Find Out More on W.C. Handy

Armstrong, Louis. Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. Sony. CD. 1997.

This recording was not only Louis Armstrong’s finest record of the 1950s but one of the truly classic jazz sets. Armstrong and his All-Stars (trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Barrett Deems, and singer Velma Middleton) were clearly inspired by the fresh repertoire, 11 songs written by W.C. Handy. Their nearly nine-minute version of “St. Louis Blues” (with witty vocals, roaring Young trombone, and a couple of long majestic trumpet solos) is arguably the greatest version of the oft-recorded song. Other highlights include “Loveless Love,” “Beale Street Blues,” and a romping version of “Ole Miss Blues.” The CD reissue also includes rehearsal versions of three songs, Louis Armstrong telling a joke, and a brief George Avakian interview with W.C. Handy. Essential music for all serious jazz collections.

Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography. edited by Arna Bontemps. New York: Macmillan, 1941.

W. C. Handy’s blues—“Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” “St. Louis Blues”—changed America’s music forever. In Father of the Blues, Handy presents his own story: a vivid picture of American life now vanished. W. C. Handy (1873–1958) was a sensitive child who loved nature and music; but not until he had won a reputation did his father, a preacher of stern Calvinist faith, forgive him for following the “devilish” calling of black music and theater. Here Handy tells of this and other struggles: the lot of a black musician with entertainment groups in the turn-of-the-century South; his days in minstrel shows, and then in his own band; how he made his first $100 from “Memphis Blues”; how his orchestra came to grief with the First World War; his successful career in New York as publisher and song writer; his association with the literati of the Harlem Renaissance.Handy’s remarkable tale—pervaded with his unique personality and humor—reveals not only the career of the man who brought the blues to the world’s attention, but the whole scope of American music, from the days of the old popular songs of the South, through ragtime to the great era of jazz.

–––Blues: An Anthology. New York: Da Capo Press, 1926.

In 1926, W.C. Handy published Blues: An Anthology, a classic collection of great blues songs arranged for piano and voice—the most famous blues collection in history. Among the first black men to write and publish blues music, Handy (1873–1958) did more than anyone else to make blues popular and accepted. The composer of “Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues,” Handy became widely recognized as “The Father of Blues.”Revised in 1949 and 1972, this edition of Handy’s anthology incorporates the music to more than fifty songs with Abbe Nile’s introductory historical notes that discuss blues as music, as verse, as an influence on jazz and popular song, and W. C. Handy and his place in music history. In addition to Handy’s tunes and arrangements such as “East St. Louis,” “Juba,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” and “Aunt Hagar’s Children,” there are notes for each song, a bibliography, and a chart of guitar chords. The text is supplemented with an outstanding new introduction by William Ferris, and highlighted by a series of striking drawings and lithographs by the renowned Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias (1902–1957).

Lee, George W. Beale Street, Where the Blues Began. New York: R. O. Ballou, 1934.

Lee was born near Indianola, Mississippi in 1894 . He first came to Memphis in 1912 where he worked each summer as a bellhop at the Gayoso Hotel to finance his education at Alcorn A&M College. With the onset of World War I, Lee was accepted for admission to a segregated officer training school. The title ‘Lt. Lee’ remained with him for the rest of his life. Lt. Lee went on to become one of the most successful African American business and political leaders in the South. Lee acquired the nickname ‘Boswell of Beale Street’ through his gift of describing African American life and music in his books and stories. Beale Street: Where Blues Began received national acclaim and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. River George and Beale Street Sundown also portray African American life in the South. Lee’s admiration for W.C. Handy’s music and his recognition of its significance in American culture led him to support the creation of a park and statue in honor of the great blues writer. Lee remained an active member of the Memphis community until his death on August 1, 1976.

Robertson, David. W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

In W. C. Handy, David Robertson, who has previously written a lucid biography of the slave rebel Denmark Vesey, casts overdue light on Handy’s essential role in establishing the blues as a popular art, and he does this, much to his credit, without resorting to dubious claims that Handy was the first or the best of the blues’ multiple progenitors. A mark of both the evenhandedness of his scholarship and the delicacy of his writing is Robertson’s resistance to the idea of Handy as the Father of the Blues — a notion that Handy himself advanced and exploited deftly during his lifetime. The stationery for his publishing company promoted the phrase as a slogan, and Handy used it for the title of his autobiography, which was published in 1941, when he was 67 and performing only occasionally as part of a nostalgia act. (Handy’s book, which he wrote in collaboration with the journalist Arna Bontemps, is serious, not wholly spoiled by self-­celebration and indispensable on his musical apprenticeship in black ­minstrelsy.)

Robertson portrays Handy as “the man who made the blues,” a phrase that’s a bit of a dodge. In one sense, it refers to Handy’s having constructed blues from found sources, just as every blues musician — and each artist in every style of folk music — draws from the work of pred­ecessors, changing melody lines, adding words, dropping verses, recombining elements from many songs, making old materials new and seemingly one’s own. Handy’s breakthrough was at once a variation on this method, the folk process, and a refutation of it: he documented blues in the form of musical notation, freezing songs in modes that suited him, and he had the music copyrighted and published.

His facility with commerce as well as art has tainted Handy in the eyes of rock-era blues buffs, as if the only proper compensation for a life of blues-making were the adulation of those fans, as if the point of the blues were not to cry out against suffering, subjugation and marginalization, but to preserve those things. David Robertson harbors no such delusions. A biographer of admirable restraint, he explains the guy in the statue without stomping on the clay feet that we can’t help noticing peeped out of his shoes. —David Hajdu

W.C. Handy Preservation Band. W.C. Handy’s Beale Street: Where The Blues Began. Inside Sounds. CD. 2002.

Known as the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy was America’s most successful African-American composer during the early 20th Century. His “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” were among the most popular songs of the day and secured his place in music history. “St. Louis Blues” was the most recorded song in America between 1914 and 1928. While Handy only recorded a handful of his own compositions, this CD recreates Handy’s Memphis Blues Band the way it sounded around 1920 and is the first comprehensive recording produced specifically as a tribute to one of America’s most important composers. The instrumentation is identical to that of Handy’s–trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, violin, banjo, piano and tuba. Recorded in Memphis (1999-2000) and produced by Carl Wolfe, the audio quality is pristine and captures the exuberance of the era. All 21 tracks are instrumentals. This CD is indispensable for any jazz or blues enthusiast.


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