Friday, November 17, 2017

The Anglo-Swedish War—Sound, Little Fury, Signifying Nothing

Since there are no heroic pictures of the bloodless Anglo/Swedish War, this is a depiction of Russian cavalry overrunning Swedish troops early in the Finish War of 1808.

What if they gave a war and nobody came?  That is essentially what happened in the Anglo-Swedish War which was declared on November 17, 1810 and dragged on for two years without a shot being fired by the belligerents.  It was a footnote to the international intrigue playing out in the background and on the periphery of the titanic Napoleonic Wars. 
It is so obscure that for a while the Wikipedia entry on the paper war was altered by some prankster to claim that the British invaded Stockholm by sea, executed Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and most of the government, and annexed Sweden into the British Empire from which the Nordic country did not gain independence until 1912.  This post was evidently up completely undetected for quite some time.  But within minutes of me beginning to write this post, it was corrected.  My guess is some history geek like me who clicked on the link from Wikipedia’s On This Day… almanac feature out of idle curiosity about a war they had never heard of, discovered and finally reported the ruse.
This is what really happened.
In the early 19th Century Sweden, the once the dominant power of Northern Europe, had fallen on difficult times.  As Allies of the British they were defeated by French, Dutch, and Spanish forces in the Pomeranian War of 1807-08.  They lost the eastern third of their territory—Finland—to the Russians in the Finnish War of 1808-09.  Sensing the weakness of its former master and under pressure from the French Denmark-Norway declared war on Sweden and began preparations for an invasion.
At this point, earlier grand coalitions against Napoleon having collapsed, Sweden was the United Kingdom’s only remaining ally and it was a basket case.  Pressured on all sides despite Britain being its main trading partner without which the economy might collapse, the Swedes were forced to look for ways to find accommodation with France and the nations in its orbit.
At home, a war weary and exhausted nation was also in upheaval.  A liberal coup d’ état deposed King Gustav IV Adolf and replaced him with King Charles XIII who accepted a new constitution.  
After his predecessor and uncle King Gustav IV Adolf was deposed in a liberal coup after badly bungling wars against the French and the Russians King Charles XIII came to the Swedish throne not much interested in the affairs of state.
The Swedes avoid having their country completely overrun when a British fleet arrived after the ice melted in the Baltic Sea—the ice Russian forces had marched across to attack the Swedes in the winter.  The Russian fleet was bottled up at Kronstadt and the Baltic became a British lake cutting off easy logistical support for the large armies in Sweden.  But in late summer, the fleet sailed away to engage the French and Spanish in the Atlantic.  Exposed once again, the Swedes were forced to sue the Russians for peace. 
In the resulting Treaty of Fredrikshamn in September 1809 Sweden not only lost Finland but was coerced into renouncing its British alliance, closing its ports to British shipping and subscribing to France’s Continental System.  Overnight the Swedes went from being a British ally to being—for the time being—non-combatant French allies.
Pacified, the Russians, then still French allies themselves, used their good offices to facilitate the Treaty of Paris signed in January 1810 by which the French returned Pomerania to the Swedes in exchange for further pledges end still flourishing trade by winked at smuggling with Britain and seize British property in Pomerania and in warehouses in Swedish ports. 
The reluctant Swedes dragged their feet on both counts and by back channels assured the British that they would stay out of the war and continue to allow sub rosa trade.

The hapless Dane Charles August only survived months as Crown Prince of Sweden before being felled by a stroke.
The new King was both childless without an apparent heir and disinclined to take much direct role in government.  After casting about Charles August, a Danish prince who had lately commanded forces against Sweden in Norway was proposed as Prince Regent and Charles XIII dutifully formally adopted the middle aged man he never met as his son and heir.  The new Crown Prince was expected to be the de facto ruler for a figurehead monarch.
The thinking was quite simple. The selection of the Dane was a signal to Napoleon of friendlier intentions and a possible avenue though which negotiations might achieve security from further attacks by surrogates or even direct dismemberment by France.  It also reflected, even at this late date the lingering reputation of Napoleon as a liberator that was still held by some Continental liberals.
Charles August became Prince Regent co-incidentally with the Treaty of Paris but barely had time to redirect Swedish policy to a stronger pro-French stance because he died suddenly of a stroke in May.  Scrambling again for a new heir, the Swedes made an even more astonish choice.
Jean-Baptist Bernadotte was a Field Marshal of France and once one of Napoleon’s most Napoleon had become rocky and contentious. In 1806 Bernadotte was one of three Marshalls Bernadotte who crushed Prussian General von Blücher.  In the process he trapped a large Swedish force at the Baltic port of Lübeck.  Not only did he protect them from his own rampaging troops, he treated them with kindness and humanity and allowed them to be safely repatriated with their arms.  In doing so Bernadotte seems to have become seen as a hero and savior by some in the Army.

Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, former Marshal of France, was one of Europe's great commanders before being elected Crown Prince Charles John of Sweden.
In 1808 Bernadotte was entrusted with a planned invasion of Sweden via the Danish islands but due to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from his forced and a lack of transport, the invasion never came off.  The Swedes seem to have believed that Bernadotte had mercifully spared them out of sympathy.  Most historians dismiss that as wishful thinking. 
The surprise offer of being made Swedish Crown Prince stunned Bernadotte, but after giving it some thought, he accepted it.  He had already tried to retire from the Grand Armee as his relations with Napoleon soured.  This seemed not only an unbelievable opportunity but an escape.  For his part Napoleon was likely glad to be rid of his Marshall but probably believed that as de facto ruler, he would be a loyal satrap.  He badly misread his man.  Bernadotte had no intention of being an Imperial puppet like some of the monarchs Napoleon had set on European thrones.
On August 21, 1810 Bernadotte was elected by the Riksdag of the Estates the new Crown Prince and was subsequently made Generalissimus of the Swedish Armed Forces by the King, conferring real authority to go with the title and honor.  He took office under the name Karl Johan—Charles John but continued to be known as Bernadotte throughout Europe.  He became immediately immensely popular in Sweden and centered his policy on wresting control of Norway from the Danes and unifying the Scandinavian Peninsula.  This policy put him at odds with the Danes ally, France.
But before he could act on any concrete plans, the Crown Prince was compelled to respond to a French ultimatum to enforce the earlier commitments to halt trade with Britain and to officially declare war.  Not yet ready to face a potential two front war against French, Danish/Norwegian forces on one hand and the Russians of the other, Sweden declared War on the United Kingdom in November.
But it was, from the beginning, a phony war.  Bernadotte had no intention of committing forces to action against the British and for their part, the British understood that.  Although trade was somewhat curtailed, especially through southern port where it might easily be detected, it continued further north.  It fell by less than half in 1811, a blow, but not a knock-out punch to the economy.  More over the British were allowed to land unopposed on the island of Hanö in the South Baltic and use it as a base of naval operations unopposed.
Swedish farmers armed only with farm implements paid a heavy price for their rebellion against conscription at Klagerup in 1811.  More than 40 were gunned down by the Army in the only bloodshed associated with the Anglo/Swedish War.
Although there was no armed conflict, Bernadotte did use the war as a pretext for expanding and modernizing the Swedish Army for the day it could be used in the conquest of Norway or incase either the British or the French should decide to move against the country.  He instituted an unpopular draft which led to the only violence associated with the war.  When farmers in Klågerup near the southern tip of Sweden rose up in revolt against conscription more than 800 of them were attacked by Army forces with two cannons under Major Hampus Mörner killing more than 40 and arresting nearly 300.
As 1811 passed with no action by Sweden to join in actual combat and with ample evidence of collusion to continue trade and allowing the Royal Navy to operate from Hanö Napoleon became increasingly angry at his former Marshal and the Swedes.  When Napoleon was preparing to invade Russia in January 1812 citing Swedish breeches he re-occupied Pomerania and the island of Rügen to protect his flank.  Bernadotte later said he would never have taken up arms against France but felt duty bound to protect his new country. 
In April Sweden signed a new mutual defense pact with the chief victim of French aggression, Russia and both nations jointly engaged in negotiations that led to the parallel Treaties of Orbero ending the Swedish-Anglo War and the Russo-Anglo War which were signed July 18, 1812.
Bernadotte and the Swedes would take a much greater role in fighting the French than they ever did in the faux dust up with the British.  In 1813 Sweden officially joined Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria and others in the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon.  Later that year he was appointed commander of the Army of the North consisting of Swedish, Russian, and Prussian troop and notched victories against French Marshalls Oudinot in August and against Ney in September at the Battles of Großbeeren and Dennewitz.  
Swedish officers in the War of the Sixth Coalition against Napoleon.
After the turning point Battle of Leipzig in October Bernadotte turned his attention on the Danes in a quick campaign that led to the Treaty of Kiel by which Denmark ceded Norway to Sweden in exchange for Pomerania and switch sides to join the Sixth Coalition. 
Although Bernadotte’s dream was somewhat thwarted when the Norwegians rebelled and declared a republic with liberal constitution, when Bernadotte was promised them autonomy under the constitution, they agreed to personal union with the Swedish Crown,  Sweden refused to hand over Pomerania to the Danes because the terms of the treaty were not fulfilled.  They only kept Pomerania until the post-Napoleonic Wars Congress of Vienna re-drew the map of Europe and handed Pomerania to Prussia in a complex territorial swap.
By that time King Charles XIII had died in 1818 and Bernadotte ascended to the throne of Sweden as Charles XIV John and the throne of Norway as Charles III John.  He ruled both countries as a successful and popular monarch from 25 years until 1844.  Among his many achievements was developing the policy of strict neutrality that has kept Sweden out of war ever since.

The Arms of the House of Bernadotte of Sweden.
He founded the House of Bernadotte that ruled Norway until its independence in 1905 and still reigns in Sweden—however modestly in a low-key Scandinavian manner—under King Carl XVI Gustaf.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Band Master W. C. Handy and the Beale Street Blues


Young man with a horn--W.C. Handy and his coronet at age 19 already a lead player in a touring Black brass band.
William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873 in a log cabin in Florence, Alabama.  It is safe to say that W.C. Handy almost single handedly changed the face and sound of virtually every genre of popular American music by introducing—and some say inventing—the blues as a performer, band leader, folklorist, composer, publisher, business man, mentor, and author.  His cultural importance would be almost impossible to underestimate.
Handy’s father was a respected African Methodist Episcopal minister.  Although he had a close relationship with his son, his strong religious beliefs led him to oppose the early interest that the boy showed in “shameless, worldlymusic.  Using money he saved doing odd jobs while serving informal apprenticeships with local Black craftsmen, Handy bought a guitar, the popular instrument of the “field pickers” and laborers.  His father ordered him to return the instrument and enrolled him in organ classes instead so that he could play sacred music.

W. C. Handy's birthplace and childhood home in Florence, Alabama,  now one of two homes preserved as museums for the man who practically invented the blues
Not to be deterred Handy obtained a coronet and learned to play it by practicing in woods and barns.  He joined one of the popular Black brass bands of the era and was soon playing across Alabama on weekends.  During the week he continued to work at various often back breaking jobs as a laborer.  He picked up, and with a remarkable memory, retained many of the field chants, call and response songs, and incidental music with which his fellows passed the time.  He noted while shoveling coal into the boiler of a local factory that his fellows would make complex and unusual rhythms by banging their shovels and scraping them on the furnace door to create tones.
 Handy quit an unsuccessful stint as a teacher because he could make more money in the steel mills and factories of Bessemer.  In his spare time, he organized first a string band and then the Lauzetta Quartet which began to get local attention.  Determined to quit his day job Handy and the Quartet made their way to Chicago playing barrel houses and juke joints along the way hoping to find work in or around the Columbian Exhibition.  He got to the city only to learn that construction delays had pushed the opening back a full year to 1893.  The band then went to St. Louis and finally to Evansville, Indiana, where it broke up.  But along the way Handy and his group were the first to play blues, or blues like music in northern commercial venues
After returning to Chicago to play cornet when the Fair did open, Handy found steady employment with a successful Evansville based touring band with which he played for a few years.  Along the way he met his wife Elizabeth Price in Henderson, Kentucky and married her in 1896.  His career got a boost the same year when the 23 year old musician got a job a band leader with Mahara’s Minstrels, a touring show of Black performers—as opposed to the blackface shows of white performers.  He toured with the troupe from Chicago, through Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida on to Cuba for the princely sum of $6 a week.

W.C. Handy standing left of the bass drum and his Alabama A & M College band.  The self-educated musician reveled in being called Proffessor, but could not support his family on the meager pay.
In 1900 Handy and his wife settled in Huntsville, near his boyhood home of Florence. She gave birth to the first of six children, and he found a job as professor of music and band director at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, one of only two schools of higher education for Blacks in Alabama, the other being Tuskegee Institute.  College President William Hooper Councill was glad to find a musician of Handy’s stature who could not only read and notate music, but demonstrated an advanced grasp of musical theory.  Despite the prestige of the appointment and his wife’s hope for a stable home life, Handy soon clashed with Councill over the introduction of Black musical idiom into the curriculum and the programs of the Band.  Councill thought the music “primitive and degrading” and believed that Blacks would elevate themselves in the eyes of the White establishment by learning and performing European classical music.  There was also the consideration that life as a touring musician simply paid better.  After two years, Handy quit the school and resumed touring with Mahara’s Minstrels.
In 1903 Handy took a job as director of the Knights of Pythias—a Black band not to be confused with the fraternal organization—which toured the South from its base in Clarksville, Mississippi.  He toured with the band for six years, all the while noting and collecting folk songs and styles he heard along the way.  One of his most important discoveries was hearing a field hand use a knife blade as a slide on his guitar in the “Hawaiian style” to produce remarkable “bent notes.”  Noting that he was playing in “G”, a key seldom used in European music, Handy picked out the blue notes—flat thirds and sevenths that became the basis of the blues sound.  From a string band that took the stage with him during a 1905 performance in Cleveland, Mississippi he picked up on a heavily rhythmic, repeating refrain that seemed to be “…haunted by the cane rows and fields.”  Handy began to add these elements to the songs that he was writing.
In 1909 Handy and his band relocated to Memphis, Tennessee the informal capital of the Mississippi Delta.  He found a receptive home for his new sound in the joints and dives of Beale Street.  That year he was paid a few dollars to compose a campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate Edward Crump.  It must have been a hell of a song because Crump went on to the longtime mayor and the boss of a notorious political machine.  Handy liked the basic tune of the little march ditty, but reworked with those blue notes, field rhythms, and call and response structure.   The result was the Memphis Blues, which soon became wildly popular in the region. In 1912 he sold the publishing rights of the song for $100.  The sheet music became a huge hit and introduced the “twelve-bar blues” to parlors all over the country.  In New York the vaudeville dancers Verne and Irene Castle devised a new dance, the Fox Trot to take advantage of the song’s rapid pace and shifting, irregular rhythms.  Several early recordings were made, usually as band instrumentals.
Handy sold tights the publishing rights for just $100 but the sheet music  became a best seller and  not only established him as a composer but introduced the blues for the first time to wide  white audiences.     
By 1914 at the age of 40, Handy was actually becoming famous as a composer.  Although at first he sometimes struggled to get his work published and was dissatisfied with the low prices paid for signing away all rights to his work, the songs were spreading rapidly among both his Black southern audience and by White singers and performers.  And other composers were quick to pick up on Handy’s style and techniques.  The blues were rapidly becoming a recognized genre.  To take advantage of this Handy wrote furiously and toured more successfully with his band, now renamed the W. C. Handy Memphis Orchestra.  Within a few years he had produced his most famous songs including Beale Street Blues and St. Louis Blues.

W.C. Handy's Memphid Blues Orchestra in New York City, 1919.
Tired of seeing his publishing profits enrich others, Handy became his own publisher in association with Harry H. Pace, a young graduate of Atlanta University and a student of W. E. B. Dubois.  In 1917 they decided to move the company to New York City to take advantage of the ability to sell the songs to orchestras, theater, vaudeville, and the growing recording industry.
Sometimes Handy was shocked and unsure of the directions his compositions were taking.  1917 was also the year that the Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white New Orleans band, made what is regarded to be the very first jazz record, introducing jazz music to a wide segment of the American public.  Soon many other bands were recording, including the great early black bands like the one led by King Oliver.  The New Orleans jazzmen were quick to use Handy’s blues compositions as the basis for their improvisations.  Initially, Handy disapproved fearing that the core of the folk-rooted music had been corrupted.  But he grew to appreciate, over time, this new thing called jazz as a natural outgrowth of his work. 
Handy was also surprised by how quickly white artists, particularly band leaders looking for novelty songs and new dance music, were  picking up the music and spreading it widely.  Al Bernard was a young white singer whose soft southern accent was perfect for Handy’s music.  He took the young man to Thomas Edison who recorded Bernard singing several of Handy’s creations.  When Bernard began writing his own blues, Handy was glad to publish the songs including a tune called Shake, Rattle and Roll, not to be confused by the later blues and rock and roll song recorded by Big Joe Turner and Bill Haley and the Comets.  Handy also published songs by Madelyn Sheppard and Annelu Burns, two “young white girls from Selma”  The catalog of songs by Handy, other Black composers as well as the white-aping-black pieces became central to the emerging repertoire for black artists on record and on the segregated vaudeville circuit.
By 1919 Handy recognized that Edison was not the best possible company with which to place his songs.  Not only was Edison personally musically tone deaf, he disapproved of the “wild new styles” and instructed his artists to record songsstraight.”  He also notoriously did not pay well and his business methods and distribution models were passé.  That year Handy signed with Victor, the emerging titan of the recording industry.  On that label Joe Smith’s recording of Yellow Dog Blues became one of the first hit records in a modern sense of being mass produced and nationally marketed.
In 1920 Mamie Smith recorded Crazy Blues, a tune written by Perry Bradford but published and promoted by Handy.  The success of that record “set off a craze for Colored girl blues singers.”  Unfortunately many of these singers did not record from Handy’s catalog sending his business into a tail spin.  When Harry Pace left the company to set up his own publishing business and Black Swan Records, he took much of Handy’s business with him.  Handy’s own attempt to launch a record label in the mid-1920’s, the Handy Record Company, was less successful than the company launched by his former partner.  Despite remaining on friendly terms with Pace, Handy complained that people thought he associated with Black Swan.
Handy’s reputation got a big boost in 1925 when Columbia Records released Bessie Smith singing St. Louis Blues with accompaniment by Louis Armstrong.  It became the definitive blues recording of the decade and made Smith a huge star. In 1928 Handy collaborated with director Kenneth W. Adams to produce a dramatic short film with Smith singing the St. Louis Blues.  The film was so successful that it continued to be run in Black movie houses for four years.

Handy helped produce the early sound short St. Louis Blues staring Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong's band in 1929.  It was so popular it played in Black theaters for four years.
The ‘20’s also saw Handy establish himself as a scholar and folklorist of the blues.  In 1926 he published Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs, the first comprehensive study of the genre.  Not only did he preserve the words and music, he gave detailed descriptions of how he found songs in the field and how he incorporated themes, shouts, rhythms, and other elements into his own “composed” songs.  In doing so he acknowledged a great cultural debt.
In the late 1920’s blues recordings and music from the Delta itself, where traditional musicians had adopted many of Handy’s sophisticated innovations, were also beginning to percolate into White Hillbilly music with recordings by Jimmie Rodgers (the Mississippi Blue Yodeler) and other performers.  It became foundational to modern country music.  By the 1950’s Handy would live long enough to see his beloved rural southern blues link with blues tinged country music in his own town of Memphis to help create modern rock and roll.
Handy went on to write four more books, considered indispensable classics to this day:  the Book of Negro Spirituals, Father of the Blues: An Autobiography, Unsung Americans Sing, and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States.  He was much honored in the rest of his life and sometimes took to the stage with his old cornet for special appearances with the likes of Cab Callaway.  He was honored when Memphis named a street for him and preserved his old home there as a museum.

W.C. Handy at Carnegie Hall in 1946.
In 1943 Handy was blinded in a fall in the New York Subway.  He was fully conscious of the irony of becoming like the blind country blues singers he encountered at the turn of the Century supporting themselves with handouts for their shouts and moans.  After his first wife died in 1947 he married his long time secretary, who had become his eyes and ears.  He suffered a stroke in 1955 but felt well enough to attend an 84th birthday party a year later at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel attended by 800 admirers including many of the greatest names in music.

The W.C. Handy statue on Beale Street in Memphis.
Handy died of pneumonia on March 28, 1958 in New York City.  25,000 tried to attend his funeral at Adam Clayton Powell's Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.  Hundreds of others lined the streets to watch the hearse carry his body to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.