“The Best Notes Made the Most Votes”: W. C. Handy, E. H. Crump, and Black Music as Politics

W. C. Handy on the 1909 Memphis mayoral campaign: “Beale Street was expected to cast a lot of votes, and it was squarely up to us to get them.” W. C. Handy, The Memphis Blues, Theron C. Bennet Co., 1912, courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.

ACCESS PURCHASE
Students and scholars can access articles for free via Project Muse.

“The Best Notes Made the Most Votes”: W. C. Handy, E. H. Crump, and Black Music as Politics

by Mark A. Johnson
Southern Cultures, Vol. 20, No. 2: Summer 2014

"'Feet commenced to pat. A moment later there was dancing on the sidewalks below. Hands went into the air, bodies swayed like the reeds on the bands of the Congo.'"

In 1909, three white politicians—Edward H. Crump, Joseph J. Williams, and Walter W. Talbert—vied to become the next mayor of Memphis. Each of the candidates utilized traditional campaign tactics to win the office, such as speeches, rallies, advertisements, and posters. In a common move among southern office-seekers, they also employed black musicians to campaign on their behalf. As African American musician and bandleader William Christopher Handy explained, “[I]n Memphis as in Clarksdale it was known to politicians that the best notes made the most votes, and there came a time when we were called upon to do our bit for good government.”