[150 years ago this week, the great W.C. Handy was born. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Handy and other icons of the Blues, leading up to a special weekend post on some contemporary Blues greats!]
“The Memphis Blues” (1909/1912):
I could easily highlight different influential Handy songs for all three of
these, but wanted to include a couple other texts that reflect his truly
multilayered work and legacy. “Memphis” was his first hit, initially written as
a 1909 campaign song for Memphis mayoral candidate Edward
“Boss” Crump and then released on its own (through the sheet music,
how songs tended to be released in the early 20th century) in 1912.
It established some of Handy’s
key characteristics, such as his incorporation of Black folk music
alongside other forms like ragtime and classical and his hugely influential
three-line stanzas, of which he
later wrote, “I adopted the
style of making a statement, repeating the statement in the second line, and
then telling in the third line why the statement was made.” If that
sounds like quintessential blues songwriting, that’s precisely the point—and a
key layer of Handy’s legacy.
Anthology (1926): Again, I could easily dedicate all three of these entries
to Handy songs, many of which were likewise named for cities (such as his even
bigger follow-up hit, 1914’s “Saint Louis Blues”). But
what made Handy so truly influential and so accurately the “Father of the Blues”
was that he was as much a collector and compiler and advocate for this emerging
genre as he was a founding practitioner of it, and we can see that clearly in
his 1926 anthology, in which he published the “complete words and music of 53
great songs.” As Wall Street lawyer and ally and champion of Black artists Abbe
Niles writes in the opening paragraph of his Introduction to the anthology,
the Blues “is a subject as to which Handy remains the source and fountainhead
of information,” and we’re very fortunate that he set down so much of that
foundational info in this text.
Americans Sung (1944): Handy’s multilayered career as both
artist/songwriter/performer and archivist/advocate continued for his remaining
three decades of life, but as time went on he also became more and more clearly
a leader of and spokesperson for the African American community more broadly.
That was never more apparent than in his unique and stunning 1944 edited
collection Unsung Americans Sung,
which like the anthology collected the music and lyrics to a number of
important songs, but which in this case complemented those songs with extensive
literary tributes to important African American figures from Crispus Attucks
and Phillis Wheatley to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Paul Laurence
Dunbar and Langston Hughes. That I only learned about this book while researching
this post is both frustrating and a reminder that there’s still so much to
learn and share, about hugely influential individuals like W.C. Handy and about
the whole of American history.
do you think? Blues figures or contexts you’d highlight?
PPS. On Twitter, Blues musician and writer Brien McMullen shares this excellent thread of thoughts on Handy!