13 April 2013


Well, we have our ways of playing W. C. Handy's Memphis Blues. Most bands play a 4-bar Introduction. Then some play the 'Verse' as 16 bars, followed by the 12-bar 'Chorus'. I have heard others playing the Verse as 32 bars (the 16-bar theme twice). And there are even a few bands playing the Verse as 36 bars (essentially 16 + 16 PLUS a 4-bar tag).

I have heard bands playing both the Verse and the Chorus in the same key (usually F); and others playing the Verse in F and then going into Bb for the Chorus.

There is even an occasional band that plays a 12-bar theme (sometimes twice) before what I have been calling the 'Verse'. (This is probably - see below - an 'authentic' interpretation.)

It's interesting, when we come across some vintage sheet music of such a tune, to discover how the composer originally expected it to be played. As you can see from the music below, it seems that the 36-bar version of the Verse is 'correct', and that there IS a 12-bar theme BEFORE the 'Verse'. Here's the Introduction and the first 12-bar theme.
Then comes the 'Verse' theme and - as you can see - if played correctly, it contains 36 bars. The is the Verse we think of as starting with the words (added later by George A. Norton) Folks I've just been down, been down to Memphis Town, That's where the people smile, Smile on you all the while,.... (in the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong!):
Finally we have the 12-bar theme (twice through on this last page of the sheet music). And you will notice that the key DOES change - from F to Bb.
You may recall that Norton's words to the Chorus begin They've got a trumpet man leading the band, And folks he sure blows some horn, etc.
Two other little curiosities. First, the tune is sometimes sub-titled Mr. Crump. Legend has it that this was because it was written originally (in 1909) for use in his successful political campaign to become Mayor of Memphis by a Mr. Edward Crump. Second, you may have noticed that the tune is described on the cover page as 'A Southern Rag'. It does not sound like a 'rag' when played by jazz bands today, but it could be raggy if played with certain emphases and at the right tempo in the piano arrangement above. We must also bear in mind that this was possibly the first blues ever to be published, so perhaps a distinction between rags and blues had not yet been established. Handy's Yellow Dog Blues was also originally published as Yellow Dog Rag.