Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Did W.C. Handy Birth the Blues?

David Robertson makes the case in W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues, a carefully observed and richly detailed biography of the cornetist and composer.

Click here to read my review, as published Sunday in the St. Petersburg Times.

The "director's cut" of my review, a longer version, follows:

W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
By David Robertson
Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $26.95

By Philip Booth

The first major W.C. Handy biography in many years comes with an agenda, if that isn't clear enough from its title. David Robertson, a writer and poet whose work includes an historical novel about John Wilkes Booth, intends to restore the cornetist-composer's reputation as father of the blues.

The birth of the blues wasn't all about Robert Johnson and his spiritual kin, and that mythical deal with the devil, Robertson explains.

"The exclusive understanding of the blues as a folk music originating in the Mississippi Delta and performed by formally untrained musicians such as (Charlie) Patton would belong to a later generation," Robertson writes in a passage on Handy's "The Memphis Blues," during its time an immensely popular tune, for which the composer inadvertently sold the copyright for a mere $50.

"The blues as they first were known nationally or regionally in the early twentieth century were composed by urban men such as Handy … (who) had worked successfully in other forms of commercial musical entertainment before writing their blues in 1912."

Robertson's book, comprehensive and entertaining, documents Handy's rise from humble origins in Reconstruction-era Florence, Alabama -- where he grew up under the strict hand of his African Methodist Episcopal minister father -- to an honored place as a celebrated icon and successful music publisher based in Memphis, and finally a period in Harlem, where he died at 84 in 1958.

Along the way, there was temporary poverty and homelessness in St. Louis, extensive and sometimes dangerous travels with minstrel acts and brass bands, an unhappy stint teaching college, and the raising of a family.

Handy, who created such hits as "The St. Louis Blues" (1914) and "The Beale Street Blues" (1916), the latter of which resulted in a name change for a major Memphis thruway formerly known as Beale Avenue, initially felt that he was destined to become a march king, an African-American counterpart to John Philip Sousa.

That changed one night in 1903, at the train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, when he heard an itinerant musician singing and using a knife to slide against his guitar strings. Handy finally fully appreciated the folk blues style as art, a music that was syncopated like ragtime, but played in a form no longer than 12 measures per verse.

Back in Clarksdale, where he lived before moving to Memphis, Handy began codifying that sound. Robertson aptly explains the process: "Handy was able to closely represent the sound of the folk blues onto scores with his use of the 'blue note' -- technically, an unexpected minor third, fifth, or seventh within an otherwise major strain, a very unusual dissonance in the popular music of his day -- to approximate these worrying and keening sounds."

"St. Louis Blues," Handy's biggest success, was recorded as a vocal in 1915 and then exploded nationally with a 1920 recording by Marion Harris. To date, it's been recorded thousands of times -- the song appears on 3,068 recordings (including compilations), according to the All Music Guide.

Robertson largely succeeds in his mission, defining Handy as a man who, while not inventing the blues, was certainly responsible for first ushering it into the national consciousness.

Tampa writer and bassist Philip Booth contributes to Down Beat, Billboard, Jazziz and Bass Player.

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