Old Beale Street * is coming down
Sweeties' Snack Bar boarded up now
And Egles the Tailor and the Shine Boy's gone
Faded out with ragtime blues
Handy's cast in bronze
And he's standing in a little park
With a trumpet in his hand
Like he's listening back to the good old bands
And the click of high heeled shoes
Old Furry * sings the blues
Propped up in his bed
With his dentures and his leg removed
And Ginny's there
For her kindness and Furry's beer
She's the old man's angel overseer
Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps
In the grey decay
They chew the last few dollars off
Old Beale Street's carcass
Carrion and mercy
Blue and silver sparkling drums
Cheap guitars eye shades and guns
Aimed at the hot blood of being no one
Down and out in Memphis Tennessee
Old Furry sings the blues
You bring him smoke and drink and he'll play for you
lt's mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel
But there was one song he played
I could really feel
There's a double bill murder at the New Daisy
The old girl's silent across the street
She's silent waiting for the wrecker's beat
Silent staring at her stolen name
Diamond boys and satin dolls
Bourbon laughter ghosts history falls
To parking lots and shopping malls
As they tear down old Beale Street
Old Furry sings the blues
He points a bony finger at you and says
"I don't like you"
Everybody laughs as if it's the old man's standard joke
But it's true
We're only welcome for our drink and smoke
W. C. Handy * I'm rich and I'm fey
And I'm not familiar with what you played
But I get such strong impressions of your hey day
Looking up and down old Beale Street
Ghosts of the darktown society
Come right out of the bricks at me
Like it's a Saturday night
They're in their finery
Dancing it up and making deals
Furry sings the blues
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street
Old Furry sings the blues
© 1976; Crazy Crow Music
In the early evenings, boxback suits and Stetson hats mingled with overalls. Young ladies began to sashay around and inside the bars, gamblers waited for an easy mark from the country to come strolling in, bug-eyed at the ways of the big city. If the mark escaped from the dice or the cards, maybe the rube would fall victim to Little Ora, who was always ready to prove her reputation as the best pickpocket between New Orleans and St. Louis. Or maybe he'd just stop over at PeeWee's and visit with the musicians, or play a little pool, or secure the voodoo protection of Mary the Wonder.
By mid-evening, the street would be packed and a one-block walk could take forever, especially if he had to detour around the medicine show set up in the little hole in the wall, or if he stopped and listened to the wandering bluesman playing for pennies and nickels.
There was the sight of Machine Gun Kelly peddling bottled whiskey from a clothes basket back before he moved into the ranks of big-time crime.
There were numerous gamblers setting a box next to the card table and sliding a share of the take into it for the church down the street.
There were big vaudeville shows at the Palace and the Daisy, hot snoot sandwiches at the corner café jug bands playing down at the park and one block over on Gayoso there was a red-light district to rival New Orleans Storyville.
Good or bad - Beale Street created some memories.
The redevelopment of Beale Street is considered a catalyst in downtown Memphis' rebirth. In the late 1970's the City of Memphis bought nearly all of the properties along three blocks of Beale Street, and the Beale Street Management Corporation was formed with the charge of creating an entertainment district. In 1982, John Elkington and his company became involved in the redevelopment of Beale Street. Their primary responsibility was to focus on the marketing, leasing and property management of Beale Street in addition to developing the entertainment theme through the selection of tenants.
In 1983, the first club reopened on Beale, and one by one, clubs and businesses moved into renovated spaces, producing the most vibrant streetscape and activity center in downtown Memphis and the Mid-South. What was once all vacant property has turned into one of the hottest entertainment districts in the country. Over the past 20 years, the street has gone from the epitome of urban decay to the number one tourist attraction in the State of Tennessee.
One of the most experienced of the medicine show and tent show entertainers was Walter "Furry" Lewis. He had an advantage over some of the musicians who came in from the country: he actually lived in Memphis. He'd been brought from Greenwood, Mississippi when he was six years old, in 1906, to Memphis, and forty-odd years later he was still living there. "Furry" was a childhood name, given to him for some reason long forgotten by his schoolfellows. As a youth he left home, hoboed into the country and up north to Illinois. But his rambling life was brought to an abrupt end when he lost a leg in a railroad accident. He got around on a wooden leg very well but hopping freight trains with this incapacity was too dangerous; instead, he took up playing guitar, and was soon adept enough to work on the shows. When "Doctor" Willie Lewis took a party of blues and ballad singers into the Mississippi countryside to sell his "Jack Rabbit Salve", Furry was with him. So was Jim Jackson, and sometimes Will Shade and Gus Cannon. They played ballads, popular songs, and of course the blues.
For more than a decade Furry Lewis worked on the medicine shows and it is hardly surprising that these years had a lasting effect upon his music. When, ten years after his accident, he was recorded for the Victor Company, he sang both blues and ballads. This catholicity has always been characteristic of him, but the recording men preferred him to sing blues in the manner of the day. For this reason perhaps, they did not call upon him to record again after 1929 and for thirty years nothing more was heard about Furry Lewis, except in the shabby roads of the Negro sector of Memphis where the children gathered occasionally to hear him play. During the thirties and forties, Furry made a meager living but at any rate, kept his independence. He had taken a job as a garage hand at the time that he recorded, but soon after had to settle as a cleaner and laborer in the City of Memphis Department of Streets. It wasn't easy for him. From time to time he played guitar at the houses of friends, and so it continued until eventually the revival of interest in blues at last caught up with him, and gave the outside world a chance to hear one of the great Memphis musicians.
Half a century after he first started playing music Furry Lewis was a featured artist at the Memphis Blues Convention, clowning and fooling gently as he always had. In spite of the long passage of time he was still playing and singing the themes of his medicine show years, and so his recordings are a valuable document of a colorful era.
"Furry ain't takin' no chances any more. His last girl put carbolic acid in his coffee, turpentine in his tea and strychnine in his biscuits, but he pulled through. So he's goin' to marry an Indian squaw and have Big Chief as his Dad-in-Law" ran the advertisement for his first recording of Big Chief Blues. Maybe things weren't as bad as that between that version and this one, but they were tough enough for Furry. It's our great fortune that he did pull through and that he can still entertain us with the music of an old-time medicine show man.
Walter "Furry" Lewis was born March 1893 and died September 14, 1981. Aside from appearing in a Burt Reynolds movie, "W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings," Furry's slide guitar magic earned a brass note for this truly legendary Bluesmanship on Beale Street. To visit his grave site, paid for by fans, by going South on Elvis Presley from Downtown Memphis, turn left on Hernando Avenue, and the grave site is located in the third cemetary at 2012 Hernando. Furrys' guitar can be seen at Capitol Loans on 774 Poplar Avenue.
Despite Handy's lack of encouragement, he longed to own a guitar that he had seen in a local shop window and he secretly saved the money he made by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap. When he had finally saved enough money to buy the guitar, he proudly brought it home to his shocked and dismayed family. Handy's father made him take the guitar back and exchange it for a dictionary.
Handy joined a local blues band as a teenager, but he kept this fact secret from his parents. He purchased a cornet from a fellow bandmember and spent every free minute practicing it. An exceptional student in school, he placed near the top of his class. In September of 1892, Handy traveled to Birmingham to take a teaching exam, which he passed easily. He obtained a teaching job in Birmingham but soon learned that the teaching profession paid poorly. He quit the position and found work at a pipe works plant in nearby Bessemer.
During his off-time, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read notes. He formed a quartet called the "Lauzetta Quartet". When the group read about the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend. The trip to Chicago was long and arduous. To pay their way, group members performed at odd jobs along the way. When they finally arrived in Chicago, the quartet learned that the World's Fair had been postponed for a year. The group headed to St. Louis, but working conditions there proved to be very bad. The Laurzetta Quartet disbanded and Handy subsequently left St. Louis for Evansville, Indiana.
In Evansville, Handy's luck changed dramatically. He joined a successful band which performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. While performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Kentucky, he met Elizabeth Price, and they married shortly afterwards (on July 19, 1896).
Handy received a letter from a musician friend in August of 1896, inviting him to join a minstrel group called "Mahara's Minstrels." He saw this as a great opportunity even though minstrel groups (traveling bands that roamed from city to city) were not highly regarded. Handy and his new wife Elizabeth traveled to Chicago where Handy took the job with Mahara's Minstrels at a salary of $6 per week. The three-year minstrel tour took them throughout the southwestern states of Texas and Oklahoma, across the Southeast through Tennessee and Georgia, and south to Florida and eventually to Cuba. Life on the road was not an easy way to make a living, and Elizabeth especially grew weary of it. Following their return from Cuba, the group headed north again, stopping along the way for a performance in Huntsville, Alabama. Handy decided to stay in Florence with his family for a much needed rest.
While in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first of six children (a daughter named Lucille) on June 29, 1900 in Florence. During this time, Handy was approached by W.H. Councill, President of Agricultural and Mechanical College in Normal, Alabama, about a teaching position. The university was the only black college in the state of Alabama at the time. Handy accepted the offer and became a faculty member in September of that year.
He was soon disheartened to discover that American music was often cast aside by the college that instead emphasized inferior foreign music considered to be "classical". It also became apparent that Handy was being underpaid, he could make much more money touring with the a minstrel group. After a dispute with President Councill, Handy resigned his position and rejoined the Mahara Minstrels to tour states in the Mid-west and Pacific Northwest. In 1903, he received an offer to direct a black band called the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This job proved to be very rewarding, and Handy remained there for six years.
In 1909, Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee where they established their headquarters on the famous Beale Street. Handy's years of observing the reactions of white people to native black music as well as his own observances of the music, habits and attitudes of his race, began to affect his music sparking the beginnings of what would later be called "the blues." The first composition of this type was a campaign song that Handy composed for E. H. Crump, a Memphis candidate for mayor who was running on a reform platform. The song, "Mr. Crump," was later titled "Memphis Blues" and became very popular.
"Memphis Blues" was such a huge success that Handy published it in 1912. Although he sold the rights to the song for a mere $100, his musical style had been asserted and in 1914, at the age of 40, he published his most famous composition, "St. Louis Blues." Handy began to write and publish prolifically, and his popularity soared. He opened his own publishing business and worked steadily throughout the 1920's and 1930's despite problems with his vision. His eyes had been sensitive since childhood and the heavy demands of his career took their toll on his vision. In 1943, he lost his balance and fell from a subway station which caused him to go totally blind.
In addition to composing, Handy worked laboriously at compiling blues tunes which he published in a book called Blues: An Anthology in 1926. He later published Negro Authors And Composers of the United States (1935), and Unsung Americans Sung (1944). His biography, Father of the Blues was published in 1941.
Handy's wife, Elizabeth, died in 1937. Handy later married Irma Louise Logan in 1954 at the age of 80. He suffered a stroke one year later and was confined to a wheelchair. Still a very popular figure, Handy's 84th birthday party was held at the Waldorf-Astoria with more than 800 people attending.
He died on March 28, 1958 of acute bronchial pneumonia at the age of 84. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York with many notables attending the funeral service and an estimated 150,000 people along the funeral route.
W.C. Handy has been called "the Father of the Blues" having single-handedly introduced a new style of music to the world. He acknowledged that he did not invent the blues but merely transcribed them and presented them to a worldwide audience. There have been many honors bestowed upon Handy since his death. In Memphis, a city park is named after him and in his hometown of Florence, Alabama, the log cabin where he was born has been restored and turned into a museum which houses mementos from his life. The city of Florence also holds an annual music festival in his honor.
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