A Left Hand Warmed Up in Hell
by Randall E. Auxier
Mark Twain complained to a friend that to write what he was really thinking would fill a library and he’d need a “pen warmed up in hell.” But compared to the mischief made by Scott Joplin‘s left hand, well, there’s no comparison. Here we have a young Thomas Alva Edison. People say he was ambidextrous. Here he’s pictured (by Matthew Brady no less) with his new invention, the “phonograph.” It’s 1878. He patented the contraption the year before, a pretty tough year in our national saga. That’s the year the Republicans sold out every African American by ending the Reconstruction policies that had begun to bring improvements to social life in the whole US, especially the South. The end was called the Compromise of 1877. Edison didn’t care. It didn’t affect him, ensconced in Michigan and New Jersey. He belonged to the future. Phonographs don’t care about race.
This is the story of three decades: 1870s, 1930s, and 1901-1911. Working forward from this photograph, it took twenty years for the phonograph to become commercially viable. In those twenty, the South and the nation fell into the racial and sectional divisions that still exist. American popular music became a mass market commodity. After the Civil War our rural music retreated into sectional and regional musics, developing along independent lines as fathers taught their children the songs they learned wherever they were encamped. But the core of all this music is traceable to the Great Gathering of the War itself.
In the cities, especially New York, Chicago, and New Orleans, music publishing companies had enjoyed a good profit from the War, and new publishers were popping up in clusters. They were making a mint by transcribing anything and everything, sometimes claiming copyright, and peddling the papers to every bourgeois household that had a piano (and that was most). It was a free-for-all. Everyone stealing everyone else’s music, repackaging, reselling, and no clear laws to protect slow-footed entrants to the race of these rats.
But the writing was on the wall from the moment Edison got that patent. Once the phonograph, and its competitors (gramophones, victrolas, and the like) inhabited the parlor, the uprights and spinets began their long decline into the silence they now inhabit. Sheet music would be replaced by funny cylinders and disks. By 1896, Marconi had patented a device that would take commercial music to the next plateau, but that also took twenty-five years to become viable as a consumer product. By 1939, record sales depended on the radio, and the phonograph had met its match. The piano in the parlor became a piece of furniture, a warren for dust bunnies.
Now we work backward. In 1935, the Gershwins premiered Porgy and Bess, and Aaron Copland decided to write popular music. Musically, George Gershwin blended jazz and blues (genres about 35 years old) into a complex fabric that might have popular appeal, by a certain slick New York standard (high culture gone slummin’). His opening number, “Summertime,” uses the scales and transitions of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and Ira’s lyrics combine Stephen Foster-style scenes of the South with themes taken from the early blues numbers such as “Stackalee” and “Delia” and “Frankie and Albert.” It’s the same stuff that inspired DuBose Hayward to write the novel Porgy, Gershwin set to music. But the left hand is Joplin’s. In this moment, the blues and jazz went uptown. Meanwhile cowboy songs and Appalachian tunes fell under the sophisticated revisionist pen of Aaron Copland in Manhattan. Who could’ve known? Same left hand, same 12-bar progression, minus the flat sixth* of the Fisk Singers and Handy’s slurred thirds and sevenths.
It’s a mistake to think Copland and the Gershwins were just ripping off traditional music. They were reworking music that was already commercial. Handy was far from first with “St. Louis Blues” (1911). It would be like saying Bob Dylan invented rock and roll at Newport. Handy had the advantage of living long enough to play on Ed Sullivan. That’s why the mainstream calls him the Father of the Blues. It would be closer to the truth to say Handy collected the blues, transcribed the form with some highly trained flourishes, and sold the result (see the small print on the image below). But those three tunes I mentioned above were over ten years older and got collected. It was the true birth of the blues (two from St. Louis and one from Georgia), all based on actual murders in the 1890s. They had already co-opted Joplin’s left hand as the basis of the blues –and it would become the bass line of rock, and jazz, and country & western, and bluegrass, R&B, and even hip hop during the 20th century. The same left hand. Mischief. Murder. Damnation. Money.
That left hand definitely emerged from slave song, speaking of hell. The later “African American spirituals” deriving from these songs became a commercial alternative to the racist minstrel shows. They began in 1871, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers started their climb toward a pleasant spin on the phonograph. Their long success continues today. Up the Mississippi River, hanging a right at Joplin’s St. Louis home, and paddling up the Illinois River to Chicago, thousands of musicians moved, bringing their left hands with them. In St. Louis, Scott Joplin blended and transcribed that left hand, adding a classical and decorous (and difficult) right hand, founding the music that would become jazz. Meanwhile, Jelly Roll Morton and other like-handed juke jumpers taught their sinistras to stride in 12 bars from the one chord to the four chord, back to one, then up to the five chord and home again. This would become boogie-woogie and rock’n roll. If you don’t believe me, listen to Jerry Lee Lewis and Big Joe Turner. Here, take a short lesson in how to stride.
By 1903 the center of our story arrives, when W.E.B. DuBois described the roots of the older music in The Souls of Black Folk. Only a short while later, a handful of travelers with colorful names had learned to imitate the rolls and strides on guitar –-Lead Belly, Blind Willie McTell, Furry Lewis, Robert Johnson. The guitar was mobile in a way the piano would never be, a whole band in a box. Some of these troubadours –we call them bluesmen, but they didn’t have that word til later—settled into playing the new commercial music on 12-string guitars, which sounded much closer to the piano. Picking the bass strings exactly as a strider or ragtime piano jockey would, they prefigured the rock and country and soul and blues bass lines that eventually took on electricity and defined American popular music.
New York City (where all good things go to be stolen and re-packaged) was already simplifying this music and putting it on the phonograph and the printed page for a mass market. Irving Berlin more than any other single immigrant, caught the current of the Great River and rode it for another 78 more years. His first hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” also 1911, just like Handy’score, was recorded by the Sinatra of the day Billy Murray. Berlin and his tin pan partners combined the sheet music and recording forms into a commercial collaboration that would survive for a century. Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter who ever lived,” but he died before Berlin even published “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” Anyone could recognize that Madison Avenue and Tin Pan Alley were in for a long run, and the new musical genres that sprang from this left-handed compromise have not only defined popular music in the US, but popular culture in the world. That’s the facts, ma’am, but the whys and wherefores are to come.
*Putting, for example, an Ab into a C major scale to replace A.