Some Preconceived Notions
Some would like to pretend that the blues was introduced to Western society by the reverberating echoes of penniless, uneducated, black southern musicians singing their folk songs of hardship, despair, and salvation. In fact, at the end of the 19th century, white society, and many educated blacks ignored the musical artistry of what we call the blues.
They regarded the blues as a bastardized form of music; the misbegotten artistic progeny of slaves brought from West Africa, devoid of noble origins, such as classical music. Only one man recognized the value of these musical forms, studied them, and codified their structure so that white America could understand the musical genius of the Black man.
Who is William Christopher Handy?
Only one man understood the idiomatic phrasing of many fragmented songs, which would eventually be woven into a lyrical tapestry of great beauty. This man was William Christopher Handy who was born on a poor farm in Florence, Alabama; and through his musical abilities transcended all the perils of a Jim Crow society to become the first poet of the blues.
After 40 years of struggle in understanding and evolving the blues, he gave America its first musical identity.
Because of The Blues
It led to the first successful symphonic fusion of classical music and the blues: George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. It led to W C Handy being invited by Carnegie Hall to host the first all black musical concert in 1928. It led to the famous Louis Armstrong record, his favorite, “Louis Armstrong Plays W C Handy” in 1954. It led to his autobiography, “Father of the Blues”, which besides its historical value, was also a guide to emerging black musicians, such as B.B. King, on how to protect their intellectual rights.
At his funeral, 150,000 mourners lined the streets of Harlem in New York City. That was the power of the man. He was not “Bill”; but always “Mr. Handy.” That is the respect he commanded from blacks and whites.
The Courage of WC Handy
His generation was the first to be born free in America after the Civil War. White America will never understand his intellectual courage to embrace the beauty of the blues despite the daily threats of lynchings and other atrocities faced by blacks who dared step into the White man’s world in order to ply their trade.
Indeed, lynchings were greatest after the Civil War than during the centuries of slavery. Shelby county, within which Memphis lies, was the lynching capital of America. Many Americans pulled themselves up by “their bootstraps” and overcame adversity to become who they were. Many were born into ethnic groups discriminated against by the dominant ethnic groups of the time. However, only the black man had to face all these, in addition to the possibility that his life could be extinguished for any trivial reason a lynching mob proposed.
The sarcasm projected by some critics, notably Martin Scorsese’s PBS series, “The Blues,” among others, betrays a condescending, patronizing, and ignorant attitude that suggests they know better than the progenitors what was required to get the blues heard in America in the 1910’s.
You cannot reinvent history and misrepresent the true “cause and effect” dynamics of how today’s blues came into being.
The blues has many forms, just as birds come in different varieties. However, to understand them, you just need to understand one. WC Handy’s blues were the first to capture the imagination of Western society.
The Legacy of WC Handy
WC Handy’s musical talents, artistic compositions, and entrepreneurial acumen (represented by his thriving music company that still survives today and is the oldest, family-owned, entertainment company in the United States) make him a giant in music history.
His efforts led Memphis in becoming the “Home of the Blues.” As he noted in his autobiography “some say that New Orleans deserves this distinction; however, they failed to write it down before my time.”
For these achievements, and his many glorious compositions that retained the authenticity of the raw blues sung by field hands or jilted lovers, as enumerated below, he is recognized as the Father of the Blues. True to this dedication to preserving the music of his people, he wrote “W.C. Handy’s Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 70 Great Songs and Instrumentals” in 1926. This was one of the first books published on the musical history of the black man.
The Innovation of WC Handy
Those that wish to rewrite history fail to realize that the whims of circumstances that led to the present day have a temporal flow that moves forward, not backwards, in time. America was beginning to liberate itself from the morés of the 19th Century.
Handy’s blues were meant not to commiserate with the hardships of the past, but to embrace it and move towards the future through new styles of singing and dancing. All this began in 1909 through his political jingle Mr. Crump, which then led to the first published blues in 1912, “The Memphis Blues” (for which the foxtrot was developed) and “The St. Louis Blues” in 1914.
Blues of Today
As popular as these were, WC Handy’s reputation really took off in 1918 after he moved to New York City. America wanted to dance and forget the sufferings of World War I. Many of the jazz groups began to play Handy’s blues in a happy, upbeat form, conducive to the social transformations America was experiencing.
He also benefited from the emergence of new technologies in phonograph recordings and the radio, disseminating his music all over the country. It was only after America went through these experiences did it then become aware of the raw blues style that is very popular now. However, we would not be pursuing these now, if Handy had not introduce the Blues back then in 1912.
Shaping America’s Music
Starting in 1912, WC Handy composed some of the most iconic, authentic, blues compositions that gave America its musical identity and ushered in the Jazz age. His timeless classics include:
- “The Memphis Blues”
- “The St. Louis Blues”
- “Beale St. Blues”
- “Yellow Dog Blues”
- “Aunt Hagger’s Blues”
- “Joe Turner Blues”
- “Harlem Blues”
- “Atlanta Blues”
- “Loveless Love”
- and many more such as the very western sounding “Basement Blues” as played by the Memphis Blues Band.
2018 marks the centennial of WC Handy’s New York City based company, Handy Brothers Music Co., Inc, which still maintains a New York presence. We are committed to preserving his legacy, unveiling many important secrets of his life, and encouraging new adaptations of his music.