May 18, 2024

Website about Jazz and Blues

W. C. Handy – Blues capitalist: Photos, Video

16.11. – Happy Birthday !!! If Beale Street could talk, it would say, “Who the hell is the guy depicted in that big statue by the entrance to the park?” W. C. Handy, once so famous as “the Father of the Blues” 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 “Beale Street Blues” 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, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Even then, what Mitchell sang was, “W. C. Handy, I’m rich and I’m fey / And I’m not familiar with what you played.”

The reputations of other early blues artists have ballooned, in some cases to the verge of over­inflation. Children of the rock era have worked hard to validate the music of their own time by historicizing it, adopting blues history as rock’s pre­history, 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 — 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 — 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 hadn’t been so rich and fey, people like Joni Mitchell would have been familiar with what he played.

In “W. C. Handy,” David Robertson, who has previously written a lucid biography of the slave rebel Denmark Vesey, casts overdue light on Handy’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 blues’ multiple progenitors. A mark of both the evenhandedness of his scholarship and the delicacy of his writing is Robertson’s resistance to the idea of Handy as the Father of the Blues — 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. (Handy’s book, which he wrote in collaboration with the journalist Arna Bontemps, is serious, not wholly spoiled by self-­celebration and indispensable on his musical apprenticeship in black ­minstrelsy.)

W.C. Handy in 1949. 

Robertson portrays Handy as “the man who made the blues,” a phrase that’s a bit of a dodge. In one sense, it refers to Handy’s having constructed blues from found sources, just as every blues musician — and each artist in every style of folk music — draws from the work of pred­ecessors, changing melody lines, adding words, dropping verses, recombining elements from many songs, making old materials new and seemingly one’s own. Handy’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 — 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.

“A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. . . . His song . . . struck me instantly.” The singer was “accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

Handy’s complicated legacy involves both the preservation and the adulteration of that weirdness. He was a classically oriented musician working in the sheet-­music era. While notating the blues and disseminating it through published scores may seem unexceptional today, these acts were nearly radical at the time for their implicit argument that blues, in its mere worthiness for notation, had parity not only with Tin Pan Alley tunes but also with Western concert music. Of course, musical notation is not merely documentation; it is a kind of translation, and the tonal elasticity and rhythmic volatility of the blues are simply impossible to get across with the tempered scale and metric limitations of conventional notation. Handy relished the blues but considered it “primitive,” and he clearly saw the “polishing” he did to the music as correction or improvement. Indeed, his readiness to clean up the blues so that it could be played by musicians geared to the Western tradition has long made him seem like an ­accommodationist.

In another sense of “making” the blues, Handy, through the songs he published and their widespread use onstage, in recordings and on film, played a dominant role in the popularization of the music across a wide spectrum of the general population. “St. Louis Blues,” the best known of the many songs to bear his name as a composer, has been recorded more than 1,600 times by artists from Louis Armstrong to the contemporary jazz saxophonist Greg Osby, with Bessie Smith, Bing Crosby, Chet Atkins, Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein, Pete Seeger and Doc Watson in between. Through the royalties from “St. Louis Blues” and dozens of other songs under his copyright (most notably “The Memphis Blues,” “Yellow Dog Blues” and “Beale Street Blues”), Handy achieved a status rare among composers associated with the blues of the early 20th century: he grew wealthy. He was skillful at both music and business, as a great many hip-hop artists are today, and he took obvious pleasure in the status his prosperity conferred among blacks and whites.

His facility with commerce as well as art has tainted Handy in the eyes of rock-era blues buffs, as if the only proper compensation for a life of blues-making were the adulation of those fans, as if the point of the blues were not to cry out against suffering, subjugation and marginalization, but to preserve those things. David Robertson harbors no such delusions. A biographer of admirable restraint, he explains the guy in the statue without stomping on the clay feet that we can’t help noticing peeped out of his shoes.


The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

Картинки по запросу W.C. Handy

Verified by MonsterInsights