PM Throughout Handy’s tough trials and tribulations, did he ever consider giving up a career in music for a more conventional job?
DR Never, and that says a great deal about his commitment as a musician. In terms of his sufferings, B.B. King’s remark sums it up: “To play the blues as an African American is to be black twice.” In regards to Handy’s sufferings, he went blind not once, but twice. Once in the 1920’s, from which he fortunately recovered and again in the 1940’s from which he unfortunately did not. This man who loved composing and reading music was blind and would not be able to read a score again.
PM Jelly Roll Morton had some pretty harsh things to say about Handy, essentially declaring himself the founder of the blues and jazz, not Handy. Does Morton have a good case?
DR No. Jelly Roll Morton had some pretty harsh things to say about practically any other musician of color who was not Jelly Roll Morton. I think that’s a continuation of the debate about where the blues originated: New Orleans or Memphis? The honest answer is “both.” So, while Morton may have been trying to make a case for New Orleans in his comments, he was making the case too strongly for himself being the founder of the blues and jazz than anything else.
PM What did Handy think of Morton’s music?
DR Although Handy was not the “Father of the Blues,” he was always a genial individual and a very serious and honest artist. He had admiration for Jelly Roll Morton’s blues and, in turn, he by no means disparaged Morton’s artistic accomplishments. As a private individual, though, Handy talked to his lawyers about suing the hell out of Jelly Roll when Morton was making these charges against him. Although he disagreed with Morton in print about the exclusive New Orleans view of the blues, he did so in a much more tempered and genial way than Mr. Morton.
PM What was Handy’s biggest contribution to the blues musically?
DR A couple of things First of all, the blue note and Handy by no means is the father of the blue note even though in his day it was known as “W.C. Handy’s famous blue note.” Obviously, that anonymous folk guitarist Handy heard at the railway station in Mississippi had been playing blue notes prior to Handy’s use of it. But, one of Handy’s major accomplishments was the introduction and crossover use of the blue note into national popular music. Because of Handy, everyday people in places like Portland, Oregon can hear the blue note. Another contribution, which he sometimes goes without credit, is his introduction of other national music into our national music. The “St. Louis Blues” not only has wonderful passages of black folk and liturgical music; it also has the tango in it. Handy was among the first to be interested in and appreciate the artistic possibilities of American Hispanic music. The Latin-inflicted rhythms that the kids are playing today probably would have puzzled but delighted Handy if he were alive today. That’s another reason why Handy may have been a little disparaged. He was not exclusively the advocate of the rural African American blues he was the advocate for good music wherever he heard it whether it was the ragtime that developed after John Phillip Sousa or the tango played in Cuba and parts of Florida.
PM What was Handy’s greatest contribution to American culture and music?
DR I will always argue for the importance of the “St. Louis Blues.” Handy fulfilled, as much as it can be, the Dvorak Prophecy that there was a great American music to be written and the “St. Louis Blues” is a historic piece of American music. It was black folk music with ragtime and the Hispanic tango beat and is recognized worldwide as a distinctively American tune. The “St. Louis Blues” has been one of the most frequently recorded songs in the 20th and 21st century and if you have written a song that has been covered successfully by both Billie Holiday and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, you have written a truly American piece of music.
PM You write that the current generation “associates the blues exclusively with rural Delta musicians such as Robert Johnson, or with New Orleans-based performers such as Jelly Roll Morton ” Why do these musicians overshadow W.C. Handy in the current generation’s viewpoint of the blues?
DR That is a “real interesting pair of short sleeves,” as Handy would say. A “war” is currently going on within the world of blues scholarship, where a handful of musicians and scholar Alan Lomax chose to define the blues as the music of an exploited class in the Mississippi Delta that was created specifically for ideological or political reasons. They certainly were exploited and it was their music, but this denies the urban origin of the blues, which was contemporaneous with the folk musicians in the Mississippi Delta. Also central to this heated argument is the discussion about whether the origin of the blues has been defined too narrowly, and if it ignores urban figures and musicians such as W.C. Handy.
PM Which was more important: the music he created, or the popularization of the music he created?
DR Well, which is more important: the eloquence of the preacher on Sunday, or the fact that he keeps me from sinning until next Sunday? To take the long view, his greatest achievement was his crossover success because it would have been much harder for other African American performers such as Bessie Smith to achieve their success and acclaim had there not been W.C. Handy. However, judged as an artist, his great accomplishment was in his use of words and melodies.
PM Since Handy was not technically the first to play the blues, what does that do to his image as the “Father of the Blues”?
DR Handy’s claim as being the “Father of the Blues” for both marketing and personal pride has opened him up to attack by people other than Jelly Roll Morton and I am the first biographer to say he wasn’t what he claimed to be. There are many fathers and mothers of the blues. The female performers and originators of the blues have also been unjustly forgotten. I kept in mind a metaphor that when the blues was born, it was a beautiful little baby that looked like good coffee with a little cream in it. This baby is African American with a little white and Hispanic in him and there are many mothers and fathers around his bed. Handy is there, Bessie Smith is there, and Charley Patton is probably out in the yard too, and if you kept walking a little farther from the house, damned if you didn’t see John Phillip Sousa in his uniform. They were all more or less the fathers, mothers, or the godparents of the blues. Handy made the blues but he made them in the sense that he made them a success and a self-conscious art. But, he claimed a lot more for himself and that unfortunately opened him to charges that totally reprimand his claims. Handy was about seven-tenths of what he claimed to be.
W.C. Handy’s statue on Beale Street recognizing him as the “Father of the Blues”
“Indeed, Handy would be interested throughout his life in the symphonic possibilities of the blues, with their uniquely played minor notes and folk melodies. But he also saw himself as an American composer in the sense of no longer being just another unknown provincial person of color who played European-inspired marches and waltzes. ‘I let no grass grow under my feet,’ Handy later wrote of first hearing the Mississippi blues; shortly thereafter he moved his family to Memphis and organized his blues orchestras and music publishing business. The blues performed as commercial entertainment and sold as sheet music to a national audience promised to make William Christopher Handy, as an American composer, a rich man.”
– David Robertson
Farewell Blues, by W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band
“W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues”, a short documentary Handy and how he created the blues
In no particular order of preference, David Robertson’s five favorite versions of the “St. Louis Blues:
Billie Holiday, from her album, “No Regrets”
Any version by Bessie Smith
Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappeli, from their album, “Paris 1937”
Glenn Miller, in the fast-tempo version later adopted as a marching tune by the U. S. Military
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, in a white-country, two-step swing version.
Lyrics to the “St. Louis Blues”:
I hate to see that evening sun go down,
I hate to see that evening sun go down,
‘Cause my lovin’ baby done left this town.
If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today,
If I feel tomorrow, like I feel today,
I’m gonna pack my trunk and make my getaway.
Oh, that St. Louis woman, with her diamond rings,
She pulls my man around by her apron strings.
And if it wasn’t for powder and her store-bought hair,
Oh, that man of mine wouldn’t go nowhere.
I got those St. Louis blues, just as blue as I can be,
Oh, my man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea,
Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me.
I love my man like a schoolboy loves his pie,
Like a Kentucky colonel loves his rocker and rye
I’ll love my man until the day I die, Lord, Lord.
I got the St. Louis blues, just as blue as I can be, Lord, Lord!
That man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea,
Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me.
I got those St. Louis blues, I got the blues, I got the blues, I got the blues,
My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea,
Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me, Lord, Lord!
Audio samples of the “St. Louis Blues,” from ten different decades
About David Robertson
David Robertson is the author of three previous biographies, of slave rebel Denmark Vesey, the former U.S. secretary of state James F. Byrnes, and the bishop James A. Pike, and of a historical novel about John Wilkes Booth. His poetry has appeared in the Sewanee Review and other journals, and he has provided political and literary commentary on ABC News and The Washington Post. He was educated in Alabama and lives in Ohio.
PM Who was your childhood hero?
DR I would have to say my most admired figure in my early youth I was born and grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s at Anniston, Alabama, among the most bitterly fought sites of the civil rights era in my state was my city’s local journalist, Cody Hall. Cody, the editor at the Anniston Star newspaper, very bravely, and at considerable financial and social risks, took an editorial stand in his paper urging a non-violent acceptance of racial integration by the city’s white residents, and insisting upon the rule of law in prosecuting those who committed violence upon the freedom riders and civil rights workers who traveled to Anniston in those early years. His stand was taken also at a considerable physical risk; the FBI later gathered evidence that the local Ku Klux Klan was assembling explosives in order to bomb Cody’s office and the Star’s printing plant. What is more, Cody wrote eloquently, learnedly, and passionately. He was a combat veteran of World War Two, and was one of the last generation of the truly great journalists in the “Good Night, And Good Luck” tradition. I was honored to have known him.
Critical Acclaim for W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
“[Robertson] casts overdue light on Handys essential role in establishing the blues as a popular art . . . A biography of admirable restraint.”
— David Hajdu, The New York Times Book Review
“A remarkable musical journey . . . An overdue and highly readable account of the man known as the Father of the Blues.”
— Mark Rozzo, The Los Angeles Times
“A fascinating look at not only Handys life but the history and business of American music.”
— Publishers Weekly
“At the turn of the twentieth century, W. C. Handy (18731958) propelled the blues from regional obscurity, changing it into a vital tradition that fostered much of American popular music that followed. A native Alabaman, Handy moved to Memphis in 1905 after living in St. Louis and becoming a professional musician whose experience included playing in minstrel shows for racially mixed audiences. He became a prolific composer of songs, including St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues, and established Memphis as the blues capital and Beale Street as its main street. Handys accomplishments as singer, composer, band leader, and musician came together in his endeavors as he became more famous and influential. Rich and atmospheric, Robertsons portrayal of Handy is also comprehensive and well referenced. It ought to be required reading for devotees of American music, though it might constitute heavy sledding for casual fans. Readers who persist will be rewarded with a rich basic history of the man and his music and the roots of much of the music we hear today.”
W.C. Handy products at Amazon.com
David Robertson products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on July 25th, 2009
# Text from publisher.
This interview was conducted and published by Peter Maita on September 4th, 2009. Portland, Oregon.