“Beale Street Blues has been widely exhibited in post-WPA years, particularly in the last decade [1976–85]. Becker’s wonderfully jumbled composition, with its askew, disordered lines, suggests the melancholy dissonant notes of the trumpet player in his rather down-and-out surroundings.”
– Harriet W. Fowler, University of Kentucky Art Museum
“The twelve-bar, three-line form of the first and last strains, with its three-chord basic harmonic structure (tonic, subdominant, dominant seventh) was already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their under-privileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf, and had become a common medium through which any such individual might express his personal feelings in a sort of musical soliloquy. My part in their history was to introduce this, the “blues” form to the general public, as the medium for my own feelings and my own musical ideas.”
– W.C. Handy, composer of “Beale Street Blues”
Whether coincidental or not, there are some interesting parallels between W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” (1916) and Fred Becker’s wood engraving on cream wove paper (1937–38). Both are defined by a dynamic sense of motion, “wonderfully jumbled compositions” mixing various artistic elements and cultural antecedents, a product of parallel and perpendicular vectors, which taken together lead the viewer or the listener into unexplored, new territories.
Fred Becker’s Beale Street Blues depicts a musician alone in his room—if not a cheap hotel or flophouse given the looks of his surroundings—captured in a moment of intimacy. He sits on an unmade bed, one bare foot propped up on a chair strewn with tossed-aside clothing, the other foot pointing toward the empty bottle of gin on the floor next to his one remaining glass of alcohol, playing his horn in a state of deep repose, or drunkenness, or despair, or all of the above (it’s impossible to say). The immediate impact of this despondent musician sitting alone in a disheveled room brings to mind the school of social realist art—a prominent style in Depression-era America—but mixed with some abstract elements that are clearly not aiming for “realism,” such as the cubist-like illogical angles of the walls and their Lego-like disorienting wallpaper pattern.
While the viewer obviously cannot hear the music being played, there’s something here that suggests a talented musician whose time has come and gone (and perhaps never “came” in the first place). One can easily imagine the beautiful sounds being produced in the room with no one to hear them, swallowed up within the tough, unforgiving environment that many musicians (and other workers) faced in the midst of the Depression. There’s also a notable contrast between the trashed room and the sense of composure of the trumpet player, his inward gaze indicating he is lost in the music, in sorrow, in alcohol, or some combination thereof.
Fittingly, this was a work produced for the Federal Art Project, also simply known as “the Project,” a division of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)—a governmental relief program that’s never been equaled before or since—and his larger New Deal ideology. The WPA employed some three million Americans, only about 2% of those through the Federal Arts Project, which supported artists across various mediums. Despite being educated at relatively elite institutions such as the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles—Becker was born in Oakland and raised in Hollywood, where his father worked as an actor in silent films—the artist was commissioned by the Graphic Arts Division of the Program in 1935. This is also around the time he began creating realist/surrealist works with jazz musicians and other urban scenes as his primary subjects.
Becker’s employment at the WPA ended in 1939. It’s almost surely not coincidental that this was the same year that many Project artists came under attack by conservative political operatives, accused of spreading Communism to the masses through their art. Never before had public art been so widely disseminated in the United States, outside the sway of elite institutions that gauged their worth and in large part selected the audience for Art with a capital ‘A’. Although some viewed the social progressivism of the artworks produced by Project artists as a boon for artists and for the general public alike, others saw a form of propagandistic art where, in the words of art historian Harriet W. Fowler, “politics created it and politics permeated it.”
After Fred Becker lost his commission, he went on to a successful career, ultimately ending up on the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Massachusetts. He also shifted his artistic style notably, exchanging the social realism of the 1930s for more abstract expressionist tendencies. Whatever the motivations for this shift may have been is impossible to say. But, quoting again from Fowler, it’s notable that,
[F]rom the standpoint of art history, the rise of abstract expressionism and other abstract art movements beginning in the late 1940s made some Project art look passé indeed. For many critics in those later decades, New Deal art, with its socially-minded mix of Art Deco, surrealism, Bauhaus, Mexican and Renaissance influences appeared studied, naïve, or just plain boringly academic—a “dropout” in the progress of art.
This brings us directly to W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” and to the blues in general. The blues is a form that rejects the hegemony of unilinear development—notions of the “progress” of art were closely related to the social Darwinism also popular in some quarters at that time—in favor of a more circumnavigational model. Rooted in musical techniques such as call-and-response, repetition and variation, overlapping polyrhythms, and musical themes not as ends-in-themselves but rather as the basis of improvisational exploration, this model creates a space of uninterrupted flow, cyclical time, and relatively equitable sharing of power (whether among musicians, between musicians and audiences, or between various spheres of musical influence).
More than just a mix of “black” and “white” elements, the African-American blues incorporated influences ranging from field hollers to Tin Pan Alley, from African musical retentions to European ballads, from the use of the “Spanish tinge” in general to the use of Cuban habanera rhythms more specifically. Although arrangements and individual performances vary, in almost all versions, the crux of W.C. Handy’s “Beale Street Blues” is the pivot from the conventional four-line, 16-bar ballad stanzas organized in linear, squared-off fashion heard in the opening of the song—“You’ll see pretty Browns in beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men and pickpockets skilled / You’ll find the business never closes ‘til somebody gets killed’’—to the 12-bar blues AAB structure. Here the first vocal phrase is repeated before closing with a new rhymed line that sets the first line in new perspective, accompanied by a cyclical chordal progression and melodies that make prominent use of non-chord tones that lie outside the established tonality of chords.
Notably, this musical pivot in “Beale Street Blues” is aligned with a perspectival shift in the lyrics, obviously composed to reflect the double-consciousness at the heart of the early blues and the musicians who created the music. The early stanzas of the song describe a touristic gaze, taking in the wonders of Memphis’s Beale Street (the historical black district of Memphis and ultimately the center of blues culture in the city) from an outsider’s perspective. The opening lines of Handy’s original composition compare Beale Street to iconic tourist destinations in the USA and in Europe (“I’ve strolled the Prado, I’ve gambled on the Bourse”) before concluding that the listener should “take my advice, folks, and see Beale Street first.” The first section of “Beale Street Blues” provides a dualistic depiction of Memphis and the Beale Street district (see the “pretty Browns” stanza quoted above) that recognizes both “honest men” and murderers as a part of the cultural mix.
The last line of this section concludes with the following lyrics, the first of which is still well-known thanks to the 1974 James Baldwin novel that quotes it and the well-regarded 2018 movie version of his novel: “If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner who sings the Beale Street blues.” The song then takes a literal perspectival shift, where the singer takes on the voice of the “blind man on the corner” who sings “I’d rather be here than any place I know / I’d rather be here than any place I know / It’s going to take the Sergeant for to make me go.” At the same time, the music shifts noticeably to the 12-bar blues chordal pattern and to a melody that makes heavy use of the blue notes that define the genre perhaps even more than the familiar chord progression. The representation of double-consciousness provided by W.C. Handy here could not be much more literal, where the singer inhabits the voice and the persona of another singer being observed in the song.
As Nick Bromell describes in his article, “‘The Blues and the Veil’: The Cultural Work of Musical Form in Blues and ‘60s Rock,” “Blue notes wouldn’t be possible, wouldn’t have any meaning, without the strictness with which musical pitches are treated in Western playing style and in the Western scales. Blue notes violate the distinctiveness of individual, discrete pitches, just as the so-called blues scale violates the principle of major/minor tonality. Like hip language, the blues signifies on an established musical language.” Through the use of both “bent” notes that violate the discrete boundaries of “consistent” pitches idealized in Western music, and the setting of flat 3rds, 5ths, and 7ths against the major key established by the harmony, these blue notes are a striking and resonant representation of double-consciousness as first defined by W.E.B. Du Bois.
In a way this is reflective of the city of Memphis itself as depicted by W.C. Handy. Memphis has long stood as a crossroads of the American South. The birthplace of revolutionary American businesses such as FedEx, Holiday Inn, and Piggly Wiggly (the first self-service grocery store), Memphis is synonymous with the mobility, flexibility, and cultural interchange that defined postwar America. But, on the other hand, it’s the central urban outpost of the Delta region of the American South, and as such, a repository for much more long-standing American traditions and for the most rural, and the most Southern lifeways of the rural South. Accordingly, it was also the urban center of the rural Delta blues, which bubbled up with the help of songwriters like W.C. Handy who brought the music to a much broader audience.
The son of former slaves, his father had gained status through his career as a preacher. Handy was formally-trained in music and culturally distant from the Delta blues. Raised in northern Alabama, and against his father’s advice, Handy left home, still a teenager, and led a peripatetic existence for a number of years as he tried to make it as a musician. Somewhat ironically, it was through playing in a minstrel show that he eventually found his way to being a respected professional musician. But it was during his briefly homeless period in St. Louis that he made his most important musical connection, albeit fleeting. In his autobiography, Handy describes encountering a street musician in St. Louis:
A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song too, struck me instantly. “Goin’ where the Southern cross the dog.” The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.
Through this brief encounter, “the blues” as we know it today was born; born at a crossroads, but not the Devil-and-soul-selling crossroad widely associated with the blues. Handy later moved to the cultural crossroads of Memphis and rearranged the music he heard by the destitute musician. Perfectly timed to the technological transition precipitated by sound recording technology—blue notes really need to be heard rather than read off the page—he published the first blues-music sheet music and created a triumvirate of geographically-centered blues standards (“Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues”) that would transform the blues from an obscure, local form of music-making to a world-spanning and world-transforming musical revolution.
This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.
Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Becker, Fred. “The WPA Federal Art Project, New York City: A reminiscence”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 74–92. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-47387]
Briggs, Ray Anthony. Memphis jazz: African American musicians, jazz community, and the politics of race (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2003). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2003-10637]
A chronological ethnography that reconstructs the history of the Memphis jazz tradition, identifies key musicians and individuals associated with it, and contextualizes the musical activity within a social-political framework, namely Jim Crow politics and the dismantling of legal segregation. The Memphis jazz community was, in part, shaped by the same social, political, and economic forces at work within the African American community at large, particularly legal segregation, which proved to be a significant factor in the livelihood of the jazz community, and at times worked as a galvanizing agent among African American musicians who honed their skills on Beale Street and other locales designated for Memphis’s African American citizens. In addition to the extramusical elements of the Memphis jazz heritage, individuals who have contributed to the music on a regional, national, and international level are also discussed. The Memphis jazz community has produced a number of renowned performers who have gone on to international recognition within the jazz tradition. A brief survey of artists who have carried the Memphis jazz heritage to the attention of jazz fans around the world is also included. (author)
Bromell, Nick. “‘The blues and the veil’: The cultural work of musical form in blues and ’60s rock”, American music: A quarterly journal devoted to all aspects of American music and music in America 18/2 (summer 2000) 193–221. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text, 2000-8321]
Originally, the blues form was an expressive version of what W.E.B. Du Bois, in a famous passage from The souls of black folk, called the “veil” in reference to the African American experience. The blues form performed a different kind of cultural work as it was absorbed into rock and roll of the 1960s and heard by white audiences. The specific formal features of the blues are understood to be blue notes, call-and-response structure, blues licks, and a tension inherent in the paradigmatic blues chord progression. These traits and their relationships to lyrics are observed in two different blues styles: classic blues (illustrated with Ruby Smith’s recording of Fruit cakin’ mama) and Chicago blues (illustrated with Muddy Waters’s recording of Willie Dixon’s (I’m your) hoochie coochie man). (Julie Schnepel)
Cantwell, Robert. If Beale Street could talk: Music, community, culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2009-22]
Demonstrates the intimate connections among our public, political, and personal lives, and explores the vernacular culture of everyday life in order to understand the cultural ecology of the contemporary world. The examination shows how cultural practices become performances and how performances become artifacts endowed with new meaning through the transformative acts of imagination. It traces, for instance, how a blues song becomes a blues recording and enters a collection of blues recordings, joining other energies, both creative and exploited, both natural and human, that represent the residues of modern life and culture. Points of departure range from the visual and the literary—a photograph of Woody Guthrie, or a poem by John Keats—to major cultural exhibitions, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition or the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife. (publisher)
Chametzky, Jules. “Introduction to Fred Becker’s WPA graphics”, Massachusetts review 39/1 (spring 1998) 69–73. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1998-47388]
Fowler, Harriet W., and Sophia Wallace. New Deal art: WPA works at the University of Kentucky—University of Kentucky Art Museum, August 25–October 27, 1985 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1985). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1985-28412]
Handy, William Christopher (W.C.). Father of the blues: An autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1941). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1941-249]
The author’s blues compositions—Memphis blues, Beale Street blues, St. Louis blues—changed American music forever. Here William Christopher (W.C.) Handy presents his own story: a vivid picture of American life now vanished. The versatile musician grew up a sensitive child who loved nature and music; but not until he had won a reputation did his father, a preacher of stern Calvinist faith, forgive him for following the “devilish” calling of black music and theater. Handy tells of this and other struggles: the lot of a black musician with entertainment groups in the turn-of-the-century South; his days in minstrel shows, and then in his own band; how he made his first $100 from Memphis blues; how his orchestra came to grief with World War I; his successful career in New York as publisher and songwriter; and his association with the literati of the Harlem Renaissance. Handy’s remarkable tale reveals not only the career of the man who brought the blues to the world’s attention, but provides a unique vantage point over a wide scope of American music–from the days of the old popular songs of the South through ragtime to the birth of jazz. (publisher)
Ryan, Jennifer D. “Beale Street blues? Tourism, musical labor, and the fetishization of poverty in blues discourse”, Ethnomusicology: Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 55/3 (fall 2011) 473–503. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2011-5464]
Examines discourses of authenticity concerning the blues venues in Memphis, particularly those of Beale Street, one of the country’s largest and best-known districts for blues tourism. The case of Beale Street invites a thorough examination of the authenticity discourses surrounding blues and the potential damage they can cause. The views held by Memphis musicians require that we rethink blues performance not as an idealized music but as a professional endeavor. In this article, the author argues that dismantling these discourses requires that we reconsider music as labor. She sets the views of Memphis musicians as a counterpoint to some of the most common discourses about them. She traces the transition of Beale Street from a vibrant African American commercial district to a tourist destination, and then examines in detail the most common treatments of blues authenticity, tracing their origins to discussions of essentialism in black music and to an emphasis on authenticity in folklore studies. She turns to the lives of Memphis musicians with an examination of their views on playing in Beale Street. The conclusion reconsiders these musicians as working professionals, an idea at odds with the expectations of the mythical bluesman. This approach reveals the lasting and pervasive nature of authenticity discourses and their incompatibility with an understanding of music as labor. (author)
Wechsler, James. “Fred Becker and experimental printmaking”, Print quarterly 10/4 (December 1993) 373–384. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1993-28755]