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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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.