It was sometime in 1903-04 that William Christopher Handy was first exposed to what he later called "the weirdest music I ever heard."
This music was being played for tips by three men with a battered guitar, mandolin and bass in a club in Cleveland, Mississippi. Where the men should have played major notes they played unanticipated minors, so-called "blue notes" that sounded like mistakes to the ear of the formally trained Handy, whose goal in life was to become "the colored Sousa." The men also worried the flat notes by playing a kind of vibrato with their fingers, and filled out short measures with keening vocal bursts like "Oh, lawdy" and Oh, baby."
This primitive and deeply melancholic music was the Mississippi Delta blues.
The experience, Handy recalled, marked his birth as "an American composer" and fulfillment of the Dvořák Manifesto, the prediction of the Czech composer that the great national music of the United States would be based on African American spirituals and folk music.
Handy was not the father of the blues, as he would endlessly claim, but he was the maker of the blues, as David Robertson explains in W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues. a fascinating new biography that will shock blues aficionados who assume that the blues trailblazers to the last man were born poor, were illiterate and died poor.
While that certainly was true of men like Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton and Blind Willie McTell, (the prevalence of early black woman blues signers has been substantially ignored), Handy was formally trained, taught college and became wealthy owing to a sharp ear and keen business acumen, and in fact to an extent looked down on the rough-hewn blues pioneers.
This in turn has led to the view that Handy, like Booker T. Washington, was not black enough. The charge gets some traction when either man's life is taken out of the context of the time in which he lived. Yet as Robinson more than proves, Handy might have been erudite, urbane and liked to flaunt his wealth, but this child of former slaves also suffered the degradations incessantly foisted upon his race through most of his lifetime, including running the risk of being lynched when he traveled the post-Reconstruction South.
* * * * *
Fairly early on in his career, Handy had complained to an aunt that the white audiences before whom his minstrelsy and ragtime bands played failed to appreciate his musicians' "perfect" score-reading skills compared to those of white bands.
"Honey," the aunt replied, "white folks like to hear colored folks make some mistakes."
In the blues, the "mistakes" were those unanticipated minor notes, along with large doses of repetition and syncopation. A signal accomplishment of Handy's career was to figure out how to score the blues for the bands and orchestras that played his copyrighted hit songs. He make a small fortune selling sheet music for those songs in an era when the piano was the centerpiece of many a parlor.
Handy didn't live in St. Louis long and when he did it was as homeless person sleeping on cobblestone levees along the Mississippi in the winter, hence the opening line of his most famous song: "I hate to see that evening sun go down."
That song, of course, is "The Saint Louis Blues," recorded over 1,600 times by an eclectic range of artists from Louis Armstrong to Pete Seeger to Leonard Bernstein.
Handy's other great hits include "Memphis Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Aunt Hagar's Blues" and "Beale Street Blues."
* * * * * Would someone else have "discovered" the blues and turned it from a regional to national phenomenon had W.C. Handy not? Of course, but that's not the point.
So great has the influence of the blues been on American culture that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby:
"All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the 'Beale Street Blues' while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor."
PHOTOGRAPHS (From top): Handy (rear center with moustache and cornet) with his Memphis Orchestra (1918); Handy circa 1893 at age 19 wearing the uniform of the Hampton Cornet Band of Evansville, Indiana; Handy on Beale Street in Memphis (1936) Handy (1941); Handy (1944); Cover of "The Saint Louis Blues" sheet music; Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole, who played Handy in "St. Louis Blues" (1958).