Photo by Jason Ritter
Before there was Elvis, there was W.C. Handy, the man who made the blues. Here is the first major biography in decades of the man who gave us such iconic songs as St. Louis Blues, The Memphis Blues, and Beale Street Blues, and who was responsible, more than any other musician, for bringing the blues into the American mainstream.
David Robertson charts W.C. Handys rise from a rural Alabama childhood in the last decades of the nineteenth century to become one of the most celebrated songwriters of the twentieth century. The child of former slaves, Handy was first inspired by spirituals and folk songs, and his passion for music pushed him to leave home as a teenager, despite opposition from his preacher father. He soon found his way to St. Louis, where he spent a winter sleeping on cobblestone docks before lucking into a job with an Indiana brass band. It was in a minstrel show, playing to racially mixed audiences across the country, that he got his first real exposure as a professional musician, but it was in Memphis, where he settled in 1905, that he hit his full stride as a composer. There, Handy frequented the famous saloons and music halls of Beale Street and composed his legendary songs. By the time of his death in 1958, at the age of eighty-five, he had become a major influence on pop culture, his music recorded by countless musicians, from Bessie Smith to Django Reinhardt.
Robertson weaves a rich tapestry of the worlds Handy inhabited: the post-Reconstruction South; the ministrel shows in all their racial ambiguity; the mysterious, forbidding Mississippi Delta; Memphis, with its jumping music scene; and New Yorks Tin Pan Alley. At once a testament to the power of song and a chronicle of race and black music in America, W.C. Handys life story is in many ways the story of the birth of our country’s indigenous cultureand a riveting must-read for anyone interested in the history of American music.#
In a July 25, 2009 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician associate editor Peter Maita, Robertson discusses the life and impact of the seminal blues musician, W.C. Handy.
“Born just eight years after the end of the Civil War, and living into the year that Memphis resident Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army, Handy in his life and career embodied both the popular culture and particularly the popular music of the United States from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. As an American composer, and as an African American individual, he had memories spanning from the experience of his parents talking about slavery in pre-Civil War Alabama to the triumph of his own prosperous old age. Loaded with honors and a social acquaintance with U.S. presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Handy finally came to a benign neglect. It was, like Handy’s typical day stately promenading toward his office on Beale Avenue, a remarkable walk through American history and culture.”
– David Robertson
PM Growing up in Florence, Alabama, what were some of Handy’s earliest childhood influences?
DR As with many practical blues artists of his era, the church was predominantly his earliest influence. It’s important to note that Handy was not only the son, but also the grandson of prominent African Methodist Episcopal ministers of the northern Alabama community in which he was raised. As a child, he would be at church as the minister’s son at least twice a week, where he would listen to the beautiful music of the congregation unaccompanied by instruments.
PM Did a specific person introduce him to music?
DR Handy called himself, the “Father of the Blues,” so if he was, he would have had many of the archetypal blues experiences, and surely the most archetypal of the blues experiences is to be told growing up that the blues is the “devil’s music.” Handy’s influence growing up in Alabama was classical music, which he learned at the school for African American children he attended. But, let’s not forget the devil. There was a local street musician that Handy, without the knowledge of his father or the church members, actively sought out and that musician was playing a very early version of the blues.
PM The instrument he chose, the cornet, was considered a novelty instrument at the time. Why did decide on playing that?
DR During the latter part of the 19th century, the cornet was the equivalent of the electric guitar for young male musicians of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Just as the guitar was a novelty during the 1950’s and 1960’s, so was the cornet of the 19th century. This was also the heyday of the marching brass band, in which the cornet had a prominent place. So, just like some kid in the 1950’s might have picked up the electric guitar because it was new and fun and you could be the frontman of the band, so Handy picked up the cornet.
PM In addition to the brass music, what other music was popular in the south at the time of his childhood?
DR It was as though there was music for two different worlds just as white people and people of color lived socially and politically apart. Outside of the church, the music among the white population was predominantly genteel, which consisted of a brass band with some white blues coming in. The music for people of color would have been the early black blues, as well as brass bands. There were a large number of African American brass bands performing in the south which Handy himself did later on as an adult. There was also the folk music that was the prototype of the blues floating around.
PM Handy’s father pretty much disowns him for becoming a musician, even going as far as saying, “Son I’d rather see you in a hearse. I’d rather follow you to the graveyard than to hear you had become a musician.”
DR Oh yeah, I mean you hear that and you think that that’s too good to be true, but that is what the reverend Charles Handy said to his son. Handy’s experience was typical among those who chose to play jazz or blues music. He stepped outside the musical boundaries the family and church that raised him was comfortable in. What says a lot about Handy’s father is that after Handy gained fame and praise for the artistry of his music, he went out of his way to seek out his son and say how proud he was of him.
PM What earned his father’s respect?
DR The Handy’s were a very pious, renowned northern Alabama family who were noted for their great industriousness. To be known as a Handy in northern Alabama meant you were a hard worker and that you worked two or three jobs. I think the elder Handy was very impressed by not only how hard his elder son worked on his music, but also how much acclaim and, quite frankly, money that his son was making including from white people.
PM Handy defended his work in the racially degrading minstrel shows
DR That makes for an interesting ambiguity and tension which, to say less abstractly, the minstrel shows are still disturbing and edgy 100 years after they cease to be publicly performed. As you said, Handy defended his work in minstrelsy because, as he pointed out quite correctly, that was one of the few opportunities for a person of color to make a living as a professional musician. As I point out in the book, the minstrel shows were disturbing in a double-edged way. They were certainly degrading to people of color and unacceptably racist to us living in the 21st century, but if you look and listen carefully, they were also wonderfully subversive and were a revolutionary approach to communicating the “white man on top, black man on bottom” society.
PM How did the black community respond to his participation in the blackface minstrelsy and the performance of coon songs?
DR Within his immediate circle, very disapprovingly. He married into a prominent family of color in Kentucky, who had an ill-disguised scorn for Handy’s work as a minstrel, and it would have been deeply disturbing to his father, who generally disapproved on religious grounds all stage entertainment, particularly blackface minstrelsy. But, on the other hand, the money was good. It must be remembered that the minstrel shows not only drew large white audiences, they also drew large audiences of people of color who came, if for no other reason, because it was one of their few opportunities to see fellow African Americans playing music professionally.
PM Aside from giving him exposure and musical experience, how did his time with the Mahara minstrel troupe affect Handy’s career?
DR It affected him because, for the first time, he experienced much of the brute violence of racial discrimination and hatred while traveling by rail throughout the south and west. On multiple occasions he was in danger of being lynched when the train the troupe traveled on rode through a town that did not welcome any person of color. Also, it had to have affected Handy musically because, as some scholars have pointed out, the origin of the blues is even darker and more disturbing than we think, since it includes the racially insensitive coon songs he was a part of.
PM One of Handy’s main goals was to create a music that would reach out to both the black and white audiences …
DR Yes …Just as any professional musician, Handy wanted to create music that would be popular to a crossover audience, which would result in greater fame and wealth. But it was not just simply self-aggrandizement. I am convinced that part of his ambition was to fulfill what was called the “Dvorak Prophecy” which was that a great national, American music was yet to be composed and that, according to Dvorak, the basis of that great national American music would be the folk songs and spirituals of America’s African American population.
PM As a young adult, Handy moved to St. Louis. Can you talk a little bit about why he moved there and what his experience was like there?
DR Handy moved to St. Louis the way he moved to a lot of other cities earlier and later on in his life because he was damn near broke and needed a job. Handy and some companions from Alabama traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair in hopes of performing for tips, only to arrive there and discover that the fair had been postponed for a year. So there they were, in the cold northern city, many hundreds of miles away from Alabama and home. While his traveling companions decided to go back home to Alabama, Handy, always an optimist, decided to ride the rails throughout the Midwest, absolutely convinced that something better would turn up. It did, but not before he arrived in St. Louis in the dead of a particularly cold winter, even by Midwestern standards, and could find absolutely no work. So Handy this genteel son and grandson of ministers wound up being homeless, broke, and sleeping at night on the cobblestone levies of St. Louis. And that is one of the reasons that later inspired him to write that great line from the “St. Louis Blues:” “I hate to see the evening sun go down.” I sure would.
PM In addition to the “St. Louis Blues,” how do you think his experience in St. Louis shows up in his music?
DR Whether he was in St. Louis, Alabama, Memphis, New York or the hundreds of small towns that he passed through as a minstrel, Handy always had an ear cocked, not only for folk melodies, but also for the vivid colloquialisms of the African American population and the colloquialisms of the white population. In his time living on the streets in St. Louis, he picked up how working class Americans talked at that time, and I would argue that Handy should be remembered not only as a great musical artist, but also as a great literary artist. If you read just the lyrics of his music, there is poetry that is astonishing.
PM You write about how Handy idolized the marching bandleader, John Phillip Sousa. In what ways did Handy model his sound after Sousa?
DR Handy always had a preference for brass instruments, and modeled himself after Sousa as a wonderful frontman and promoter. There was no showman like John Phillip Sousa. But, we must remember also that in the early blues, and certainly in the early jazz, there was a great emphasis on the brass. When you listen to the earliest recordings of the “St. Louis Blues,” it is frequently played up-tempo with a very brassy beginning to it unlike other elegiac, soulful versions by which most of us remember the song.
PM In late 1903 or early 1904 the year is not certain Handy heard a guitarist playing a completely different style than that of brass music while traveling through a railway station in the Mississippi Delta. What made this a musical revelation to him, in comparison to the music he had grown up with in Florence, Alabama?
DR The music that he had heard in the railway station was not based upon western European harmonics, therefore the notes sounded all wrong to him. There would be a minor note played unexpectedly where in European harmonics there should be a major. More notes would be flattened at the whim of the player and Handy was enough of a serious and curious artist to have pondered something like, “From everything I have been taught all my life, from both black and white, this music is all wrong. It shouldn’t work.” But, he was enough of an artist to realize from hearing that railway station guitar player that the music did work, and it worked wonderfully. Now, he set out to figure out why it worked, even though it sounded so wrong. This is frequently considered the first commercial and artistic use of the so-called blue note.
PM He referred to it as “the weirdest music I ever heard.”
DR Sure …It sure wasn’t John Phillip Sousa.
PM During the early 20th century, there seemed to be a musical rivalry between the cities of Memphis and New Orleans. How did the music scenes of these cities differ musically and culturally?
DR The breaking down of the different polyphonic breaks that we think of as New Orleans style jazz was not really played that much in Memphis, and it wasn’t because the Memphis musicians weren’t aware of it. Since Memphis was easier to reach for the musicians from the north or Midwest, the influence of ragtime and other Midwestern music was more likely to show up there.
PM Do you think he made the choice to move to Memphis over New Orleans because he was more comfortable with the music there?
DR It’s hard to speculate about the choice, but particularly if you were living in northern Mississippi at that time, which Handy was, Memphis was the big city that you went to rather than New Orleans. In the fiction of William Faulkner, I find it interesting that many of his characters for one reason or another wanted to get out of Mississippi either because they were ambitious or the law was after them. They almost always inevitably headed to Memphis rather than New Orleans.
PM What was Handy’s opinion of the New Orleans music scene, if he had one?
DR If he had one, that’s insightful because according to Handy’s account, he had never passed through or played in New Orleans after his minstrelsy days. As an early blues leader and musician in Mississippi, he probably never booked an engagement any closer to New Orleans than Yazoo City, Mississippi, which still puts you about a hundred miles away. I think his somewhat disdain for the New Orleans style of blues and jazz came in after the attack from Jelly Roll Morton in the late 1930’s.
PM He stated “I would not play jazz if I could.”
DR Yes, and he was saying it with all the pomposity and paternal authority of a man who insisted that he was the “Father of the Blues.” But, I think he said that for a couple of reasons. One, Handy was what musicians at that time called a “score eagle.” If you were a musician playing for Mr. Handy and his Memphis Blues Band, you had to be able to read music, and you damn well better follow Mr. Handy’s score. That was the reason the great folk blues musician, Charley Patton, wasn’t able to play with Handy’s band. It was simply that Patton couldn’t read music and he agreed, saying that he “couldn’t play no-how ’cause he couldn’t read that music.” Additionally, he may have said this because of his distrust of any great innovation that was away from the written score, and he was very committed to fulfilling Dvorak’s prophecy. As a performing musician or as a composer, Handy wasn’t really comparable with any music beyond the blues, including what the blues gave birth to jazz.
PM Was this the reason why he didn’t find any value in the music of Charley Patton or Robert Johnson?
DR I think he would have found value in them, but in the way that you or I would have found value if we saw a diamond in the rough. Handy would have felt, “I could polish this up. It will be a beautiful and very valuable object.” You or I or particularly the current generation might look down at the diamond in the rough and say, “It’s wonderfully beautiful and it’s wonderfully valuable, just as it is. Don’t polish it up.”
PM You wrote that Handy’s music was performed by the famous black musician who served as a lieutenant, James Reese Europe. In what ways did they inspire each other?
DR Mutually. If there is one thing that I hope people come away with from my book, even if they aren’t convinced by my argument for Handy being a great American composer, it is that they learn the name and acknowledge the remarkable accomplishments of James Reese Europe, who is unjustly forgotten today. They were competitors because the considerably younger Europe was much more open to developing jazz out of the blues than Handy. Europe, who served with the U.S. Army in France during the First World War as a musician and a combat lieutenant, delighted the French audiences with Le Jazz Hot, which was basically Handy’s blues played in a jazzier style.