W. C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

W. C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

by David Robertson

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David Robertson charts W. C. Handy’s rise from a rural-Alabama childhood in the last decades of the nineteenth century to his emergence as one of the most celebrated songwriters of the twentieth century.
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David Robertson charts W. C. Handy’s rise from a rural-Alabama childhood in the last decades of the nineteenth century to his emergence as one of the most celebrated songwriters of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Robertson . . . casts overdue light on Handy’s essential role in establishing the blues as a popular art.”—David Hadju, New York Times Book Review

“Robertson’s work is a fascinating look at not only Handy’s life but the history and business of American music.”—Publishers Weekly

“An overdue and highly readable account of the man known as the Father of the Blues.”—Los Angeles Times

David Hajdu
In W. C. Handy, David Robertson…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 New York Times
Publishers Weekly

W.C. Handy wrote "The St. Louis Blues" and the "Beale Street Blues," a song that helped make the Memphis thoroughfare famous, but his reputation in the pantheon of blues legends has been maligned by some who scoff at his self-declaration as the Father of the Blues, the title of Handy's 1941 autobiography. Robertson (Denmark Vesey) undertakes a study to vindicate Handy's life from his birth in 1873 to his death in 1958, tracing his roots as the musically educated son of a minister and an ex-slave in Florence, Ala., to his success as a composer, band leader and music publisher in New York. Handy, whose initial ambition was to write marches in the style of John Philip Sousa, first heard folk blues in Cleveland, Miss., around 1903 and soon became one of the very first to publish blues scores and write songs for a national audience. Robertson's work is a fascinating look at not only Handy's life but the history and business of American music, particularly regarding late 19th century and early 20th century African-Americans, many of whom performed, as Handy did, in traveling minstrel shows. (Mar.)

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Kirkus Reviews
Poet and biographer Robertson (A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike, 2004, etc.) takes the measure of musical giant W.C. Handy, composer of such classics as "The Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues."Born in northern Alabama eight years after the surrender at Appomattox, W.C. Handy died the year Elvis entered the Army. At the outset of his lengthy career, this talented cornet player aspired, against the wishes of his minister father, to become "the colored Sousa," a leader of brass-band music. He became much more. Blending African-American folk-blues melodies "with ragtime and his own distinct notation," he fashioned the blues into a publishable, commercially successful form. Robertson revisits each stage of Handy's career: his years as the music director of various fraternal organizations, as the leader of dance bands; as a college music professor; and, most revealingly, as a performer and director on the minstrelsy circuit, where he encountered virtually every form of popular music. The author effectively demonstrates how by 1904 Handy was uniquely poised to turn folk blues into a commodity for a national audience. Handy corralled the notoriously improvisational blues, snatching folk melodies for his compositions and making the "blue note," unexpected minor and flatted notes, his signature. Robertson stoutly defends Handy against attacks by Jelly Roll Morton and other partisans of the New Orleans tradition, noting that in his time, Handy's Memphis strain of blues was every bit the equal of anything emanating from the Crescent City, and surely the public's favorite. If Robertson never quite nails Handy the man-the author includes scant information about Handy'sphilandering or the blindness that afflicted half his life-he supplies plentiful details about the career, the timeless blues compositions, the groundbreaking publishing company Handy established and the composer's late-life attention to spirituals. A solid appreciation that restores Handy to his rightful place in America's music pantheon. Author tour to Cincinnati, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville, Oxford, Miss., St. Louis

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Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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W. C. Handy

The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues
By David Robertson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2009 David Robertson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5696-5

Chapter One

Slavery, the AME Church, and Emancipation


Resolved. An ordinance acknowledging the abolition of slavery in this State by the military power of the United States and prohibiting its future introduction in this State.

—Resolution passed at the Alabama State Constitutional Convention for readmission to the Union, meeting five months after the end of the Civil War, on September 15, 1865

As a boy growing up in northern Alabama, Handy later wrote, he had learned melody by listening to the birds and other small creatures around his father's farm on the deceptively peaceful hills overlooking the small town of Florence. "There was a French horn concealed in the breast of the blue jay," he later recalled. "The tappings of the woodpecker were to me the reverberations of the snare drum. The bullfrog supplied an effective bass. In the raucous call of the distant crow I would hear the jazz motif." Near this family farm were deep woods where, as a solitary boy, he would ramble for pleasure or practice the oratory he had learned in school to what he felt was a sympathetic audience of pine trees and chinkapin oaks.

The Tennessee River marked the boundary of his known world, the river flowing to the south of his hometown of Florence and then turning northwestward into the state of Tennessee and toward the big city of Memphis. The river at this point appeared inviting to a small boy, several miles safely downstream from the lethal currents known as the Muscle Shoals. As an adult, he recalled this nineteenth-century world of his rural Alabama childhood growing up as the son and grandson of respected ministers as at times bucolic, and seemingly paradisiacal.

But this peaceful-appearing landscape, like the Tennessee River with its treacherous undertows and dangerous shoals, could easily be a place of risk and death. The northern Alabama hills and the small river town of Florence only a few years before his birth had been among the most contested landscapes of the Civil War. At its conclusion, the war had delivered his parents from their slavery and the young Handy himself into a perilous semifreedom.

William Christopher Handy was born "eight years after the surrender," in the words his mother and father always used to date every important event in their lives. The "surrender" was, of course, that of Confederate military forces in 1865. Emancipation had come to all of the area's former slaves—including Handy's parents—with the arrival of federal occupation troops in what was no longer Alabama but U.S. Military District Number Three. Handy thus was the first generation of his family to be born out of bondage and with the possibilities of some civil liberties. But by 1873, federal occupation troops had been five years withdrawn from what was now the white-Reconstructed state of Alabama. This black child and his parents were left at the northernmost edge of a Deep South state where they were no longer human property to be bought or sold, but nonetheless they were by no means fully free citizens.

The town of Florence since its founding always had been at a debatable and sometimes contested boundary. Named by a hopeful frontier surveyor after the Tuscany hill city of Italy, Florence was sited not in the flat coastal plains or delta areas of southern Alabama, with their great slave-worked plantations and white oligarchies, but upon an extension of the Appalachian foothills into the northern part of that state, along the narrow east-west valley of the Tennessee River. The white townspeople of antebellum Florence and the surrounding Lauderdale County were small-acreage farmers and independent merchants who had little economic need for black field hands and who were profoundly distrustful of the wealth and political interests of the white plantation owners farther south in their state. In the U.S. Census of 1860, five years "before the surrender," Lauderdale County reported 38.7 percent of its population enslaved, compared with rates as high as 78 percent and 76 percent of the population in the state's lower counties.

Although remote and not economically or demographically linked to the plantations farther south, this town in the years before Handy's birth had also been at the divisive and changing currents of American national history. Andrew Jackson, slave owner and future president, speculated from his Tennessee home in land and slaves at Florence. A generation later, Dred Scott, who gave his name to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1857 upholding the permanence of black slavery, had labored in Florence as a hostler at the town's finest tavern, on Tennessee Street, where Jackson had stayed during his business transactions. Practically everyone, obscure or prominent, slave or free man, who traveled through the Tennessee Valley early in the nineteenth century or later in Handy's boyhood, had to tarry at least temporarily in Florence. Just a few miles upriver from the town was the almost unnavigable impediment of the Muscle Shoals, where the low water and rocky projections could rip the bottom out of any riverboat, and the dreaded whirlpools could easily drown any capsized boatman. Passengers and their freight traveling along either the upper or lower Tennessee River therefore had to disembark before the Shoals and make arrangements in Florence to travel around them by land or continue on low-draught river barges. These were propelled usually by black roustabouts, who traditionally were considered to have put the "muscle" into the name of Muscle Shoals. (Handy as a boy in the 1870s and early 1880s would be fascinated by the work songs of these river men, and one of the few songs he recorded as an adult would be the "Muscle Shoals Blues.")

Its remoteness had not spared Florence and Lauderdale County from the violence of the Civil War. Anti-Confederate sentiment had been strong there among some white residents. These white males of Appalachia derided the wealthy secessionists located on plantations farther south as wanting "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." In 1861 they had chosen to shoot accordingly. Throughout the national conflict, irregular partisan bands of Union sympathizers and Confederate loyalists had waged a savage guerrilla battle against one another at the river fords or mountain passes of Lauderdale County, sometimes for reasons of personal gain or family feuds. Generals on both sides also had been quick to see the importance of Florence as a choke point on the Tennessee River. The town experienced military occupations by both the Union and Confederate armies a total of thirty times during the war. Florence had also been visited, if that is the proper word, by the horse-mounted forces of perhaps the most feared of the Confederate generals, Nathan Bedford Forrest. He later would endorse the Ku Klux Klan and in 1863 scoured the Tennessee River valley of northern Alabama, killing or intimidating into surrender all of a luckless Union force who had been foolish enough to try to invade these hills.

But the color of a battle flag, or of one's own skin, was not enough to guarantee humane treatment by either side's partisans. Neither was one's status as a noncombatant, as Handy was told by his parents in a family story. Handy's maternal grandfather, a freed slave, had been shot and left for dead at his former master's farm after a gang of Union and Confederate deserters, seeking money, had tortured his white former owner, demanding to know where this prosperous farmer had hidden his cash. Both the farmer and Handy's grandfather refused to tell them, and both were shot by the deserters. Handy's grandfather, Christopher Brewer, survived his gunshot wound. His former master did not.

This was the post–Civil War Alabama into which the future blues composer was born, and where he first began to hear his melodies in the natural world around him. But, in a sense, Handy was lucky in the fate of his northern Alabama hometown. Had he been born more southward, perhaps in the town of Selma along the southern-flowing Alabama River or even farther into the plantation area of the state known as the Black Belt, he would have had fewer opportunities for education and economic security. "Educate a Negro and you spoil a field hand," the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper asserted for its white readership in the second decade of Handy's boyhood, after the surrender at Appomattox Court House.

The Handy family were not illiterate field hands. William Wise Handy, the composer's paternal grandfather and the patriarch of the Alabama Handys, like the composer's maternal grandfather, had been a slave; but he secretly had learned to read and write during his slavery, and both before and after his emancipation he was a skilled artisan. The first U.S. Census after the Civil War lists the elder Handy's occupation as "shoe mechanic." He was also—before the surrender—a lay preacher to Lauderdale County's other slaves, and, in the decades before his grandson's birth, had been fiercely desirous of his and his family's freedom.

Born in 1811 into bondage in Princess Anne, Maryland, William Wise Handy and two of his brothers had plotted their escape from slavery with the aid, as W. C. Handy was later told in a family tradition, of the Underground Railroad. One of the brothers succeeded in traveling unapprehended to Canada, where he was a free man, and another brother escaped to freedom "somewhere in the East," but William Wise Handy had been overtaken. As was customary with recalcitrant slaves, he had been sold farther south, in this instance to the plantation of a prosperous merchant and planter, Bernard McKiernan, near Florence. There, as W. C. Handy later recollected in his memoir, his grandfather "started an insurrection for escape, and was shot but not killed." The year is not specified in the memoir, but William Wise Handy's attempted revolt may have been among those "reports of an incomplete and indefinite nature of plots among slaves in Madison County, Tennessee, and in the northern section of Alabama," published in the Nashville Union on June 28, 1842. (Madison County is across the Tennessee state line, close to Florence.) If so, William Wise Handy was then thirty-one years old when he received a lead ball into his body in a risk for his freedom.

His master, Bernard McKiernan, was not a forgiving man, but the elder Handy was not summarily killed or "transported"—sold to another master even farther south—most probably because he was a skilled laborer. Nor did the gunshot wound stop his later efforts for freedom or his continued involvement with the Underground Railroad. In 1850, he covertly assisted in another attempt at freeing his fellow slaves on the McKiernan plantation. That year, a white abolitionist and member of the Underground Railroad from Cincinnati, Seth Concklin, met with an escaped slave in Philadelphia who pleaded for Concklin to travel to Alabama and rescue this former slave's wife and three sons, owned by McKiernan at his plantation. Concklin agreed to make this dangerous attempt. He traveled south alone, but apparently he had been informed in advance of a daring and willing accomplice among the plantation's slaves, W. C. Handy's grandfather. In a letter covertly and anxiously sent to other abolitionists from aboard a steamboat headed north on the Mississippi River, Concklin wrote how he casually had reconnoitered the McKier nan plantation, where he saw a black man identified only as "William" making shoes in his shop assisted by two young boys:

I immediately gave the first signal, anxiously waiting thirty minutes to give the second and main signal.... William appeared unmoved; soon sent out the boys; instantly sociable.... Our interview only four minutes; I left, appeared by night; dark and cloudy; at ten o'clock appeared William; exchanged signals.... During our interview William prostrated on his knees and face to the ground, head cocked back, watching for wolves [slave patrols], by which position a man can see better in the dark.... I thought of William, who is a Christian preacher, and of the Christian preachers in Pennsylvania. One watching for wolves by night, to rescue Vena and her three children from Christian licentiousness; the other standing erect in the open day, seeking the praise of men.

Such was the composer's grandfather. In fact, Seth Concklin did succeed in freeing two slaves from the McKiernan plantation and escaped with them by steamboat on the Ohio River as far north as Evansville, Indiana, a town that would later figure significantly in W. C. Handy's first success as a musician. There the abolitionist and the two slaves were recognized and seized by the local sheriff in accordance with the legal authority of the Fugitive Slave Law. McKiernan subsequently traveled by steamboat from Florence to Evansville to recover his human property and to bring back Concklin for trial in Alabama. During the return down the Ohio River, however, Concklin was reported as having attempted to escape while in McKiernan's company. The abolitionist's body, his hands and feet in iron manacles, was later recovered from the river, his head showing signs of severe blunt trauma. William Wise Handy apparently escaped the wrath of his owner for his participation in this attempted escape. He remained a slave on the McKiernan plantation for the next fifteen years.

After the emancipation of 1865,W. W. Handy became a property owner, buying in 1868, probably with wages concealed from his former owner, the tract of land in Florence later known as Handy's Hill. He also became the most revered local minister among the now-freed blacks; in 1865 he was licensed to preach by the Methodist communion, and he helped in 1867 and 1868 to fashion a chapel from an old brick building that previously had been used as a cowshed. There he preached to Florence's first post–Civil War congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). This national communion of both whites opposed to slavery and people of color, established in the eighteenth century by black freedmen in Philadelphia, had been banned from antebellum Alabama since 1820. But two years "after the surrender," in 1867, the church had begun to send "missionaries to Alabama," in its description, eventually establishing thirty missions, or chapels, in Reconstructed Alabama. Among the number was W. W. Handy's new chapel built in Florence. The elder Handy, who was fifty-seven years of age in 1868, was aided in his work by his adult son, Charles Bernard Handy, who had also been born a slave at the McKiernan plantation and would become the future composer's father. This northern Alabama congregation, which still worships at the Greater St. Paul AME Church of Florence, played a significant part in the violent history of Reconstruction.


Excerpted from W. C. Handy by David Robertson Copyright © 2009 by David Robertson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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