Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Fusion in 1911

What was the first published twelve-bar blues?

Pose that question to ten people at random and chances are that nine will instantly reply, "Why, of course it was W.C. Handy's Memphis Blues published in 1912." Or words to that effect.
W.C. Handy (1873-1958)
Handy, a well-schooled musician and leader, did more than anyone of his time (the ragtime era) to popularize the blues, presaging the jazz age and the blues craze of the 1920s. Handy had toured the south for years, studying and documenting the twelve-bar form at its folk sources. He was, wrote Isaac Goldberg in Tin Pan Alley, "the first to set down upon paper, to fix the quality of the various 'breaks' as these wildly filled-in pauses were named. With a succession of 'blues' he fixed the genre."

Handy's first song was Memphis Blues published in 1912. St. Louis Blues and a string of successful songs would follow (the Handy oeuvre is best heard here) but Memphis Blues was the first, which would make it the first published blues, right? That would have been my guess until about 1994 when I purchased this first-rate Sackville CD with drummer Hal Smith, pianist Keith Ingham, and clarinetist Bobby Gordon.
The answer to today's question comes in a song whose chorus I've known all my life, a song published in 1911, one year before Memphis Blues. As Mr. Ingham writes in the liner notes, "the verse of this ditty [a verse I'd never heard before] is a twelve-bar blues, so to Bostonian Nat Ayer goes the credit for being the first to use the blues in a popular song."

Nat. D. Ayer (1887-1952)
Nat Ayer? Who he? A songwriter, pianist, singer, and actor, that's who, one who contributed extensively to Broadway musical comedies and London West End revues, mainly between 1908 and 1922. (His other enduring song is If You Were the Only Girl In the World.) How, where, and when did Ayer come to know the twelve-bar blues? I have no idea; but his hit song of 1911 typifies a process of musical 'fusion' as old as America itself.

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