A Salute to W.C. Handy August 21 2013, 0 Comments
Contributed By: Jack Kopstein
William Christopher Handy was born in 1873 in the Shoals city of Florence, Alabama. Since 1982, the Music Preservation Society (MPS) has been honoring and celebrating the "Father of the Blues" with an annual ten day series of events festival, W.C. Handy Music Festival, held in the Florence. This year they proudly recognized their 32nd year. William Christopher (known as “W.C.”) Handy, known to the world as the "Father of the Blues", was exposed to music in the Great St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church where his father and his grandfather served as pastors. He was born in the log cabin built by his grandfather William Wise Handy, who became an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister after emancipation. The log cabin of Handy's birth has been saved and preserved in downtown Florence.
Growing up he apprenticed in carpentry, shoe-making and plastering. He worked on a "shovel brigade" at the McNabb Furnace, and described the music made by the workers as they beat shovels, altering the tone while thrusting and withdrawing the metal part against the iron buggies to pass the time while waiting for the overfilled furnace to digest its ore. "With a dozen men participating, the effect was sometimes remarkable...It was better to us than the music of a martial drum corps, and our rhythms were far more complicated." He wrote, "Southern Negroes sang about everything...They accompany themselves on anything from which they can extract a musical sound or rhythmical effect..." He would later reflect that, "In this way, and from these materials, they set the mood for what we now call blues".
In September 1892, Handy traveled to Birmingham to take a teaching exam, which he passed easily, and gained a teaching job in the city. Learning that it paid poorly, he quit the position and found industrial work at a pipe works plant in nearby Bessemer.
During his off-time, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read notes. Later, Handy organized the Lauzetta Quartet. When the group read about the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend. To pay their way, group members performed at odd jobs along the way. They arrived in Chicago only to learn that the World's Fair had been postponed for a year. Next they headed to St. Louis but found working conditions very bad. After the quartet disbanded, Handy went to Evansville, Indiana, where he helped introduce the blues. He played cornet in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. In Evansville, Handy joined a successful band that performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. His musical endeavors were varied: he sang first tenor in a minstrel show, worked as a band director, choral director, cornetist and trumpeter.
At age 23, Handy became band master of Mahara's Colored Minstrels. In their three-year tour, they traveled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and on to Cuba. Handy earned a salary of $6 per week. Returning from Cuba, the band traveled north through Alabama, and stopped to perform in Huntsville. Weary of life on the road, he and his wife Elizabeth decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence. Handy's first popular success, "Memphis Blues" was recorded by Victor Military Band on July 15, 1914. The 1912 publication of his "Memphis Blues" sheet music introduced his style of 12-bar blues; it was credited as the inspiration for the foxtrot dance step by Vernon and Irene Castle, a New York–based dance team. Some consider it to be the first blues song. Handy sold the rights to the song for $100.
By 1914, when Handy was 40, he had established his musical style, his popularity increased significantly, and he composed prolifically. Handy wrote about using folk songs: "The primitive southern Negro, as he sang, was sure to bear down on the third and seventh tone of the scale, slurring between major and minor. Whether in the cotton field of the Delta or on the Levee up St. Louis way, it was always the same. Till then, however, I had never heard this slur used by a more sophisticated Negro, or by any white man. I tried to convey this effect... by introducing flat thirds and sevenths (now called blue notes) into my song, although its prevailing key was major..., and I carried this device into my melody as well... This was a distinct departure, but as it turned out, it touched the spot." "The three-line structure I employed in my lyric was suggested by a song I heard Phil Jones sing in Evansville ... While I took the three-line stanza as a model for my lyric, I found its repetition too monotonous ... Consequently 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."
Regarding the "three-chord basic harmonic structure" of the blues, Handy wrote, the "tonic, subdominant, dominant seventh was that already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of the underprivileged but undaunted class". He noted, "In the folk blues the singer fills up occasional gaps with words like 'Oh, lawdy' or 'Oh, baby' and the like. This meant that in writing a melody to be sung in the blues manner one would have to provide gaps or waits." Writing about the first time "St Louis Blues" was played (1914), Handy said: "The one-step and other dances had been done to the tempo of Memphis Blues ... When St Louis Blues was written the tango was in vogue. I tricked the dancers by arranging a tango introduction, breaking abruptly into a low-down blues. My eyes swept the floor anxiously, then suddenly I saw lightning strike. The dancers seemed electrified. Something within them came suddenly to life. An instinct that wanted so much to live, to fling its arms to spread joy, took them by the heels." His published musical works were groundbreaking because of his ethnicity, and he was among the first blacks to achieve economic success because of publishing.
In 1912, Handy met Harry H. Pace at the Solvent Savings Bank in Memphis. Pace was valedictorian of his graduating class at Atlanta University and student of W. E. B. Du Bois. By the time of their meeting, Pace had already demonstrated a strong understanding of business. He earned his reputation by recreating failing businesses. Handy liked him, and Pace later became manager of Pace and Handy Sheet Music. "I was under the impression that these Negro musicians would jump at the chance to patronize one of their own publishers. They didn't... The Negro musicians simply played the hits of the day...They followed the parade. Many white bands and orchestra leaders, on the other hand, were on the alert for novelties. They were therefore the ones most ready to introduce our numbers." But, "Negro vaudeville artists...wanted songs that would not conflict with white acts on the bill. The result was that these performers became our most effective pluggers."
In 1917, he and his publishing business moved to New York City, where he had offices in the Gaiety Theater office building in Times Square. By the end of that year, his most successful songs: "Memphis Blues", "Beale Street Blues", and "Saint Louis Blues", had been published. That year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white New Orleans jazz ensemble, had recorded the first jazz record, introducing the style to a wide segment of the American public. Handy initially had little fondness for this new "jazz", but bands dove into his repertoire with enthusiasm, making many of them jazz standards. Handy encouraged performers such as Al Bernard, "a young white man" with a "soft Southern accent" who "could sing all my Blues". Handy sent Bernard to Thomas Edison to be recorded, which resulted in "an impressive series of successes for the young artist, successes in which we proudly shared." Handy also published the original "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Saxophone Blues", both written by Bernard. "Two young white ladies from Selma, Alabama (Madelyn Sheppard and Annelu Burns) contributed the songs "Pickaninny Rose" and "O Saroo", with the music published by Handy's company. These numbers, plus our blues, gave us a reputation as publishers of Negro music." "Ole Miss Rag" ragtime was composed by W. C. Handy and recorded by Handy's Orchestra of Memphis in 1917 in New York.
Expecting to make only "another hundred or so" on a third recording of his "Yellow Dog Blues" (originally titled "Yellow Dog Rag"), Handy signed a deal with the Victor Company. The Joe Smith Orchestra's recording of this song in 1919 became the best-selling recording of Handy's music to date. Handy tried to interest black women singers in his music, but initially was unsuccessful. In 1920, Perry Bradford persuaded Mamie Smith to record two of his non-blues songs, published by Handy, accompanied by a white band: "That Thing Called Love" and "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down." When Bradford's "Crazy Blues" became a hit as recorded by Smith, African-American blues singers became increasingly popular. Handy found his business began to decrease because of the competition. In 1920 Pace amicably dissolved his long-standing partnership with Handy, with whom he also collaborated as lyricist. As Handy wrote: "To add to my woes, my partner withdrew from the business. He disagreed with some of my business methods, but no harsh words were involved. He simply chose this time to sever connection with our firm in order that he might organize Pace Phonograph Company, issuing Black Swan Records and making a serious bid for the Negro market. . . . With Pace went a large number of our employees. . . . Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact that people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan Record Company." Although Handy's partnership with Pace was dissolved, he continued to operate the publishing company as a family-owned business. He published works of other black composers as well as his own, which included more than 150 sacred compositions and folk song arrangements and about 60 blues compositions.
In the 1920s, he founded the Handy Record Company in New York City. Bessie Smith's January 14, 1925, Columbia Records recording of "Saint Louis Blues" with Louis Armstrong is considered by many to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920s. So successful was Handy's "Saint Louis Blues" that in 1929, he and director Kenneth W. Adams collaborated on a RCA motion picture project of the same name, which was to be shown before the main attraction. Handy suggested blues singer Bessie Smith has the starring role, since she had gained widespread popularity with that tune. The picture was shot in June and was shown in movie houses throughout the United States from 1929 to 1932. In 1926 Handy authored and edited a work entitled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs. It is probably the first work that attempted to record, analyze and describe the blues as an integral part of the U.S. South and the history of the United States.
The genre of the blues was a hallmark of American society and culture in the 1920's and 1930's. So great was its influence, and so much was it recognized as Handy's hallmark, that author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his novel, "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." Following publication of his autobiography, Handy published a book on African-American musicians entitled "Unsung Americans Sing" (1944). He wrote a total of five books. During this time, in the 1940's and 1950's he lived on Strivers' Row in Harlem. He became blind following an accidental fall from a subway platform in 1943. After the death of his first wife, he remarried in 1954, when he was 80 years old. His new bride was his secretary, the former Irma Louise Logan, whom he frequently said had become his eyes. In 1955, Handy suffered a stroke, following which he began to use a wheelchair. More than 800 people attended his 84th birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. On March 28, 1958 he died of bronchial pneumonia at Sydenham Hospital in New York City. Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. Over 150,000 people gathered in the streets near the church to pay their respects. He was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.
"St Louis Blues" ranks with John Philip Sousa’s "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as one of America’s greatest marches. The famous band leader Glenn Miller made "St Louis Blues" popular when he became director of the overseas Army Air Force Band during WWII. Miller initially formed a large marching band that was to be the core of a network of service orchestras. His attempts at modernizing military music were met with some resistance from tradition-minded career officers. For example, Miller's arrangement of "St. Louis Blues March" combined blues and jazz with the traditional military march. Miller's weekly radio broadcast, "I Sustain the Wings," for which he co-wrote the eponymous theme song, moved from New Haven to New York City and was very popular. This led to permission for Miller to form his 50-piece Army Air Force Band and take it to England in the summer of 1944, where he gave 800 performances. Altissimo Recordings is proud to present the major work of W C Handy the "St. Louis Blues" march a truly great American band march on 17 recordings as we salute the 140 year of Handy's birth.