1917 River Jazz: W.C. Handy and Fate Marable in the Northern Delta

Thirty-First in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, June 8, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Cairo, Ill., remained a place of converging forces, of conflict and collaboration, creation, even as the old river town struggled in early 20th century.

New railroads and a bridge bypassed Cairo, crossing the Mississippi near Cape Girardeau. Paved highways were routed elsewhere, establishing automobile traffic through southeast Missouri and western Kentucky. Aircraft flew overhead but only stunt pilots landed at Cairo, marshy tip of southern Illinois.

River commerce had been reduced to barge freight and local packets, to showboats and excursion rides. Timber and grain drove Cairo industry but supplies were shrinking from southeast Missouri, booming itself through deforestation, draining and settlement of vast bottom lands. Bootheel crop farmers, burgeoning in number, stored and sold harvests through new elevators on their side of the river. Sikeston’s high-rise grain elevator, a concrete cluster of 12 towers, held 800,000 bushels.

Cairo was fading in significance, increasingly cut off in the northern delta. This confluence of great rivers, merge point of the Mississippi and Ohio, wasn’t so important anymore. Town population peaked at about 15,000 during the 1910s, outset of the First World War. Talk of Cairo as a budding metropolis was over, and meanwhile the pressing concern, as for a century, remained flood protection. Cairo’s survival had relied on federal aid and development since the Civil War. Only government could maintain the huge levees, river gates and pumps for repelling catastrophic river surges.

Entertainment and show business, and complementary vice, endured as Cairo’s consistent economy—and community pride or infamy, depending on perspective. Many citizens were fed up with the “live town” reputation.

“Cairo’s future depends, in one important sense at least, upon the people of the city themselves,” wrote John M. Lansden, attorney and local historian. “They cannot change its geographical features, nor its topographical features very much; but they can and should make it a place from which good and desirable people will not turn away.”

But Cairo always relied on show business and nightlife, even illicit gambling, said advocates. And brothels and unlicensed saloons were incidental problems, not a plague, they said. More outside folks were attracted than not for Cairo’s entertainment scene; positives outweighed negatives, advocates argued.

Local culture for performing arts was special, undeniably. Historic Cairo still attracted major shows and talent while nurturing young musicians, dancers, actors and comedians.

The circus was tradition for generations here, since Dan Rice and Spalding’s Floating Palace on the Mississippi. Circuses no longer wintered around Cairo but big shows visited into the 20th century, including Barnum and Bailey, Sells and Downs, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and Ringling Brothers. The modern circus arrived by railroad in the night, “awe-inspiring for the ease with which it flits from hither to yon,” remarked a columnist. “A circus carrying a thousand people and 500 varieties of fierce and fragrant beasts will slip into a town at 4 a.m. and by breakfast time will have set up 10 acres of tents and will have its calliope fired up.”

Showboat lore traced to the floating barges of Ludlow, Chapman and Lennox, and the steamer tug Banjo of Spalding, in period of early to mid-1800s on the rivers. The 1900s showboats, like predecessors, set up at Cairo wharf and across the way at Bird’s Point. Modern vessels were spectacles on water, a football field in length and electrically illuminated, led by Markle’s Goldenrod and Emerson’s Cotton Blossom.

Classical drama and opera waned in popularity but remained trademarks of Cairo, drawing enough regional audience to support major shows and performers. Famed Lillian Russell appeared here in twilight of her stage career, 1913. Cecille B. DeMille and Marguerite Clark made acting runs at the Opera House prior to entering silent movies, he as a director. Helena Modjeska, acclaimed tragedian, made a farewell appearance at age 67.

But the crowds turned out for song, dance and laughs, from stars like vaudevillians Lew Dockstader, Max Bloom and Al. H. “Metz” Wilson, showing at the Opera House.

Music was popular as ever in Cairo and the riverine delta. American genres had emerged, pure native styles with hot beats, along with technology like the phonograph player. Entertainment infrastructure expanded along automobile routes, adding live venues. And black artists impacted music in facets such as song composition, instrumentals, stage performance and marketing.

Pioneer blues singer Ma Rainey played Cairo, starring for the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, while soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones visited on numerous dates, leading her Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. Jones was a songbird of range from grand opera to pop, known as “Black Patti” in deference to Italian great Adelina Patti. In 1911 Jones’ troupe advertised “40 Colored Comedians, Vocalists and Dancers” at Cairo.

The Smart Set Company packed showplaces in the South and North, from Cairo Opera House to the Lafayette Theatre in New York. The Smart Set was a “black vaudeville” institution for decades with lead men such as Tom McIntosh, Sherman H. Dudley, and the Whitney brothers, Salem Tutt and J. Homer Tutt.

In 1915 a “Negro Renaissance” was apparent in the arts. James Reese Europe, Afro-American composer and conductor, said contemporary spotlight trained on black performers because of “modern dances, and the consequent demand for dance music of which the distinguishing characteristic is an eccentric tempo. Such music usually takes the form of a highly syncopated melody, which in the early period of its development was known as ‘ragtime’ music.”

“Perhaps it is fair to say that the negro has contributed to American music whatever distinctive quality it possesses,” Europe said. “Certainly he is the originator of the highly syncopated melody so much in favor today [jazz].” Europe headed an association of black musicians in New York City, where they endured prejudice and royalties theft from music publishers but likewise dominated jobs for shows and dances. “Our negro musicians have nearly cleared the field of the so-called gypsy orchestras,” he said.

Jim Europe highly admired W.C. Handy of Memphis, the bandleader who composed early blues songs that burst barriers and captured mainstream audience, endearing white fans and black. Handy was a pioneer of American music whom dancers should thank for the fox trot, Europe said in Harlem, adding, “both the tango and the fox trot are really negro dances, as is the one-step.”

Handy stood revered in the lower Mississippi and Ohio valleys, already, and across the South.

“The Memphis Blues is known all over this country and its composer is almost as well known,” remarked a Nashville critic. “Down in Memphis town Handy reigns almost supreme at most of the dances, his music being the one big boast that the Memphians have.” An Atlanta paper saluted Handy’s band as “a Memphis musical institution.” A Texas advertisement touted “Dance Music That Will Make You Kick Back The Rugs.”

Atlanta reporter Britt Craig was struck that hundreds of whites turned out with blacks to see Handy’s band. “The variety demonstrated the democracy of ragtime,” Craig stated. “The applause that greeted the livelier ragtime numbers, especially The Memphis Blues, shook the rafters. Handy was compelled to render the Blues three times when he first played it, then later by special request.”

The self-effacing Handy credited blues music to multi-ethnic artists preceding him along the Mississippi: “Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their underprivileged but undaunted clan from Missouri to the Gulf.” A son of slaves, Handy drew inspiration from experience, his past of incidents and encounters. “There was what we called the folk blues,” he recalled. “It seemed to me I’d always heard them. Our people talked of ‘singing the blues,’ but that was just a phrase. Blues wasn’t written music then. There would be just a snatch of song among my people. It was music from the heart.”

Handy appeared frequently in the northern delta during the 1910s, particularly at Caruthersville and Cairo. He conceived a classic melody on visit to St. Louis, jotting notes in a riverfront saloon. A century later, the BBC recounted: “In 1914, Handy followed up Memphis Blues with his next hit… called St Louis Blues. It was even more popular and influential than its predecessor and it went on to become a jazz standard.”

As America was drawn into world conflict, W.C. Handy played Cairo on multiple occasions, with varying combinations of his Memphis players. The term “jass” or “jaz” was just surfacing in the northern delta. A reporter described the music, close kin of ragtime and blues, as “that peculiar brand of ultra-syncopation.” For longtime ahead, many would refer to jazz as ragtime, “raggy” tunes.

“A jass band is composed of oboes, clarinets, cornets, trombones, banjos and always a drum,” commented a New Orleans musician in 1917. “But the music is a matter of ear and not of technique. None of us knows music. One carries the melody and others do what they please. Some play counter melodies, some play freak noises, and some just play. I can’t tell you how. You got to feel jass. The time is syncopated. Jass, I think, means a jumble.”

Jazz was long heard in locales besides New Orleans, according to Elijah “Lige” Shaw, legendary drummer born in Tennessee south of Cairo, 1900. “We just called it music, not jazz,” Shaw recalled of boyhood in Jackson, Tenn., where he earned money dancing and playing drums in his father’s saloon.

“So this music, everybody says that this music comes from New Orleans, but that isn’t necessarily true, because I’ve been hearing it all my life and I didn’t know New Orleans existed. But it’s the same music as the older musicians that I would follow around as a little boy, getting a whooping every night for staying out because I was out and around where the musicians were.”

Shaw had 15 siblings and left Jackson as a teen, after his mother died. He landed at Memphis and in 1915 joined a network of musicians and bands supervised by Handy. Shaw toured at age 16 with the Dandy Dixie Minstrels, operating from Cotton Plant, Ark. The outfit played Cairo theaters and tent shows. “We’d make a different town every day,” Shaw said. “There was always excitement; every day you could count on a laugh and a change of scenery.”

Handy appeared twice at Cairo in 1917, when Columbia Records released his Jazz Dance Blues—“weird and super-syncopated strains… compelling call to the dance floor”—in national distribution. Handy ended each show with St. Louis Blues, packing the floor of dancers and ensuring encores. Cairo couples enjoyed modern dancing, controversial moves, some considered taboo, of names like the tango, fox trot, turkey trot, bunny hug, grizzly bear, shimmy and toe wiggle.

A modern dancer moved “with every part of one’s body”—alarming churchmen locally. Methodist minister Curwen Henley denounced dancing in “most ardent” fashion, reported the Bulletin. “I am set against the practice of dancing,” said Henley. “I do not believe in being a sanctimonious church member in Cairo and a dancer on the boat. The modern dances are of death.”

Reverend Henley had penchant for making headlines, including as a leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Illinois elders of the Southern Methodists assigned Henley to Cairo, where he admonished the community for “lawlessness and anarchy.” The pulpit firebrand equated locals to hedonists and vowed to fight evil “with every drop of blood in my veins.” Pastor Henley condemned Cairo for infidelity and divorce, alcohol consumption, dancing, gambling and more ills. Given Cairo alone, the “second coming of Christ seems near,” he cried.

Newsmen covered Sunday sermons of Henley, harvesting quotes that grabbed attention on frontpage. “Why should Cairo be the only open town for miles around?” Henley pleaded, championing the Temperance Movement for banning alcohol. “We are surrounded by dry territory; should we continue open so as to invite all the vile here? We will never build up our city that way. Shall we stay open just to be conspicuous?”

In spring 1917 Preacher Henley headed into a showdown. The Handy band was fantastic for dancers at an Elks party, thrilling Cairo generally, but dance opponents felt differently, and the annual picnic for Sunday schools was coming up. The gathering was multi-denominational and this year featured a river excursion aboard the palatial Steamer Saint Paul of the Streckfus Line. Many anticipated trouble with Henley around, since the boat offered dance tunes from bandleader Fate Marable and his jazzy players.

Marable pushed the issue straight away, on morning of the event, a May Saturday, by broadcasting calliope music from atop the Saint Paul moored at Cairo wharf. Gangplanks were opened and church picnickers came rushing. The side-wheel steamer was 300-feet long, wooden hulled, four stories tall, painted bright white with latticework from stern to bow. Tall black stacks streamed thin smoke as the Saint Paul got up steam for the excursion run. Launch was in a half-hour.

Marable, 27, refined pianist and master calliope player, hit notes on the steam organ like none other—“when Fate allows his fingers to wander dreamily over the brass keys all lovers of ragtime sit up and take notice,” gushed a river listener. And as 600 church people boarded Marable’s boat, toes were tapping and fingers snapping, especially among youths.

At a quarter past 9 o’clock, Marable left his calliope perch under the smokestacks. He headed downstairs to the second deck, with its 200-foot hardwood dance floor, to join his musicians. Marable was an Afro-American of light complexion and red hair, native of nearby Paducah, fronting a band of black players from his hometown. In final minutes until boat launch they played catchy melodies, snatches of their advertised “special dance program,” to stir the crowd.

Gangways were withdrawn onto the Saint Paul and moorings untied, ropes reeled in. Deckhands signaled up to the pilot house for departure. At 9:30 sharp the captain gripped the brass handle on the ship’s telegraph mount, a porcelain dial of throttle commands for the engine room. He pushed the dial from STAND BY to SLOW AHEAD, and engines fired below. At rear of the ship the big paddle wheel turned forward, churning water.

The Saint Paul pulled away from Cairo wharf, billowing dark smoke, horn blaring, and made a wide U-turn on the Ohio to point upriver. Straightening out, the pilot ordered steam power to FULL AHEAD; pouring on the coals, the boat glided toward picnic grounds 20 miles up the channel.

Marable’s band played loudly on the dance deck, and there was action. Many churchgoers would dawdle no longer. “Although they knew there would be objection, a large number of the young people succumbed to the lure of the music,” the Bulletin later reported, “and the magnificent dance floor was soon filled with swaying couples.”

But the band was interrupted, told to stop by churchmen, and Reverend Henley and Fate Marable came face-to-face. Marable wouldn’t relent, informing the anti-dance crusaders his band would continue, with or without couples on the floor. And music resumed.

“Instantly the floor was again filled with dancers, and several numbers were played with the same result,” the Bulletin reported. Henley and company halted the music, once again, but Marable remained determined to perform. Henley mentioned sacred songs as proper for the gathering, and, perhaps to his surprise, Marable agreed.  Now only hymns would be heard from the bandstand.

“For a while it was thought the dancers had been defeated,” the Bulletin relayed, “but first one and then another couple returned to the floor. It was found that music of hymns, when properly played by an orchestra accustomed to furnishing dance music, was just as good as ragtime for their purposes.”

Music and the fox trot rolled on. The nifty collaboration between Marable and churchy dancers had won out, their resorting to Bringing In The Sheaves and such. Preacher Henley fumed over the sacrilege, leading his disciples at edge of the floor.

“Charges of desecration were hurled at the dancers by the outraged objectors and many personalities were indulged in, but as long as the music continued, some remained on the floor,” the Bulletin reported. “They flung back a challenge to make them stop and told their criticizers they were bigoted and narrow-minded.”

“The dance or not to dance at a Sunday school picnic… was never settled.”

Reverend Henley was perturbed that night in Cairo. “No person truly a Christian can endorse or favor the dance idea,” he said. “The dance never builds character but destroys it. It never builds the constitution but undermines it.”

In 1918 Fate Marable and his steamboat musicians were billed as the Kentucky Jazz Band by Streckfus Steamers. The next year Marable retained only one Paducah musician, Boyd Atkins, while hiring a host of New Orleans players, including Warren “Baby” Dodds and teenager Louis Armstrong.

The group, known as Marable’s Jaz-E-Saz Band, toured the rivers on Streckfus steamers Saint Paul and Sidney. Armstrong performed his first trumpet solo from a boat at Caruthersville. Marable nicknamed the kid “Satchmo,” and decades later Armstrong credited the pianist “for lots of us youngsters getting a start.”

“We were the first hot band to come up on the boats and people thought we were really something out of the ordinary,” Armstrong said. “Baby Dodds used to play on the rims of the drums, y’know… we really had ’em jumpin’. Deedy, we used to make ’em swing.”

In 1918 Reverend Henley left Cairo, reassigned to Murphysboro by the Southern Methodists. Soon after he saw a cherished cause become federal mandate in the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States.

Prohibition of booze didn’t last. Jass did.

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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