Hoagy Carmichael, Part 1

Written by WL Woodward

Hoagland Carmichael

The sound of the neighbor’s rotary mower preceded the screech of the screen door opening.  “Don’t ya slam that screen door young man!!”

Bang!  A whisk of a boy ran by Mary heading for the stairs.

“An don’t be runnin in the house now!”

Pelting beats to the floor above.

Mixed with the sound of the boy tossing his bedroom looking for a glove or ball of some kind was the racket of the milkman’s cart and horse going by outside.

“Now there’s a lout…bringin milk in the afternoon..”

Pelting beats up turned to pounding stairs down and a dervish swirled by Mary heading for the door.

“Boy I been telling ya not to run in the..and don’t be slammin that..”

Bang!  And he was gone. 

Goodness me! Worryin about such like boys and louts with me havin ahl this washin, and ironin, and such and I got ta be playin at the Strand matinee this very afternoon!   Get goin gal!

Lida Mary Carmichael was married to Ralph Cramden.  OK, not actually Ralph but a dreamer named Howard Clyde Carmichael.  In 1899 some circus folk came through town and stayed at the Carmichael’s for a spell.  They were called the Hoaglands and the visit was apparently a doozy.  After the troupe left Mary gave birth to a son.  They named the boy Hoagland Howard.  Must’ve been one hell of a party.

Hoagy Carmichael was born in 1899 and grew up in as Midwest a place as you could possibly find, Bloomington, Indiana.  It was a place of screen doors and milkmen, stickball and evenings fishing.  Bloomington was and is still the home of Indiana University.  The period of 1910 to 1920 saw a vast change in musical culture throughout the US, not just in how music was played but how it was distributed.  These changes were especially fertilized in college towns.  And the house little Hoag lived in for a time was behind an IU frat house, close enough for Hoagy to hear bands playing at parties there.

Mary played piano and kept an upright in the house which was an incredible luxury for a poor couple in America before the Great War.  Mary was also the talented wife of a guy who worked hard but at all the wrong things.  Today he would be trying to start a blacksmith business.  Mary took care of the home and added to the finances by playing piano at the silent film movie house in whatever town they lived in.  So despite penury and following Da on his whims, there always remained a piano in the house.

Little Hoag showed little interest in the piano as a young boy but there came a time as he approached his teen years that he noticed a few things.  First came a realization that being poor sucks and has consequences.  Second he could see and hear the soul of his Mom as she worked and practiced the piano and then translated that to a craft the boy witnessed when he went to the theater and watched her perform.  Dig that man.  That was quite an art form in itself.  You must have had to show up early, watch the film, learn the score, and add flourishes and extemporaneous pounding in front of an audience paying no attention to you.  Then by the time you’ve played it a few times and just getting yer feet dry they change the damn movie.

Hoagy started following his mother’s hands when he was nine, and began pounding the keys himself.  He would play as hard on the keys as he could, trying to get the attention of the neighborhood.  This is pre electric guitar but it’s the same thing.  As his teen years progressed he started hanging around a place near campus called the Book Nook which was started as a book store but became a student hangout and music bar.  There local musical celebrities performed; players that would be major influences on the boy like a ‘hot’ fiddler/pianist named Hank Wells and piano pounders like Hube Hanna.

Dad moved the family to Indianapolis and Hoagy, as much as he missed his home town, became exposed to musical influences different from the college town he came from but also seemed to build on.   In Indianapolis, and in many cities across America there was a movement and culture of what was a transition from ragtime playing to an early form of jazz, known then as ‘hot  music’.  Hoagy was fascinated and went through black neighborhoods and snuck out evenings to clubs to listen outside.  He became crazed on hearing a local band leader named Reg Duvalle and basically stalked him until he got some lessons.


Meanwhile Hoagy was being chastised by his parents to become something better than a musician.  The family was poor, with Dad always chasing some dream, and Mom playing in silent film theaters that would soon become extinct.  Hoagy was a good boy and listened to reason.  But he was also listening to music that was shaking his brain.

In 1920 he enrolled at IU for pre-law.  He was already playing in bands around the area and his focus was always divided.  Hoagy went through twisting periods of attention to his studies and working on music, not as a serious undertaking but as a passion for playing the music that was thrilling him more than pre-law.  This was one of those intense periods in music where every band that came through town like Louis Jordan’s Louisville Quartet, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong,  and Earl Hines heralded a new palpitation.  But it was especially the influence of ‘Fatha’ Hines piano style that most captured the imagination of the young pre-law Carmichael.  Oh and also influenced every piano pounder from Count Basie to Herbie Hancock to Lynn Badrick.

Here is Hines and his orchestra doing music that was making Hoagy crazy.


How you gonna study with DAT shit going on ?!

For the next decade Carmichael vacillated between brilliant but non-paying songwriting and mediocre and small time legal clerking finishing his studies and attempting to pass the  bar exam.

In the very early 20’s a form of music was developing up in Chicago centered at a club called ‘Friar’s Inn’ that was called ‘sock time’.  With four steady weighted beats to a bar the result was smoother than the hot music the boys were listening to.  Word got to Bloomington, and Hoagy and a buddy took the train up to Chicago where the stuff was living.  It was at the Friar’s that Hoagy was introduced to a young musician named Bix Beiderbecke.  Bix and Hoagy hit it off and begat a musical relationship that influenced them both.  It was Beiderbecke who told Carmichael he should write songs, that he had a gift.  Up until then the hoagman was just a traveling piano player/law student.

Carmichael did write a song Riverboat Shuffle that Bix recorded with his band Wolverines at Gennett.  The tune was fun and interesting for the musicians but was not very melodic.  Hoagy had no theory training and so struggled to write what he heard in his head.

So back he went into his studies and law.  It was obvious he could never make the money he would need being a musician or songwriter.

Next: Things Change.

that Bix recorded with his band Wolverines at Gennett. The tune was fun and interesting for the musicians but was not very melodic. Hoagy had no theory training and so struggled to write what he heard in his head. So back he went into his studies and law. It was obvious he could never make the money he would need being a musician or songwriter. Next: Things Change.
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