Woodville Blues

Woodville Blues - Woodville

Musicians from Woodville demonstrate the breadth of the blues’s influence on American music. Composer William Grant Still incorporated the blues into his “Afro-American Symphony,” while the innovative saxophonist Lester “Pres” Young helped define the blues-infused jazz styles of the Count Basie orchestra and vocalist Billie Holiday. More traditional blues artists from the area include Scott Dunbar and his protégé Robert Cage.

William Grant Still (May 11, 1895 to December 3, 1978) is best known as the dean of African American classical composers, but he also played an important role in the commercialization and popularization of the blues. Born in Woodville and raised in Little Rock, Still began working in 1915 as an arranger and musician with W. C. Handy’s band in Memphis, and later wrote arrangements of “St. Louis Blues” and other Handy compositions for a publishing company run by Handy and Harry Pace. In the early ‘20s Still served as music director of the African American-owned Black Swan label, where Ethel Waters and others recorded his original compositions. He performed in the orchestra for the historic African American musical Shuffle Along and wrote arrangements for various jazz bands before turning his attention more to classical composition.

Lester Young (August 27, 1909 to March 14, 1959) was born in Woodville and moved to New Orleans as an infant. As a teen he played drums and saxophone in his father Billy Young’s band, the New Orleans Strutters. Young later worked with leading jazz bands, including the Blue Devils and the orchestras of Fletcher Henderson, Andy Kirk, Bennie Moten, and William “Count” Basie. Young’s smooth and influential approach to the tenor saxophone helped define and popularize the swing style of Basie’s band, which featured blues vocalist Jimmy Rushing. Young also performed and recorded extensively with vocalist Billie Holiday.

Scott Dunbar (July 1, 1909 to October 1, 1994), a blues guitarist, worked as a fishing guide on Lake Mary (or Old River Lake) northwest of Woodville. As a young man he played at local juke joints but later performed mostly for white audiences at lodges along the lake. He gained broader attention when Frederic Ramsey, Jr., recorded him in 1954 for an album on Folkways Records; fellow researchers William Ferris and Parker Dinkins later documented his music as well. Robert Cage (born April 4, 1937) studied the music of Dunbar at the juke joint operated by his parents in the Percy Creek community near Lake Mary. Cage later performed at local roadhouses and traveled outside the region after recording a CD in 1998 for the Fat Possum label; he sometimes performed with his son, bassist and vocalist Vincent “Buck” Cage. Other blues artists born in Woodville include Monroe “Polka Dot Slim” Vincent (December 9, 1926 to June 22, 1981), a vocalist/harmonica player who was based in New Orleans, and Jimmy Anderson (born November 21, 1934), a singer, harmonica player and guitarist who also worked as a disc jockey in Natchez. Both Vincent and Anderson recorded several singles in Louisiana.

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