David Robertson, author of W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

September 4th, 2009

PM  In addition to Europe, what was going on in the music scene that set the stage for Handy’s success?

DR  What was going on musically was the often-forgotten black vaudeville halls, where many of the black performers would play the blues. We also tend to forget today that Memphis was a large enough city to support many cabarets for both white patrons and patrons of color. I say that because we tend to forget that people danced to the blues throughout much of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Today, we would enjoy the music of Charley Patton but dancing to his music, other than maybe a self-conscious folk step, would not be something that would occur to most of us.point.

PM  That’s right, in Handy’s 1909 performance of “Mister Crump,” the crowds went wild for it and all started dancing. If the blues had been around prior to “Mister Crump,” why was this considered to be the first published blues song?

DR  For a couple of reasons. One of the musicians playing “Mister Crump,” whether with Handy’s expectation or not, took one of the first blues breaks, a deliberate improvisation from Handy’s original score. I imagine that Handy’s eyebrows shot up in disapproval when he heard it, but also saw the delighted response from the audience. Handy was a candid enough business man and artist to probably think, “Well ok, this was not the way I was taught, this was not the way I grew up, but, oh my, do the people seem to like it!” From this point on, there would usually be the allowance of the blues break in Handy’s performances. Unfortunately, Handy himself rarely, if ever, plays the blues break on the few recordings of him that exist.

PM  Tell me the story of the “Memphis Blues or (Mister Crump)” and how Handy got swindled out of that song.

DR  When you’re writing a book, whether it is a biography or a novel, you have to be careful of minor characters trying to take over your story, and that was the case with Boss Crump. When I was writing that chapter, I felt that I was engaged in a very hard campaign by Boss Crump taking over that chapter. He was such a marvelously colorful and memorable southern politician with such a marvelous mixture of both good and perhaps evil. Later, Boss Crump went on to control the political fortunes of Tennessee up until the 1950’s. If you were President Harry Truman and wanted the Democratic Party to do well in Tennessee, you had better talk to Mr. Crump and do what Boss Crump told you. But at the time, Boss Crump was a young man and was just starting his political career, and it was when he was known as Mr. Crump rather than Boss Crump. In order to popularize his name among the African American political wards and earn their votes, he had one of his lieutenants commission the political campaign song of “Mister Crump,” which later became “The Memphis Blues.”

Handy lost the copyright to “The Memphis Blues” because Handy, as was the case most of his life, badly needed the money. He made a great deal of money, but practically anyone on this planet could handle money better than Handy. He wound up broke having to pay the expenses of his traveling blues bands. He had attempted to sell the score of “Mister Crump” or “The Memphis Blues,” but had been conned by two song sharks who said something like, “Don’t worry Mr. Handy, you put the score up at your expense and we’ll sell them and we’ll all make a lot of money.” The two con men did sell the scores but kept the money and probably said, “I’m sorry Mr. Handy, we tried the best that we could, but we just couldn’t sell this song, I’m afraid it’s a dog. But being the nice soul that I am, I’ll offer you fifty bucks if you’ll sign where all copyrights will be given to me,” which Handy did because he needed the money. Only afterwards did he discover that not only were people whistling, playing and singing “Mister Crump” in Memphis, they were also whistling, playing and singing it in New York, Chicago and other American markets.

PM How important in the life of W.C. Handy was his failure to copyright “The Memphis Blues?”

DR  Extremely important – so important that he was able to establish the Handy Brothers Music Company that continues to this day and make most of his money not as a blues composer, but as a blues distributor and blues buyer of copyrights. Handy learned the hard way that the key to making good money as a professional musician was not in performing songs, but in owning copyrights of the songs. This makes Handy a little different and a little off-putting for people who were enthusiastic about the blues. A writer in Los Angeles reviewing my book put it very well: “the average blues musician of that time looked like a bank robber. W.C. Handy looked like the president of the bank.” That defines it.

PM Why do think his composition, the “St. Louis Blues” was not initially popular but became popular six years later?

DR  For one thing, it was difficult to play even for skilled musicians who were familiar with the blues tempo or the ragtime tempo because it combines so much into one composition. The music within the “St. Louis Blues” is not only a scoring of blues melodies but also some church liturgical music, a slow march tune, and in the middle when that “St. Louie woman with the store bought hair” makes an appearance, the tango. It’s not the sort of song where you could buy the score, take home, sit down at your piano in the parlor and play, and that was how most music was played throughout the 1910’s. Some recordings had not yet become reliable or affordable so the music was supported usually by individuals who bought scores and played them for the entertainment of themselves and their families.

PM  Did Handy know the potential of the “St. Louis Blues” for the years it wasn’t popular?

DR  Yes and no. I am absolutely convinced he did but on the other hand, Handy always needed money. Astonishingly, Handy apparently signed an exclusive with a vaudeville performer to perform the “St. Louis Blues” on stage for literally no more than fifty bucks. But on the other hand, Handy never sold the copyright until the very depths of his personal poverty in the 1920’s and made very certain to get that copyright back. Handy knew that he had written a piece of art, but was perennially broke and would pawn that piece of art when he needed the money just like in Memphis he would often pawn his cornet for money to buy groceries for his family.

PM Eventually, the artist who popularizes the song is Marion Harris. Why do you think Handy hired her to record the “St. Louis Blues?”

DR  Marion Harris is one of those minor characters that we talked about struggling to take over a book and is almost totally forgotten today. I fell in love with her. She had a remarkably erotic voice, very modern sounding and she was one of the first flappers. I wrote so much and so enthusiastically about Marion Harris that my editor basically had to say “Robertson tone it down, tone it down, if she were alive she would be old enough to be your great grandmother.”

PM  Well, she was the “Jazz Vampire.”

DR  Oh sure, what more would a fella want, she could also be the “Jazz Baby,” maybe both at the same time. What more does a fella want. The point emphasized is that Handy found the perfect crossover performer for that crossover composition he had long been searching for. Although she is forgotten today, Marion Harris was extremely popular not only with white audiences, but had a very large following among African American listeners as well.

PM In Memphis, Handy meets a banker named Harry Pace, and they form the Pace and Handy Music Company. How did Handy and Pace get in touch with each other and why did Handy choose Pace to become his partner?

DR  Memphis was the largest city in the area and the big city if you were living in a small town in northern Mississippi, but nevertheless, in realistic terms, was still a small city. Pace was a seriously committed amateur musician, singing in choirs in black churches in Memphis. Given the size of the city and it’s African American population, two comparatively young men, both interested in all kinds of music would almost inevitably cross paths as they did. Pace, at that time, was employed not in the music business, but as a very respected banker at an African American owned bank in Memphis.

PM What kind of challenges Pace and Handy face as African American entrepreneurs in New York City?

DR  The greatest challenge may have been for Harry Pace trying to cover bad checks that his partner, Handy, kept writing and bouncing. Which is to say that Handy was a wonderful artist, but couldn’t handle money worth a flip. Pace was a trained banker and a successful businessman in insurance after he left the banking business. But, as to the difficulties sitting aside Pace probably thought, “my partner is a genius but he might just end up bankrupt if I don’t keep an eye on him.” Pace handled the money and had to make that very clear. Pace and Handy were facing, if not discrimination, the fact of being one of the very few black owned and kept alive businesses. It’s very significant to say Handy did not locate their offices in Harlem, but at Tin Pan Alley, which at that time consisted of businesses primarily run by recent immigrants from Germany and elsewhere. Their mindset would have been something like, “We may be a minority business but we’re not going to settle for a minority part in the business. We plan to compete with Irving Berlin and all the other big companies on Tin Pan Alley.”

PM You write about Handy’s trouble with handling his own money and it was one the reasons why Pace left to form the first all black record label, Black Swan Records. What kind of challenges and opportunities did that provide Handy’s company after he left?

DR  For those who read my book, I hope they carry away a memory of Black Swan Records because at least two generations before Motown Records, Black Swan existed as a black capitalized business specializing exclusively in African American performers. Ironically, Black Swan failed as a business, but the hapless handler of music – Handy – and his business continued into the next century. While the idea that Black Swan would record African American musicians performing for an African American audience was promising, Handy was interested in creating a crossover success.

PM  During his later years, Handy starts producing spiritual albums and kind of distances himself from the blues.

DR  He does this, in part, because he realized that as an artist, his time had passed and probably thought “It was a wonderful time while it lasted and that I and the people around me may have done something of lasting pleasure and value.” In the 1910’s and the early 1920’s, Handy moved to New York and fused the “St. Louis Blues” and the “Yellow Dog Blues” and all of those wonderful hits. But, as it became the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Handy quite cannily realized that there was a newer generation coming along, playing a music that had grown out of the blues, called jazz, which Handy didn’t quite understand and couldn’t quite play. They were also playing big band music and I think Handy realized something like, “I still have much to contribute, but my time in the sun has passed with the early blues.” Handy was not only a proud African American composer but a proud African American who, in the fulfillment of Dvorak’s prophecy, must have thought “I would like very much, both as a business man and an artist to bring to the whole American people, not only the great accomplishment of the folk blues, but the great accomplishment of the black spirituals.”

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2 comments on “David Robertson, author of W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues”

  1. great article and research. However my studies show that Ethel Waters was the first to record St Louis Blues in 1921 and the first to perform it (Vaudeville).

  2. great article and research. However my studies show that Ethel Waters was the first to record St Louis Blues in 1921 and the first to perform it (Vaudeville).

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