The Magazine

Handy's Version

There's a story behind the story of 'St. Louis Blues.'

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By TED GIOIA
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W.C. Handy

The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

by David Robertson

Knopf, 304 pp., $27.95

On Beale Street in Memphis, passersby can see a life-sized statue of W.C. Handy, often lauded as "The Father of the Blues." But another public monument, a short distance away, commands even more respect from the tourists: a nine-and-a-half foot bronze of Elvis Presley.

There is some heavy symbolism here. Many would carp that Handy, born in Alabama a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, fathered the blues only for white musicians such as Presley to reap the benefits. Others would take a kinder view of the King, seeing his advocacy of the blues as the decisive turning point that brought this music into the mainstream of American (and eventually global) popular culture.

As Muddy Waters famously proclaimed: "The blues had a baby and they named it Rock and Roll."

Yet Handy's role is just as problematic as Presley's. The more one probes into his biography, the less secure are the frequently encountered generalizations about his contributions to American music. Even his cherished role as Father of the Blues is hard to justify, and his admirers may have to settle for the far less flattering title of "Transcriber of the Blues."

Until now, readers who wanted to learn about W.C. Handy had few options. The only complete account of his life has been his own version, published as Father of the Blues: An Autobiography in 1941. This book was hardly an objective account, and is more a starting point for the Handy legend than a reliable biographical guide. And it is a legend that appears to have more than a few holes in it: My own research into Handy's career and the nature of early blues has made me wary of many of the claims in his memoirs. Yet no full-scale critical biography exists to round out the picture of this celebrated American life.

So I welcomed David Robertson's biography as a chance for someone finally to set the record straight. Yet one need only read the subtitle to see that this author doesn't want to rock the boat. The market favors heroic biographies, not nit-picky reassessments, and Robertson is willing to oblige. Yet Handy, more than any other blues figure of his generation, needs a probing biographer who refuses to take dubious claims at face value.

Let's set the record straight: W.C. Handy did not invent or "make" the blues. We can find evidence of blues music throughout the South dating back to the 19th century, whereas Handy had never heard blues music before 1903 at the earliest. Handy wasn't even the first to perform blues on Beale Street. (That honor goes to the Charlie Bynum and Jim Turner band.)

One can hardly even support Robertson's weaker claim that Handy was the "Father of the Commercialization of the Blues." Certainly the 1920 recording of Handy's "St. Louis Blues," performed by Marion Harris, was a major success; but Harris was a white singer destined for a career in vaudeville and movies. In contrast, Mamie Smith's million-selling recording of "Crazy Blues" that same year (unmentioned by Robertson) was the event that validated the recording of African-American musicians as a commercial proposition. After Smith, companies wanted to market black musicians to black audiences, and the recording of a wide range of blues performers, both urban and rural, now could take place in earnest.

Then again, how are we to assess Handy's claim that he had a big blues hit even before "St. Louis Blues" with "Mr. Crump" (1909), composed to help Edward "Boss" Crump in his campaign for mayor of Memphis? Robertson follows Handy's own account, and even amplifies it. He announces that "as a popular American cultural phenomenon" there had been nothing comparable since "Jump Jim Crow" from 1828. Yet our biographer quickly glosses over the inconvenient fact that even Boss Crump later claimed he was unaware of the song at the time--hard to reconcile with Handy's (and Robertson's) claims for its fame. As for Handy's private opinion on the matter, his true assessment of the value of this song might best be measured by his decision to sell all rights to it for $50.

Handy rarely made such bad decisions again. He managed to retain the copyright for "St. Louis Blues," and at the time of his death in 1958, it was bringing him $25,000 in annual income--around $200,000 in today's dollars. There is a success story here, but it would emphasize Handy's acumen as a black businessman in an industry dominated by white power brokers, many of them notably predatory. Handy is one of the pioneering black entrepreneurs in the history of African-American music, and a true measure of his importance shouldn't lose sight of this notable achievement.

Yes, this is an inspirational story. A young man from Alabama defies his devoutly religious family and goes on the road with a (white-owned) black minstrel troupe. He travels widely but eventually takes a job as a bandleader in the Mississippi Delta, where he hopes to perform marches à la Sousa, but instead stumbles by chance upon the 12-bar blues at a train station in Tutwiler. Handy needs to overcome his own prejudices against this music before he can appreciate its primal beauty, and even more its commercial potential. Yet he eventually derives more financial success out of the blues than all of the early Delta blues guitar legends combined.

Even Handy himself seemed to realize that his business savvy was as important as his musical technique. When he got embroiled in a public debate with Jelly Roll Morton, who ridiculed Handy's claims as a musical innovator, Handy essentially admitted he couldn't play jazz (he was strictly a "reading" musician). But he boasted that at least he had "vision enough to copyright and publish all the music I wrote so I don't have to go around saying that I made up this piece and that piece in such and such a year like Jelly Roll."

Both claimants were right, according to my court of appeal. Morton was the great innovator of jazz, and Handy was a shrewd businessman. Yet this story only appears sporadically here. David Robertson has published three previous books, none of them on music, but he seems to believe that Handy's reputation must live or die by establishing him as a worthy counterpart to John Philip Sousa and George Gershwin and Charles Ives. This effort is doomed to failure. There are many good passages here, especially when Robertson addresses the personal and sociological angles on Handy's life; but the weakest parts are those dealing with the most important issues. Here Robertson turns off his critical thinking and resorts to convenient mythmaking.

This comes to the fore in his account of Handy's greatest achievement, the composition of "St. Louis Blues." There must be a fascinating story behind the commercial success of this song. It had little impact at the time of its publication in 1914, yet it eventually became one of the most frequently recorded compositions of the first half of the 20th century--surpassed, according to one measure, only by "Silent Night."

How much did Handy's close ties to the New York recording industry spur this turnabout? And though the blues elements in the song are heralded by Robertson, how important was Handy's equally provocative use of the Cuban habanera rhythm? Robertson passes quickly over Handy's trip to Cuba as a young man while he devotes 10 times as much space to his work in a minstrel troupe. Yet this visit was an important moment in American music history, and clearly played a role in the appeal of this famous tune.

W.C. Handy remains an intriguing figure, and his life story makes for uplifting reading. But there is still a need for an incisive biography that is less adulatory and more skeptical of the composer's own claims.

Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of Delta Blues.