W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues

Written by Elliott Hurwitt

Music Historian

In category: Program Notes

Published November 11, 2018

In 1912, when Handy published the “Memphis Blues,” the word blues was used primarily to describe an emotional state—depression, melancholy. Songs specifically about these issues did not come into being until something like 400 years after the first mentions of the “blue devils” appeared in English. Once blues songs emerged, around 1900, they had a single overriding theme: bad luck in love. There were blues about other things—bedbugs, floods, and other irritants and calamities. There were virtually no blues about political matters, not even racial ones, until many years later.

Blues emerged from a societal structure that was African-American, in the Mississippi Delta and to a lesser extent such far-flung places as Texas and New Orleans. In these areas there were significant numbers of black people—in the Delta they outnumbered whites by a very high margin. Preconditions for the emergence of blues included the concentration of these people in sufficient numbers to support entertainment venues, such as the still famous “juke joints,” where part-time musicians supplied entertainment, especially for dancing; also theaters, built specifically for African Americans who had small amounts of pocket money to see traveling entertainers. Among them were such legendary characters as “Ma” Rainey, and the less-well-remembered but important Butler “String Beans” May and a legion of others, most of whom combined musical performance with comic routines or dancing. At harvest time especially, rural people flocked to the theaters in cities all over the south: Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama; Macon, Georgia; and especially the Delta market town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, between the vast, fertile Delta and the regional metropolis of Memphis, Tennessee.

Blues fused disparate elements: three-line ballads, often about true-life murders: “Stackalee,” “Frankie and Johnnie,” “Delia”; ragtime; old folk songs, many of British derivation, preserved primarily in Appalachia and other uplands; fiddle tunes, often “reels” such as the one we know today as “Turkey in the Straw.” W. C. Handy was familiar with all of these, and also classical music, hymns, spirituals, and especially brass band music, when he became a composer.

The blues form is commonly understood today to combine, almost by royal decree, a few simple elements including a three-line rhyme scheme, A-A-B, in twelve bars of music, with a close-to-set chord structure and the employment of “blue” notes, unexpectedly flatted, plangent-sounding notes, the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes of the scale. This is an inadequate formalized structure, but one amenable to memorization and especially publication, using a major/minor key system derived from 19th-century hymns and similar songs. In practice, rural country blues employed a wide variety of slippery elements such as sliding notes or glissandi. These gestures probably derive from African roots and certainly from pre-1900 African-American music such as field hollers and other work songs, and the precursors to the spirituals.

Blues dissemination moved in two directions, rural-urban and black-white, but also the other way around. The bug was transmitted not only by roving troubadours and seasonal crop-pickers but by traveling entertainers. “Authentic” country blues musicians picked up material from men and women who traveled the circuit of theaters, at courthouses that hosted dances, and heard entertainers embedded in minstrel shows, circus troupes, and the like. Later, country bluesmen (mostly men) learned a good deal of material from recordings. Before 1927, almost all blues records were made by cosmopolitan entertainers in the north. Blues came from everywhere and nowhere: Dockery’s plantation in the Mississippi Delta, but also Chicago, Pensacola, Florida, Mobile, Alabama: everywhere.

When William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873, nothing remotely like the blues existed. Spirituals, which we regard as ancient, were disdained by many African Americans as new-fangled aspirants to replace the good old hymns. Handy’s father and grandfather were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church, which vied with more “primitive” denominations such as the Baptists for dominance. Charles Bernard Handy, the composer’s father, was a stern man, averse to popular culture, and forbade secular music in the home, even forcing the young W.C. to return a guitar purchased with his own hard-earned money in exchange for an encyclopedia. Handy’s dad embodies the toughened survivors of the post-Reconstruction era, an extremely bad time to be black in the South; his own father had been a hero of the Underground Railroad, and was shot, though not fatally, during a nighttime escape in Alabama while serving as a lookout. Handy’s mother, Elizabeth Brewer, came from a less-educated family with a musical streak: her father had played fiddle at barn dances before he “got religion.” She liked a good tune herself, but bowed to her husband in all things. Both the Handys and the Brewers were liked and to some degree respected by the whites of Florence.

In elementary school, W.C. Handy benefited greatly from the tutelage of Y.A. Wallace, who was among the first graduating class from Fisk University. He was an inspired music teacher, and Handy got an excellent education in the rudiments of music, which he learned using the old moveable pitch system (do-re-mi); by high school he was singing choral excerpts from the classical standard repertoire, and playing the harmonium (pump organ) in his father’s church. He also felt an irresistible urge to hit the road in show business, running away with a minstrel troupe as a teenager, getting stranded in a faraway town and returning home sadder but not wiser. Dutifully completing school, he got a teacher’s certificate and journeyed to Birmingham to teach, found the salary inadequate, and got work at an iron furnace in the suburb of Bessemer. There he organized a vocal quartet, which took to the road in spring 1893, when the depression coinciding with Grover Cleveland’s second presidential inauguration hit factories nationwide. Handy and his men intended to capitalize on the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892, which had been postponed to 1893, then opened still later than expected. Finding the fair still not operational, the quartet moved on to St. Louis, also a lively entertainment center. There, outclassed by less regional talent, they disbanded. Handy was alone, broke, and hungry. He was found on the Eads Bridge by a stable hand who thought he was contemplating suicide, and from there worked his way back up, first by mucking out stalls. He had, as his father predicted, followed music into the gutter.

In St. Louis, Handy found that his gifts as a singing guitarist had some value and he took in the nightlife of Targee Street, which gave him a taste for urban high society. Ever alert to the songs of balladeers and street singers, in 1893 he heard a despondent woman sing “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.” It would become the final refrain to his biggest hit, “St. Louis Blues,” over 20 years later. From St. Louis, Handy journeyed east, found a road-paving crew in Evansville, Indiana, got a cornet and work playing it, then found that gigs in Henderson, Kentucky paid better, and traveled between these cities and others throughout the upper South until summer of 1896. He then was summoned to join the brass band of Mahara’s Minstrels, led by three swashbuckling brothers from Iowa. He soon worked his way up to cornet soloist, then bandleader, and finally director of the orchestra as well (these played the troupe’s formal concerts). He began writing arrangements for and experimenting with such novelties as the saxophone. And he constantly self-educated, purchasing books on counterpoint and harmony to improve his composition skills.

Black minstrel troupes such as the one Handy joined specialized in comic routines, including cross-dressing, dancing, animal acts, storytelling, and, of course, music. They were not self-degrading; they represented the insight that black people imitating black people did it better than white people imitating black people. Handy never had to wear blackface like the comedians did; he would have starved before he stooped to that. He had a decent job with Mahara’s Minstrels from 1896 to 1903, seeing much of the United States, and also Canada and Mexico. The troupe visited Havana early in 1900, and there Handy first heard the habanera, which would prove a keystone of his “St. Louis Blues.”

Handy’s family had long disapproved of his decision to go into show business, and his wife Elizabeth Price, who he married in 1898, had a family and friends who did as well. He dutifully spent the academic years 1900-1902 teaching at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, but found the pay and working conditions unattractive, so spent a final year in minstrelsy before taking a job leading the brass band of the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Memphis in 1905, playing for funerals and benevolent society events, then increasingly with his own dance bands. His combos ranged from three-piece string bands (Handy was an able guitarist as well as a fine cornetist) to full-sized concert bands of 20 pieces. Starting out as low man on the totem pole, he dominated local music-making by 1908; by 1918, when he left for New York, he had a territory that ranged from Missouri to the west, Virginia to the northeast, Baton Rouge in the south, and Atlanta in the southeast. He ruled the Mississippi Delta, where he was repeatedly exposed to the blues. Two encounters proved pivotal: the first came in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where one night he heard a guitarist singing about “going where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog,” a reference to Morehead, a major railroad junction. The guitarist used a knife to play bent notes on his guitar, creating what Handy recalled as the “weirdest” music he had ever heard. In the second incident, while playing for a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi, his “band of full orchestration” was outdone by a local string trio, poorly clad and monotonous but irresistible, and this alerted Handy to the commercial potential of blues and “roots music.” He was soon arranging such folk tunes as “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” for his ensembles and by 1908 was arranging for Memphis music publishers and writing original songs.

The first of these to get attention beyond the Memphis main drag of Beale Street was an infectious little ditty called “Mister Crump,” a topical number dissing that year’s come-from-behind mayoral candidate (in a three-way race), cunningly calling his candidacy to wider attention. This song was rooted in a tradition of songs about how “Mama don’t allow [whatever].” And while Handy’s song was hostile toward the reform element, it has long been credited with helping Crump get elected. He remained the absolute boss of Memphis politics until after World War II. Handy’s 1912 “Memphis Blues,” very loosely based on “Mister Crump,” was a piano rag with a bluesy section. He self-published it, but sold the copyright, for a very inadequate sum, to a canny white publisher who, while visiting Memphis, assured Handy that it was too difficult to play and wouldn’t sell. Handy would never fall for such a ruse again. Yet something wonderful came about when the publisher took the song back to New York and hired lyricist George Norton to add words to it. Norton, who’s contemporaneous “Melancholy Baby” was a smash hit, had the great idea of identifying Handy as the top bandleader of Memphis, the man everyone visiting Memphis should hear. This made Handy instantly famous nationwide; it also made the song a talisman of the city. Traveling salesmen who had passed through Memphis requested the song in New York and Chicago; people visiting Memphis would request the local hit. Handy became a favorite of his adopted town’s chamber of commerce, and a great symbiotic relationship was born.

In 1913, Handy founded the Pace and Handy Music Publishing Company. Harry Herbert Pace, 11 years Handy’s junior, was a graduate of Atlanta University, where he was a protégé of the great Civil Right leader and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. Pace was class valedictorian at 16, a good baritone church soloist, fluent in Greek and Latin, a shrewd businessman, and indefatigable. He was in Memphis not long after Handy’s arrival, taught at a Midwestern college, then moved to Atlanta where he became a mainstay of a black insurance company while handling Handy’s business affairs with his other hand. Very light-skinned, Pace could get a bank loan before the officers in charge realized what had happened. He was constantly alert to changes in product popularity, including the value of recordings and piano rolls, which would come to outsell printed sheet music by the 1920s.

While it lasted, his collaboration with Handy was fruitful. Pace even wrote the lyrics for some of Handy’s songs, though none of the good ones. With Pace minding the store, Handy was freed up to roll out a dazzling string of hits in short order, beginning with his masterpiece, “St. Louis Blues,” in 1914. It had everything necessary to make a hit: an intriguing first section in blues form; a second part with a dotted habanera triple rhythm to take advantage of the new international tango craze—a section also written in a minor key, the first in any published blues, and the only one among the many other blues published prior to 1920; and an infectious, final swinging section. (Years later, in the copy of Rhapsody in Blue he gave Handy, George Gershwin wrote “To W.C. Handy, whose ‘St. Louis Blues’ was the father of all my blues.”) There followed Handy’s “Yellow Dog Blues,” an answer song/tribute to his friend Shelton Brooks, whose “I Wonder Where My Easy Rider’s Gone” had been a hit the previous year. Handy followed up with “Joe Turner Blues,” “Hesitating Blues,” the ragtime instrumental “Ole Miss,” “Beale Street Blues,” “Hooking Cow Blues,” “Long Gone (from Bowling Green),” “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” “Harlem Blues,” and “Atlanta Blues,” all between 1914 and 1924.  These were quickly taken up by black vaudeville entertainers, then, to Handy’s great economic advantage, white vaudeville entertainers. “Beale Street Blues” was a big hit in an early recording by Earl Fuller, and “Yellow Dog Blues” a smash record for Joseph Smith’s orchestra, featuring a laughing trombone riff by Harry Raderman. Handy was spending a lot of money, but still making some as an exhaustingly busy touring bandleader. But his newer source of revenue raised his company’s activities to an entirely new level. Harry Pace urged him to set aside the lure of the stage to pursue the recording avenue, knowing that records were rapidly replacing sheet music for home entertainment around the piano. He also saw that Handy belonged in Tin Pan Alley in New York’s Times Square, and convinced Handy to move there to open an office, though Handy’s preference was Chicago, where he had many friends and had even moved his family. But for the second half of his long life he would be a New Yorker, part of the Harlem Renaissance, and a major figure in the world’s greatest entertainment center.

Unable to rent his own desk when he arrived in New York, he soon had his own office, and a burgeoning staff of music arrangers and song demonstrators to show off new publications to entertainers who dropped in. The talent that worked in this office was dazzling: William Grant Still, who would become the dean of African-American classical composers, became a house arranger. Fletcher Henderson, soon to launch the big band craze, was there, dropping a promising career as a chemist to go into music full-time. One summer, the great singer/actor/political activist Paul Robeson was on staff.

The eight years of Harry Pace’s combined business efforts with Handy would prove to be the prime of the latter’s creative success. In 1920, Pace, fed up with his insurance colleagues in Atlanta, moved to New York to take the helm at Pace & Handy full-time. At its peak, the company had an entire building in Times Square. It was fully integrated, a unique situation in entertainment, with black people calling the shots. Several of their traveling song-pluggers were white: chief song demonstrator J. Russel Robinson a gifted ragtime writer from Indiana, worked at Pace & Handy till jumping ship to become pianist with the wildly popular Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who were due to travel to Britain when their pianist suddenly died in 1919.

Pace’s fascination with recordings caused a rift in his partnership with Handy; he couldn’t wait to join the new boom. The break-up of their company, in 1921, would send Handy into his biggest crisis of health and confidence. Pace would at first find success in the first black-owned and operated record company, Black Swan, but he would fly too close to the sun. Over expanding and entangling himself with unscrupulous white colleagues, he got into a mess that convinced him to get out of the music business for good in the mid-1920s. And Handy entered the 1920s in a sudden and precipitous decline: his staff had deserted to go with Pace, he was rapidly going broke, and an old dental implant failed, causing a massive facial infection that ruined his playing ability and blinded him. His climb out of the barrel was torturous: he had to depend on immediate family to keep his office going. He depended on his much-younger brother Charles, who worked in a stock room in the Financial District, and Charles’ wife Ruth, a schoolteacher, to join him after hours, answering mail, filling sheet music orders. This touching show of solidarity kept Handy going. Charles had been a stalwart of Pace and Handy since its founding; now, back from his service in World War he was there to reconstitute the firm as Handy Brothers Music Company, still a going concern since the early 1920s. And old friends dropped in to lend a hand. Fellow freemason and saxophonist Big Charlie Thorpe lent money as needed. Another old friend and colleague, his competitor Clarence Williams, stopped by to pay off his debt to Handy, and his wife, blues singer Eva Taylor, got Williams to lend money in Handy’s hour of need.

A couple of lucky things then happened. His songs began to enjoy massive revivals in the late 1920s; and he met Abbe Niles. (Edward) Abbe Niles was an attorney (Cadwalader Wickersham and Taft) who passionately collected sheet music and records, and became an early reviewer of both. He interviewed Handy in 1925 for a human interest story for the Wall Street Journal, and the two quickly became close friends. Both were the sons of preachers (Niles’s grandfather was Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire) and both had an interest in copyright as well as folklore. In 1926, their co-creation Blues, An Anthology, was issued. The first extensive exploration of the blues topic, adorned with numerous songs by Handy and others, it was an immediate success. Niles would remain by Handy’s side for the remainder of the latter’s life, nagging him about renewing his copyrights, attending parties with him, having him over to his Forest Hills home for private film screenings (though blind, Handy loved movies) and swapping bits of old folklore and humor.

Handy’s 1941 memoir Father of the Blues (1941) cemented Handy’s reputation. (Again, Niles was by his side to guarantee its success). His fame was truly global, and he was sometimes called the “most beloved Negro in the United States.” He toured, appeared multiple times on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show and on Edward R. Murrow’s Person to Person program, and traveled the country giving inspirational talks in black primary schools.

Tonight’s program offers just a sample of Handy’s work as composer, folklorist, and publisher, with 11 works he either wrote or co-wrote or adapted or compiled, and that he also published. In addition to Handy’s own songs, we hear works of several other composers and lyricists.

Among these is the lovelorn song that gave Handy a well-timed push as he arrived on Broadway, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” This was written in 1917 by entertainer Eddie Green (1896-1950), a stage artist who would find success in Hollywood. The only song of Green’s to hit the top, it was much sought-after by white vaudevillians around 1918–20, and it was mail from these stage stars that brought Handy to the attention of his white landlord. The song also caused a bitter dispute over its actual ownership; entertainers in black vaudeville claimed Green had pilfered it from them. Green’s retorts in the black press were fierce.

Lemuel Fowler was another one-hit wonder like Eddie Green, one of many pianist/accompanist/bandleaders of the early 1920s, such as Fletcher Henderson and Clarence Williams. He had no connections with Handy, though even his career briefly dovetailed with the Memphis master when Fowler recorded “Florida Blues,” published by Handy and written by his sideman the saxophonist William King Phillips. “He May Be Your Man” falls into a subcategory of blues songs sassing or advising women in matters of the heart. Some of these were revived in the folk/blues revival of the 1960s-’70s, most famously in “Woman be Wise (don’t advertise your man), memorably covered by Bonnie Raitt. Fowler wrote “He May Be Your Man” in 1921 and contracted it to a small publisher that defaulted; Fowler’s contract wandered into the hands of Ted Browne Music, a large, aggressive firm in Chicago. Fowler then claimed the copyright in his own name and sold it to Handy’s rival Perry Bradford, who published it with his own small firm. These men had talent, and a great fighting spirit, but little common sense. Bradford and Fowler behaved unethically, and so did their craftier white rival, who created a bewildering array of identities. In the fracas that followed, called to give a sworn affidavit in Fowler’s legal case, Bradford committed perjury, and was given six months in prison by Judge Learned Hand, then nearing the end of his distinguished service in the Southern District of New York (he was elevated to the New York Court of Appeals in 1924). Fowler and their fellow songwriter Spencer Williams were likewise convicted.

Of the other songs on tonight’s program, Handy wrote or co-wrote the wonderful “Beale Street Blues,” a tribute to the center of black musical life in Memphis; The comic escape song “Long Gone (From Bowling Green),” memorably featured by the Willie Bryant band in the 1930s; “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” whose lyric, by bandleader J. Tim Brymn, celebrates the return from France of James Reese Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters band; “Atlanta Blues,” with its refrain taken from the old folk favorite “Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor”; “Chantez-Les Bas,” his New Orleans number, featured only by big band great Artie Shaw till its successes in the 1950s; “Negrita,” co-written with Mexican bandleader Al d’Arteaga, leader of an all-girl band during World War II; and “Shine Like a Morning Star,” a then-obscure spiritual that he recalled as his mother’s favorite. He published “Shake it and break it,” by the prolific music arranger H. Qualli Clark, an old friend from the minstrel show days, and Lou Chiha, known as “Frisco,” a successful xylophonist in vaudeville. “Checkin’ on the Freedom Train” is the one overtly political song in our program, documenting the travels of a train car filled with America’s founding documents that toured the nation after World War II. Jim Crow policies in the south caused a scandal; Boss Ed Crump’s insistence on segregating access in Memphis was one of the factors that brought him down to size. “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” was written by Handy’s one enemy, Jelly Roll Morton. He finally published it in the late 1930s, decades after he first wrote it, an error typical of his failure to protect his intellectual property due to paranoia about other entertainers stealing his material.

“Success,” the old saw goes, “has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.”  W.C. Handy was a great success, establishing a family-owned and operated company that has endured since its founding in Memphis in 1913. He supported a large family for decades, with an income of $50,000 a year for “St. Louis Blues” alone, at a time when that was serious money. Strangers in trouble would look to him for a hot meal, a place to lay their head, maybe a night on the town. One such, in the depths of the Great Depression, was future photographer Gordon Parks; he remembered the Handys’ hospitality, and W.C.’s pretty daughter Elizabeth, for the rest of his life. Handy was open-hearted, fun-filled, and a soft touch. Ultimately his family had to move him out of Harlem and up to Westchester to stop him from staying up all night partying with visitors, so he could go back to his publishing office in the morning to continue licensing out his songs to musicians and movie companies, guard against pirates, and welcome visitors ranging from the spirituals arranger Harry Burleigh and ragtimer Eubie Blake to young reporters and actresses. By this time he’d gone blind for the second time and was over 70 years of age. People like Handy don’t exist anymore, but they should. If his story isn’t inspiring, I don’t know whose is.

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Elliott Hurwitt is a music historian with a background in classical music, now specializing in African-American music of the 1890s-1940s. His publications on W.C. Handy include the Dover edition (2012) of Handy’s seminal 1926 Blues, An Anthology, for which Elliott wrote a new introduction and re-edited the song selections to include songs that had come and gone between the 1926 version, Handy’s revised edition (1949) and the versions following his death (1972/1990).  Elliott also added historically important blues from 1912-1919 by Handy’s friends and rivals for the first time in the Anthology.  Elliott won the Barry Brook Dissertation Prize when he got his PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has appeared on NPR and Public Radio International, and is chief historical adviser on the new documentary Mister Handy’s Blues.  Elliott lives in New York City with his wife Elizabeth, Development Director of Music From Copland House.

Elliott is serving as the program consultant on the upcoming NYFOS program W. C. Handy & the Birth of the Blues on November 14, 2018 at Merkin Hall in NYC. Get your tickets today!


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