William C. Handy (1873-1958): Youse no Longer Singing the Blues
The national holiday celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. is coming up and it is appropriate that we honor Dr. King. But I want to take this occasion to also honor a pioneer in the American Songbook, W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues.”
Handy, like King, was a child of the southern manse: King’s father was pastor of a conservative Georgia Baptist church and Handy’s father was a pastor of a conservative Alabama Methodist church. But there is more.
In l956 Handy made a significant donation of music to King’s organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association. Correspondence and personal visits followed, with King writing a letter of appreciation to Handy in which he noted that Handy “has made such a rich contribution to the musical field in America.” Then in 1999 the Tennessee General Assembly, in honoring Mr. Handy with an awards ceremony, recognized that there was “a special correlation in the lives” of Handy and King.
Mr. Handy distinguished himself as the premier popularizer of blues for the American Songbook. When he died in l958, New York police estimated that 25,000 people waited inside, and 150,000 people waited outside the AbyssinianBaptistChurch in Harlem to see his funeral cortege pass by.
William Christopher Handy was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama. His conservative father did not approve of secular music, instead encouraging sacred music instruction and performance. But with money he had saved, the younger Handy — without his parents’ permission — bought a guitar. Upon seeing the guitar, his father asked him, “What possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?” Daddy once told his young son that he’d rather follow Willy’s hearse than see Willy follow music. He made his son return the guitar and get a dictionary instead. But, according to W.C. Handy’s autobiography, his maternal grandmother, seeing the young boy’s big ears, encouraged him to learn and play all kinds of music. She interpreted his physiognomy as a sign from God that he was to be a musician.
By the late 1890s, W.C Handy was making a living in “the music field.” He had a band that toured throughout the South, and even as far away as Chicago and St. Louis. And he wrote music too. In 1909 Edward Crump, a Memphis Democrat mayoral candidate, asked him to write a campaign song. Handy did and after the victorious campaign, he changed the name of “Mr. Crump” to “Memphis Blues.”
Now, “Memphis Blues” is not really a blues number, per se, but more of an up-tempo minstrel song. In any case, “Boss” Crump went on to dominate western Tennessee politics for 40 years, and “Memphis Blues” introduced the blues genre to the American Songbook canon.
Some say that the song even created the Fox Trot step which came from dancing to its fast 4/4 beat. You can judge for yourself because here is Handy himself in a rare 1914 recording of his song:
(Memphis Blues” performed by Handy and his Victor Military Band)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGqBmlZR3dc
About the same time as that recording, when Handy was 40 years old, he wrote his masterpiece “St. Louis Blues.” The song is, by far, the most recorded blues song in history.
When England’s Prince George married Princess Marina of Greece in l934 they danced to it at their wedding ceremony. And England’s late Queen Mother, Elizabeth, once singled it out as one of her favorite songs. Ethiopia used it as a war song to provide inspiration and consolation when the country was invaded by Italy in 1935.
Here is Louie Armstrong and singer Velma Middleton with this signature version of the century-old, “St. Louis Blues:”
(St. Louis Blues performed by Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2TUlUwa3_o
In 1916, a couple of years after writing the “St. Louis Blues,” Handy wrote his third blues standard, “Beale Street Blues.” The title refers to Beale Street in Memphis, the main entertainment district for the city’s African-American population in the early part of the 20th century, and a place closely associated with the development of the blues. This Tin Pan Alley hit would be the song with which the fabulous jazz trombonist and a favorite of mine, Jack Teagarden, would become identified. Here is Jack in l931:
(“Beale Street Blues” performed by Joe Venuti and Jack Teagarden)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfLH38iqY7c
W.C. Handy has been described as a deeply religious and optimistic man, whose influences in his musical style were found in church music and in God’s creation. Handy cited for inspiration the sounds of Creation such as, “whippoorwills, bats and hoot owls and their outlandish noises,” and the “sounds of Cypress Creek washing on the fringes of the woodland on one side, with high rocky cliffs on the other,” and “turtles sunning themselves on rocks and driftwood until some drizzling rain made them dive into the water” and “I knew the music of every songbird and all the symphonies of their unpremeditated art.”
If Handy had done nothing else but write these three bluesy standards, he would be an honored man, but ahead of him lay many more accomplishments.
Not a bad start for the son of an Alabama parsonage.
This is Bob Case for “Singing in the Shower: The American Songbook and the Church