Sunday, March 22, 2020

The First Blues Memorial in Mississippi - 1976

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register July 29, 1976.
By Ken Faulkner

On the morning of July 28, 1976, a small group of residents in Tutwiler gathered at the park where the town railroad station once stood to honor an event that changed the course of the life of the American composer W.C. Handy. By his own account, Tutwiler was the place where he discovered "the blues." As part of the national Bicentennial Celebration, the National Music Council selected 200 national music landmarks. Tutwiler was selected as one of those sites. In a brief ceremony, a couple of white women--the president of the Mississippi Federation of Music and the Mississippi coordinator of the Bicentennial Parade of American Music--presented a plaque to the white mayor of the town of Tutwiler to commemorate the event. 

I know the Yellow Dog District like a book 
Indeed I know the route that Rider took 
Ev'ry cross-tie, bayou, burg an' bog 
Way down where the Southern cross' the Dog 

"One night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulders and wakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while t 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 a guitar. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."

"Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog." 

Thus W.C. Handy describes the moment when he first became aware of the value of the Negro folk music which he later adapted and popularized as "The Blues." Prior to that moment, Handy had been a band director and composer of the more traditional types of music popular around the turn of the century — waltzes, two-steps, etc. 

He now is known throughout the world as the “father of the blues." Handy, who lived in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis and Beale Street, traveled throughout the Delta playing at both white and black dances. He is still remembered by a few people. 

Dr. T.F. Clay, at 90 one of the oldest residents of Tutwiler, remembers dancing to Handy's music as a young man. "In those days every time a new store opened they would have a dance, and Handy played at many of them. But he didn't play the blues then, he was living in Clarksdale. He didn't start the blues until he went to Memphis." 

"He would come down on the train with his band and they would play all night. He'd get maybe $40 or $50, not like today with bands getting $500 or more. Handy moved to Clarksdale and the Delta at the invitation of another black man, S.L. "Stack" Mangham, who was mail clerk at the old Planters Bank and a member of an all-black band called The Knights of Pythias. Mangham had heard about Handy from a friend and invited him to Clarksdale to direct the hand. 

"I came to know by heart every foot of the Delta, from Clarksdale to Lambert on the Dog and Yazoo City railroads. I could call every flat stop, water tower and pig path on the Peavine with my eyes closed," Handy relates in his biography, The Father of the Blues. 

Joe Campassi, who at 83 is still energetic and alert, remembers his good friend W.C. Handy quite well. Campassi knew Handy both in Memphis and Clarksdale. "He was one of the finest men I've ever known," he relates, and is proud of his copy of Handy's autobiography with a personal note from the author. 

"In those days, everybody who knew him called him "Fess." 

"We were both working at a saloon called Pee Wee's on Beale Street in Memphis when Handy wrote the Memphis Blues. But then it was called ‘Mister Crump.' We were having an election for Mayor and Handy was hired by E.H. Crump to help get in the votes All the candidates had bands, but Handy wrote this song 'Mister Crump' and Crump won the election. He later changed the name of the song to "Memphis Blues". It was the first. 

"I was young in those days, 1910, only 16, helping manage Pee Wee's saloon, and selling policy (a gambling game also known as Louisianna Lottery).- "I moved back to Clarksdale later, but Handy would still come down to play for dances, and we would get together." 

Handy later moved to New York. When he wrote his autobiography, he thought of his friend, Joe Campassi, and sent him a copy. 

Mrs. G.T. Thomas, who lives at 504 Sunflower, won't confess her age, but she remembers Handy too. She came here in 1910, after finishing at Alcorn College, to teach in the black school. She knew Stack Mangham well, and through him, met Handy. 

He lived near the old "Brickyard" on Lincoln Street, I think. He and his wife. They had a son here in Clarksdale." 

"I remember going to some of his dances," she said. "Then I married Mr. Thomas, and he was a strict Baptist, so I didn't go to dances anymore." 

Although Handy moved from the Delta and Beale Street, he never forgot the place where the course of his life changed and returned frequently to renew his friendship with the area. 

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. He left home at 16 against his father's wishes to pursue a life as a musician. After traveling with a number of roving bands, he settled in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis. He later moved to New York where he helped establish a music publishing company. He died in 1958.


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