W. C. Handy and the Negro Music Festival, Sportsman’s Park, 1944
During the 1940s, St. Louisans read daily newspapers including the Post-Dispatch, the Globe-Democrat, and the Star-Times and neighborhood papers such as South Side Journal. Two weeklies, the American and the Argus, served the African American community. The archives at Washington University and the Missouri History Museum enable researchers to access these papers in several forms—sometimes in the original newsprint, sometimes on microfilm, and sometimes in clipping files built over decades by dedicated librarians and archivists. Drawing on these sources provides a rich account of 1944’s Negro Music Festival, an event intended to heal the city’s racial divide through the power of music and the charisma of one of St. Louis’s most canonical musicians.
W.C. Handy (1873-1958) was an influential trumpeter, bandleader, and composer renowned as “the Father of the Blues.” While his song St. Louis Blues significantly influenced the development of American popular music, the city of St. Louis also had a profound effect on the composer himself. During the Panic of 1893, Handy tried his luck as a musician in the city but was able to find only “temporary pickup work as a stevedore unloading riverboats.”1 Handy later told an interviewer that during this time he “slept on levee cobblestones by night and fought hunger by day.” He added that “the nearest thing to ‘a break’ in those days happened when he stood on Eads Bridge, threw his lice-infested shirt in the river, and then received the price of a meal and bed from an observer who thought the shirt-doffing scene was a prelude to suicide.” Handy claimed that St. Louis Blues was inspired when he overheard a St. Louis woman who “tried to drown heartbreak in a bottle. She wandered the streets sobbing, ‘Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea.’ So that went into the song.”2 Although this sounds like a romanticized telling of Handy’s early life, it reveals St. Louis’s importance to his public image.
Advertisement, St. Louis Argus, July 7, 1944.In 1944, at age seventy, Handy made a triumphant return to St. Louis as the main act of the fifth annual Negro Music Festival, held at Sportsman’s Park (at Grand Boulevard and Dodier Street) on July 10, 1944. The event was widely publicized in papers from the South Side Journal to the Argus, which featured a full-page advertisement touting the concert as “American’s Greatest Cultural Program!” and “a national demonstration of interracial goodwill.”3 Proceeds from the festival as well as from related events in Chicago and Detroit were donated to the Army and Navy Relief Society.4
The large audience, estimated variously as between 10,000 and 16,000, saw and heard an eclectic group of musicians, both black and white.5 The concert opened with “The Star Spangled Banner” sung by a local choir of 1000 voices led by C. Spencer Tocus and Wirt D. Walton, music directors at Vashon and Sumner high schools respectively.6 Representing the operatic tradition were baritone Richard Bonelli of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, soprano Lillian Evanti of the National Negro Opera Company, and the black Canadian contralto Portia White, who also performed spirituals.7 Muriel Smith, star of Broadway’s Carmen Jones, offered a more contemporary take on opera. Swing musicians included violinist Eddie South, nicknamed the “Dark Angel of the Violin,” and George Hudson’s Orchestra.8 The Southernaires, a vocal quartet, introduced their rendition of “We Are Americans, Too” with what the Argus called “one of the most beautiful and logical pleas for unity, harmony and tolerance that we have ever heard.”9 Addressing the crowd were famed poet Langston Hughes, Tuskegee Airman and war hero Charles Hall, and Hollywood star Don Ameche, who “spoke briefly in a plea for an end to race prejudice” and “cited the need for unity on the home font [sic] in winning the war.”10
“10,000 at Negro Music Festival,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 11, 1944.
The high point of the evening arrived when Handy took the stage to play St. Louis Blues backed by the orchestra of musical theater pioneer Noble Sissle. Reporter Arthur Kuhl of the Star-Times sought to capture the moment’s magic while emphasizing Handy’s racial identity:
"He stood there rigidly straight, his black face gleaming brightly in the moist, hot light and accented by white mustache, a fringe of white hair, the gleaming white of tuxedo shirt. The orchestra began a swinging vamp; he raised the muted trumpet to his lips. Then it began, slow and moody, rocking….William Christopher Handy was back home, blowing his own horn, lowdown, bouncing with a steady beat."11
The Post-Dispatch reported that “Handy gave the song a ‘sweet and slow’ rendition, after which the orchestra, by way of contrast, played it ‘fast and hot.’”12 And the Argus praised Handy’s “golden trumpet and his own interpretation of his immortal ‘St. Louis Blues.’”13
The Negro Music Festival had little direct impact on the patterns and practices of segregation that encumbered the daily lives of black St. Louisans. The event did demonstrate, however, that St. Louis’s major political and cultural institutions were increasingly open to celebrating African American music. Mayor of St. Louis Aloys P. Kaufmann officially proclaimed the week of July 10, 1944 “American Negro Music Appreciation Week” and attended the festival along with former mayor Bernard F. Dickmann.14
A[loys] P. Kaufmann, “A Proclamation,” St. Louis Argus, July 7, 1944. Before Handy’s performance, Edwin B. Meissner, chairman of the St. Louis Race Relations Committee, presented the composer with “a scroll honoring his contribution to modern music.”15 Although a cynical appraisal might suggest that the festival was intended primarily to defuse racial tensions that might interfere with the United States’ war efforts, it also led some white St. Louisans to reflect on the history of racial injustice that informed Handy’s music. Kuhl of the Star-Times, for example, wrote that St. Louis Blues evoked “three hundred years of oppression, discrimination, prejudice, as well, if you listened closely, for that’s what made the blues.”16 The Argus expressed optimism, writing that “the great and near great of both races, plus thousands of music lovers, and patriotic citizens were gathered together under the open sky…at one of the most stupendous spectacles of good-will that St. Louis has yet witnessed.”17
Advertisement, St. Louis Argus, July 7, 1944.Handy’s night, however, had just begun. After the festival, “the venerable musician was whisked away to the Riviera Club,” one of the city’s premier black nightclubs, “where others were waiting to pay him homage” at a fête arranged by club owner Jordan W. Chambers. At a “long, beautifully decorated table….it was Mr. Handy who basked in the spotlight by tacit agreement of all; it was to him that toasts in champagne were drunk; it was to him that all eyes turned in affectionate admiration.”18 Handy then enjoyed the club’s floor show, featuring trumpeter Valaida Snow. As the Argus reported, “Mr. Chambers’ generous gesture…offered a fitting as well as enjoyable climax to this great event which made history in St. Louis.”19
Listen on YouTube W. C. Handy performs St. Louis Blues on Ed Sullivan’s TV show Toast of the Town, 1949.