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Gulledge, and I went to see him at his place of business, one of those old brown stone-houses fronting on West 46th Street.
To my question, "Have blues any relation to Negro folk-song?'' Handy replied instantly:
" Yes — they are folk-music."
"Do you mean in the sense that a song is taken up by many singers, who change and adapt it and add to it in accordance with their own mood? " I asked. "That constitutes communal singing, in part, at least."
" I mean that and more," he responded. " That is true? of course, of the blues, as I'll illustrate a little later. But blues are folk-songs in more ways than that. They are essentially racial, the ones that are genuine, — though since they became the fashion many blues have been written that are not Negro in character, — and they have a basis in older folk-song."
"A general or a specific basis?" I wished to know.
" Specific," he answered. " Each one of my blues is based on some old Negro song of the South, some folk-song that I heard from my mammy when I was a child. Something that sticks in my mind, that I hum to myself when I'm not thinking about it. Some old song that is a part of the memories of my childhood and of my race. I can tell you the exact song I used as a basis for any one of my blues. Yes, the blues that are genuine are really folk-songs."
I expressed an interest to know of some definite instance of what he meant, and for answer he picked up a sheaf of music from his desk.
" Here 's a thing called Joe Turner Blues," he said. "That is written around an old Negro song I used to hear and play thirty or more years ago. In some sections it was called Going Down the River for Long, but in Tennessee it was always Joe Turner. Joe Turner, the inspiration of the song, was a brother of Pete Turner, once governor of Tennessee. He was an officer and he used to come to Memphis and get prisoners to carry them to Nashville after a Kangaroo Court. When the Negroes said of anyone, 'Joe Turner's been to town,' they meant that the person in question had been carried off handcuffed, to be gone no telling how long."
I recalled a fragment of folk-song from the South which I had never before understood, but whose meaning was now clear enough.
Dey tell me Joe Turner's come to town. He's brought along one thousand links of chain; He's gwine to have one nigger for each link; He's gwine to have dis nigger for one link!