You might not be familiar with W.C. Handy but everyone knows his music: “St. Louis Blues” is the most recorded jazz composition of the first half of the 20th Century. His lovely “Memphis Blues” is frequently recorded and many of his classic blues like “Loveless Love,” “Beale Street Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues” were either written by Handy or adapted from the raw folk-blues that he dedicated himself to collecting and publishing.
Handy was one of the earliest folklorist-collectors of Blues and among the first to PUBLISH blues music. He made monumental contributions to American culture by preserving the Blues and folk music he heard, interpreted and incorporated into his music, adding to it with his own considerable skills as a composer and lyricist. He dedicated his life to the proposition that Blues are a legitimate, powerful and unique musical form.
The son of a former slave and Methodist minister, William Christopher Handy became a musician in defiance of his family’s wishes. Gaining a thorough musical education he became at first an itinerant minstrel, then a trumpet player (cornet, actually) playing in or leading brass bands. He eventually became a well established bandleader based in Memphis and later a publisher in New York.
W.C. Handy was variously a traveling minstrel, horn player, band leader, music promoter and composer. He collected blues, folk songs and spirituals during nearly a quarter century of wide travels beginning around 1890. Many of his songs had been around for a long time before he published them, others were merely obscure fragments that probably would have been lost for all time had he not incorporated them into his songs.
Around 1910 Handy launched his own music company to publish his compositions based on the Blues, spiritual and folk music he’d heard and collected in his travels. He became a highly successful and well established composer making a very good living due to his wise choice to publish his own music and retain the rights.
Over the years some have mistakenly criticized Handy as a plagiarist who exploited the Blues for his own profit. But I’ve come to a very different conclusion about the man:
1) As a folklorist, he was the FIRST to methodically collect and write down Blues music.
2) He was definitely among the first to publish Blues as sheet music around 1910, helping it to achieve world-wide recognition as a valid musical form.
3) As a composer and songwriter Mr. Handy was highly skilled at COMBINING the blues that he heard or collected with his OWN talents as a composer to create fresh and enduring songs.
4) A black man born in Alabama just a few years after the Civil War he overcame resistance from society, disfavor from his family and bitter racial prejudice to succeed. And he continued working tirelessly against racism his entire life.
By the 1940s W.C. Handy was recognized as a grand old man of American music. He was well established as a campaigner for civil rights and leading advocate for Blues and African-American roots music. His autobiography was first published in 1941 and he was widely honored many times over, including the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1954 -- when Louis Armstrong recorded a tribute to Handy.
During his life, and after his passing in 1958, Handy received a steady stream of tributes, honors and awards: * a 1928 concert of his music at Carnegie Hall, * a park and statue in Memphis, * two Hollywood film musicals based on his life story, * posthumous hall of fame awards from the Grammys and Nashville songwriters association, * a United States postage stamp bearing his name and portrait, * today, numerous music and cultural festivals are held in his name.
Unlike a folklorist from OUTSIDE his culture, Mr. Handy was a part of the culture he was observing, giving him privileged access and deep insight. As with other gifted Black-American artists like Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington or James Baldwin he used the raw materials of African-American culture as source and inspiration. To it he ADDED his own imagination, compassion and genius for musical composition.
“St. Louis Blues” was by far Handy’s biggest hit. It provided him a handsome income throughout his life. “St. Louis Blues” is the MOST recorded Jazz tune of the first half of the 20th Century. For instance checking Brian Rust’s JAZZ DISCOGRAPHY for the years 1897-42 I found almost TWICE as many listings for St. Louis Blues than for ANY OTHER COMPOSITION.
Recordings of “St. Louis Blues” made the top-twenty on music charts 21 times between 1914 and 1948. At least three Hollywood films were made under the title St. Louis Blues: * a 1929 short featuring Bessie Smith; * a 1939 musical starring Dorothy Lamour, and * in 1958 Nat Cole played the role of Mr. Handy.
Originally published by Handy under the titles “Memphis Itch” and “Jogo Blues,” “St. Louis Blues” begins with a basic 12-bar blues pattern but then diverges. It consists of four separate strains including one in Tango rhythm. Like so much of his music it was inspired by real life experience: the song includes a 3-note musical phrase that he had heard sung by parishioners in his hometown of Florence, Alabama. He once overheard the lyrical line, “that man got a heart, like a rock cast in the sea” on the streets of St. Louis more than a decade before he published it.
According to Handy, ‘Yellow Dog’ was local slang for the Yazoo-Delta Railroad near Clarksdale, Mississippi around the end of the 19th Century. Handy heard the song from a wandering Blues guitarist at a small country railroad station; a decade later in 1914 he published his interpretation.
It tells the story, real or mythical, of Susie Johnson’s lover (her ‘jockey’) who ran off and was last seen broke (‘on the hog’) where ‘the Southern, cross the Yellow Dog’ (the Southern Pacific & Santa Fe railroad) saying that, her "easy rider struck this burg today."
The Story of Aunt Hagar's Blues (originally Aunt Hagar’s Children)
“Aunt Hagar” was originally conceived by Handy as a much slower, sadder dirge. He based it on a mournful musical motif he’d once heard sung by a washer woman as she hung clothes one cold night, singing, “yo’ clothes looks lonesome, hangin’ on de line.”
Religious and biblical references are not unusual in his music. For instance, the biblical figure Hagar (an Egyptian) was servant to Sarah, wife of Abraham. Because Sarah was barren she gave Hagar to Abraham as concubine so that he could sire a child. In his autobiography Handy explained that, "negros often spoke of themselves as Aunt Hagar’s children.”
“Joe Turner’s Blues” memorializes the shameful practice of entrapping poor black men for work gangs. The brother of a one-time Tennessee governor, Joe Turney became infamous for luring them to crap games, or by false imprisonment; chaining together up to eighty prisoners at a time for delivery to work farms or penitentiary.
In “Joe Turner’s Blues” Handy tells the story from the victims point of view. The definitive recording was made, appropriately enough, by Big Joe Turner.
The STORY of BEALE St. BLUES
Beginning around 1909, William Christopher Handy lived in Memphis, TN for about a decade. By then he had traveled widely and was a pretty well established musician and bandleader. There he quickly became a popular celebrity and flourished, launching a company for publishing his own music, due partly to the huge success of his “Memphis Blues,” which was originally conceived as a ditty for the mayoral campaign of the infamous political boss, E.H. Crump.
Among his favorite venues was the wildest and rowdiest section of the Beale Street district. The original ‘Beale Avenue’ district of Memphis arose after the Civil War as a respectable, predominantly black neighborhood of churches, homes and a grand opera house. But by the early 1900s, as Memphis became an important crossroads, it sprouted the notorious “Beale Street” section.
By 1910, around the time Handy arrived, it was a rough, sleazy, lawless collection of taverns, splendid dance halls and entertainments, brothels and dives filled with hustlers, pickpockets, lowlifes, pimps & prostitutes -- along with workingmen spending their pay, and rubes out for thrills.
And it was that Beale Street scene that seems to have oddly fascinated Mr. Handy. When not working there, he loved to hang out, jam with other musicians or just watch the action. In his autobiography he recounts hair-raising, appalling tales brutality, cruelty, criminality and mayhem that he fittingly memorialized in his classic “Beale St. Blues”:
You'll see pretty browns in beautiful gowns, You'll see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs, You'll meet honest men, and pick-pockets skilled, You'll find that business never ceases 'til somebody gets killed!
If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could talk, Married men would have to take their beds and walk, Except one or two who never drink booze, And the blind man on the corner singing "Beale Street Blues!"
I'd rather be there than any place I know, I'd rather be there than any place I know, It's gonna take a sergeant for to make me go!
Young Mr. Handy was a cornet player in his youth.
A cherished Father of the Blues
From time to time W.C. Handy has been unfairly accused of exploiting the Blues by authoring or publishing tunes which were not wholly original themes. But he freely acknowledged that he was documenting the music of his people; his 150 published settings of folk, spiritual, Blues and original music demonstrate his remarkable talent for creating enduring melodies and moving compositions.
Handy’s greater significance can be appreciated by considering his pioneering contribution: preserving, interpreting and popularizing the Blues, helping bring it to a world-wide audience. A vast body of popular music has grown from the seeds planted by W.C. Handy.
I think its unfortunate that Handy billed himself ‘Father of the Blues’ because the Blues is the child of MANY nameless mothers and fathers. Nonetheless he deserves high praise for being the first to publish the Blues in written form, and creating some of its most durable classics. He probably did do more to preserve and popularize the Blues than just about any other one person. And for that we can all cherish W.C. Handy as one of the most dedicated fathers of the Blues.