Author David Robertson revisits W.C. Handy's legacy in American music

Author David Robertson revisits W.C. Handy's legacy in American music
April 26, 2009
By Rege Beh

If W.C. Handy is remembered at all, it's in conjunction with the annual awards for blues music that bear his name.

Other seminal blues musicians -- notably Robert Johnson, Son House, Jelly Roll Morton and Charley Patton -- are more revered, viewed as more important to the development of the genre than Handy. Even though Handy wrote "The St. Louis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," "The Yellow Dog Blues" and "The Memphis Blues," he is often forgotten, and sometimes dismissed as inconsequential.

Part of the problem, according to historian David Robertson, the author of "W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues," is that Handy doesn't fit the archetypical image of the original blues players. Because he had commercial success in his lifetime, he is often seen as less than authentic.

"We tend to think of 'authentic' bluesmen as being poor and itinerant," says Robertson, whose other books include a biography of Denmark Vesey and the novel "Booth." "But they didn't want to be poor and itinerant. ... Robert Johnson paid very careful attention to what was on the jukeboxes at the juke joints, what was selling commercially. And I think that there has always been a commercial use and enjoyment of the blues, not only in New Orleans, but in the black vaudeville halls and, to a degree, earlier in the black-faced minstrel shows."

Handy was one of the most successful blues musicians of his day. Born in 1873 in Florence, Ala., he started his career in minstrel shows, traveling across the country with other black musicians. Far from rag-tag, the orchestras who played this circuit were relatively well-compensated for performing.

While the financial remuneration was important, the young cornet player would also be exposed to the ragtime music that would provide the launching point for the blues. But because minstrel shows still "have the power to disturb us, and make us uneasy," according to Robertson, much of this experience is automatically dismissed.

Handy also seems to have suffered from a long-held view that the Mississippi Delta, and the musicians who emerged from that area, are the sole progenitors of the blues.

"There's the idea that the blues, to be authentic, have to be created and performed by people from the lower class who received little or no formal education," Robertson says. "And the art that they created was somehow divinely inspired rather than the sweat of their own brow. It's coming out now that the blues were originating in many areas, other than the rural delta of Mississippi. Only now are we beginning to realize that urban men and women also played and composed the blues. When the blues were born, there were many people in attendance, and some of them were highly and formally trained."

Handy's port of entry -- after stops in St. Louis and Clarksdale, Miss. -- was Memphis, where he moved in 1905. In order to gain notice, Handy availed himself of an opportunity that black musicians in that city were afforded: Aligning themselves with a politician who sought the black vote. Handy worked for Edward H. "Boss" Crump, then a fledgling pol, drumming up votes by playing black neighborhoods and districts.

One of the songs Handy wrote, "Mr. Crump," eventually became his first standard, "The Memphis Blues." But Handy's original lyrics for the song were double-edged, notably the line "Mr. Crump can go and catch himself some air!," that more or less implied that Crump would not reform the "raffish" sensibilities of some of Memphis' more licentious districts. Handy was in essence mimicking his ancestors, working the fields as slaves, who coded messages in the lyrics of their work songs.

"He may have been very genially mocking the man he was paid to praise," Robertson says. "But there was also something of a musical trickster in Handy, and that comes from his work in the minstrel shows: supposedly praising or being obsequious, but actually, gently or not, ridiculing the person in authority."

Handy -- who lived until 1958 -- moved to New York City in 1917, and continued to write songs and distribute them via the publishing company he founded with Memphis businessman Harry Pace. Robertson thinks his contributions have stood the test of time and that Handy was able to forge the blues from various and disparate sounds.

"Handy's contribution was that he himself recognized there was not one American music," Robertson says. "There are many American musics to be, hopefully, harmoniously joined together. Not only black folk music, but keep in mind, Handy spotted the tango and introduced that in one of the most moving passages, in one of the most moving of blues songs, 'The St. Louis Blues.' He also fully appreciated the quick-step marches, the music that was shared by both black and white audiences, of ragtime. ... And Handy was, in my opinion, wonderfully talented as a poet. He wrote most of his own lyrics. I don't think, certainly, rock 'n' roll would have had the colloquialisms, the verbal wordplay, sometimes the sexual wordplay, ... without Mr. Handy writing 'The Yellow Dog Blues.'"

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