.