Author: David Robertson
Publisher: The University of Alabama Press
02/20/2012 As North Alabamians, especially, know, William Christopher Handy was born in the small Tennessee River town of Florence, Alabama, "eight years after the surrender" as Handy's mother and father liked to put it: that is, in 1873.
David Robertson, an Anniston native, alumnus of Birmingham-Southern College, and the author of three previous biographies, describes Florence in that era as mostly small-acreage farms and small independent merchants who had had little need for slaves.
In Lauderdale County the black population by percentage was 38.7 as compared with some Black Belt counties where it was often 75 percent.
After The Reconstruction ended, Jim Crow ruled here too but with perhaps less ferocity, although Robertson recounts that at different times both of Handy's grandfathers had been shot by white men for two very different reasons—one during the Civil War for not telling renegades where his master's money was hidden and one for trying to organize a slave revolt.
Handy fell in love with music early: gospels at church, folk and work songs, and especially the local black brass band. He learned to play the cornet first and determined to earn his living with music. His father, a preacher, was not pleased.
"Son" he said, "I'd rather see you in a hearse. I'd rather follow you to the graveyard than to hear that you had become a musician." And Handy's teacher at school backed this up: "What can music do but bring you to the gutter?"
Nevertheless, Handy persevered and, restless after high school graduation, started moving around—to Birmingham, Bessemer, Chicago, Evansville, Indiana and Cairo, Illinois.
For a while life was really hard; indeed Handy was for stretches hungry and homeless, but he found steady work in the mildly disreputable minstrel business. There was a small salary and three meals a day.
Robertson explains a good deal about minstrelsy, most of it new to me. Many blacks thought it a shameful racial slur; others enjoyed the racially satiric and subversive elements in it. During its heyday, there were white minstrels, white minstrels in blackface, black minstrels and even black minstrels in blackface. The routines were highly structured and choreographed, as formally as a three-act play.
Everywhere Handy worked, he learned. After a spell in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he was exposed to Delta blues music and some New Orleans Dixieland, in 1905 Handy moved to Memphis, which he made his home and headquarters for a number of years. Handy was a keen listener, a musical sponge, absorbing ragtime melodies from St. Louis musicians and stride piano from Kansas City.
Robertson describes the Memphis of those years at length. He shows Handy walking down Beale Avenue, "The Main Street of Negro America," and describes the businesses along the way as precisely as James Joyce describes the stores along the streets of Dublin in "Ulysses."
Mayor Edward H. "Boss" Crump ruled, but in Memphis, black men could vote, and Crump wanted those votes, so life was somewhat more tolerable. In fact, Handy wrote a campaign song for "Boss" Crump that, retitled, became "The Memphis Blues."
Handy would have a long career as cornet player, musical arranger, band leader, anthologist of African American music, even as a memoirist—his is entitled, immodestly, "Father of the Blues."
From Robertson's biography, however, one gets the impression that Handy's main concern throughout was his music publishing company. Before phonographs and juke boxes, money was made most speedily through sheet music, and Handy was savvy enough to copyright his own work and buy and copyright the work of other composers. His greatest single mistake in this vein was selling, in a desperate moment, the rights to "The St. Louis Blues" for 50 dollars in 1912. He seized the opportunity to buy back the rights in 1940. "The St. Louis Blues," perhaps Handy's trademark song, shows the many influences Handy picked up over the years, including, in this composition, some tango rhythms he and his wife heard in a brief trip to Havana, Cuba in 1900.
In order to pursue his business interests more vigorously and to escape an increasingly hostile racial climate in Memphis—there were some terrifying lynchings—in 1918 Handy and his wife and children moved to New York, where he spent the last four decades of his life. His financial fortunes waxed and waned—he was not always a prudent businessman—but by the time of his death in 1958, his position as Father of the Blues seemed secure.