May 7, 2009
By DAVID HAJDU
The New York Times
If Beale Street could talk, it would say, â€œWho the hell is the guy depicted in that big statue by the entrance to the park?â€ W. C. Handy, once so famous as â€œthe Father of the Bluesâ€ that he was memorialized with a bronze monument in Memphis, is not nearly as well known today to people who are not either music scholars or copyright lawyers. It has been 35 years since James Baldwin paid tribute to Handy by employing a phrase from his â€œBeale Street Bluesâ€ as the title of a novel, and it has been almost as long since Joni Mitchell addressed Handy directly in her song about Beale Street, â€œFurry Sings the Blues.â€ Even then, what Mitchell sang was, â€œW. C. Handy, Iâ€™m rich and Iâ€™m fey / And Iâ€™m not familiar with what you played.â€
The reputations of other early blues artists have ballooned, in some cases to the verge of overÂinflation. Children of the rock era have worked hard to validate the music of their own time by historicizing it, adopting blues history as rockâ€™s preÂhistory, and canonizing a select group of blues founders who best fit the image rockers like to project. This narcissistic boomer retroactivism has codified a conception of blues-making as it was practiced by the great rural innovators â€” Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others who worked in and around the Mississippi Delta during the first years of the last century. From this point of view, a legitimate historic blues artist must have been poor, unschooled, inadequately recognized in his time and perhaps beset by tragedy, as well as African-American and male (despite the prevalence of women among the most prominent singers and composers in early blues).
William Christopher Handy (1873-1958), who was the son of ex-slaves and who was raised in a log cabin in Alabama, had most of that ground covered. He even went blind â€” twice, once recovering his sight only to lose it years later. The main problem with Handy is one of image. Formally trained, he taught music on the college level, and through the blues compositions he astutely copyrighted and published out of an office on Broadway, he became internationally renowned and prosperous. Handy exuded erudition, urbanity, polish and affluence. That statue in the park off Beale Street portrays him well, dressed fastidiously in a double-breasted suit and tie, smiling and looking less like our received version of the Father of the Blues than the Moneyed Out-of-Town Uncle of the Blues. Maybe if he hadnâ€™t been so rich and fey, people like Joni Mitchell would have been familiar with what he played.
In â€œW. C. Handy,â€ David Robertson, who has previously written a lucid biography of the slave rebel Denmark Vesey, casts overdue light on Handyâ€™s essential role in establishing the blues as a popular art, and he does this, much to his credit, without resorting to dubious claims that Handy was the first or the best of the bluesâ€™ multiple progenitors. A mark of both the evenhandedness of his scholarship and the delicacy of his writing is Robertsonâ€™s resistance to the idea of Handy as the Father of the Blues â€” a notion that Handy himself advanced and exploited deftly during his lifetime. The stationery for his publishing company promoted the phrase as a slogan, and Handy used it for the title of his autobiography, which was published in 1941, when he was 67 and performing only occasionally as part of a nostalgia act. (Handyâ€™s book, which he wrote in collaboration with the journalist Arna Bontemps, is serious, not wholly spoiled by self-Âcelebration and indispensable on his musical apprenticeship in black Âminstrelsy.)
Robertson portrays Handy as â€œthe man who made the blues,â€ a phrase thatâ€™s a bit of a dodge. In one sense, it refers to Handyâ€™s having constructed blues from found sources, just as every blues musician â€” and each artist in every style of folk music â€” draws from the work of predÂecessors, changing melody lines, adding words, dropping verses, recombining elements from many songs, making old materials new and seemingly oneâ€™s own. Handyâ€™s breakthrough was at once a variation on this method, the folk process, and a refutation of it: he documented blues in the form of musical notation, freezing songs in modes that suited him, and he had the music copyrighted and published.
In his memoir, Handy describes as an epiphany a chance encounter he had with a blues guitarist and singer in 1903 (or around that time â€” Handy is vague about the date, although in 2003 the various sponsors of the centennial Year of the Blues hung the celebration on this event). He had been waiting at the Tutwiler, Miss., railroad station for a train delayed nine hours, Handy wrote.