Born William Christopher Handy in Florence, Alabama, in 1873, W.C. Handy was known as the “Father of the Blues,” and he must not have minded the nickname—it’s the title of his autobiography. Handy’s claim to that sobriquet is not in having invented blues music but in bringing it to the masses in some of the earliest published and recorded songs of the genre. Indeed, his “The Memphis Blues” was the first-ever recorded blues song in 1914.
But Handy was no itinerant guitar-slinger in the stereotypically imagined vein. He was a classically trained musician who wrote music, taught in schools, and traveled the South with a large band playing the popular music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—heavily influenced by classical music, the brass band music made popular by Sousa, and the ragtime of his contemporaries like Scott Joplin. In 1903, while touring with his group in Cleveland, Mississippi, Handy heard a local folk-blues trio play, and witnessing the crowd’s reaction, became convinced of the music’s inevitable wider commercial appeal. In Handy’s own words, “There before the boys lay more money than my nine musicians were being paid for the entire engagement. Then I saw the beauty of primitive music.”
So, Handy took the guitar-based blues and began working it into complex arrangements for piano and, later, for full bands, to great success. In my 2017 recording, Gettin’ Handy with the Blues—A Tribute to the Legacy of W.C. Handy, I set out to bring his music back to its original source and created fingerstyle guitar arrangements of these largely ragtime-influenced songs. In this lesson, we’ll look at a few of the key pieces of the puzzle in adapting a ragtime piano piece for fingerstyle guitar. We’ll focus on chord fingerings, moving bass ideas, and anticipating the beat in the melody, culminating in a portion of my arrangement of Handy’s 1917 song “Beale Street Blues.”
In creating an arrangement of a Handy tune, it is important to be able to play the vocal melody and some answering phrases along with the chords and interesting moving bass parts associated with the genre. Much of Handy’s music was originally scored in flat keys (most likely for brass instruments or piano), so in order to make arrangements for a standard-tuned guitar, I transpose them to one of our most popular keys—C, A, G, E, or D. To make matters stickier, many of Handy’s original blues compositions were much more complex than latter-day blues, and often modulated to different keys within a song.
In playing rags and instrumental blues with independently moving melodies and bass lines, it’s important to choose your fretting-hand fingerings wisely. Begin Example 1, for instance, with a first-finger barre on strings 1–4 at fret 2. Lift the barre to play the open strings on beat 3 of bar 1, before placing the barre at the first fret on beat 4 and then moving it back up to the second fret on the downbeat of measure 2, etc. This figure also shows an interesting note choice—through the major seventh (fourth-fret G#), Handy brought brighter tones into his blues, perhaps to make them more upbeat for the larger general audience.
In Example 2, the same barre technique works nicely for an answering phrase based out of the A major pentatonic scale (A B C# E F#). We again dip down to the first fret for the minor third (C) before finishing in the familiar major pentatonic box. There are arguments to be made for using the thumb only to pick the D string notes of this riff, or for using a thumb-and-index combination for those notes. I would suggest trying both methods and go with what feels and sounds better to you.
Chromatic Moves and Chordal Anticipation
One really fun feature of ragtime music is the moving bass with lots of leading tones (notes that are a half step away from a chord tone). Often we see these bass notes at the end of a measure leading us to the bass note of the next chord. There are bound to be compromises when trying to cover melody, chords, and bass with one guitar and at times we need to let go of a chord to be able to get to the next one in style. We’ll look at two different ideas here. Both may feel unfamiliar to the strictly alternating-thumb style folk guitarist, but these techniques can really open up a lot of fun stuff if used as connective tissue in an otherwise alternating-thumb approach.
Example 3 is built on a descending bass line moving down from an open C7-shaped D7 chord to an A chord with an E in the bass. This figure might sound strange at a slow tempo, but it is a common theme in the tuba bass lines of the old-time ragtime bands. In any case, make sure to abandon that seventh-chord shape on the “and” of beat 2.
I’ve created a little exercise in Example 4 where the bass becomes a chromatic line in eighth notes, leading towards the following chord. Use your thumb to do all of the work on strings 6–4, again abandoning the chord shape (in this case A) to make it happen.
Another signature sound in early blues and ragtime songs involves the anticipation of a chord change, usually on the offbeat right before a new chord. In such instances, it’s important to fret not just the melody but the whole chord shape before the downbeat of the following measure. For instance, in the first measure of Example 5, on the “and” of beat 4, move to an open A chord with your fourth finger on the first-string A.
Beale Street Blues
Example 6 depicts the first section of “Beale Street Blues”—a four-bar intro, followed by a 12-bar blues form. The idea of the short instrumental intro before the repeated verse form was already pretty standard in the popular music of Handy’s day, but was rarely used in the folk-blues idiom. Later, seminal blues guitar records such as Blind Blake’s Police Dog Blues (1929) employed the instrumental intros regularly. The bass move of Ex. 3is seen in the second measure of the intro section here.
I often use different three-note voicings of the same chord while keeping an open string in the bass, like the pair of A voicings in measure 7, allowing me to employ a moving treble with my right-hand fingers while keeping a steady bass note with my thumb. It’s much harder to bring the higher chords into play if you use barre shapes. The A, D, and E chords, with their “freebie” open string bass notes, are the fingerstyle player’s best friends for improvising up high over steady bass notes.
A note about a couple of the fingerings: Play the D chord in measures 9–10 with a first-finger barre across strings 1–3 at fret 2 and grab both the fifth-fret A and fourth-fret G# with your fourth finger. In bars 13–14, form a regular open E shape and use your fourth finger for the first-string notes at frets 2 and 4. You can let go of the E chord very quickly to reach up to that fourth-fret G#.
I hope that this lesson has given you ideas not just for arranging W.C. Handy tunes but for playing folk-blues and ragtime in general.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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