W.C. Handy is the subject of a documentary project called Mr. Handy's Blues. Dr. Carlos Handy, the grandson of W.C., will be the guest of honor at a concert on April 5th. Behind all of this activity is Joanne Fish, a veteran documentary producer who has produced projects for the History Channel, the Smithsonian Channel, and music projects for CMT and TNN. But the Handy story is one Fish took on as a labor of love.
"I've been toiling in television; I've done a lot of biographical, historical things," Fish says. "I would stop from time to time and say I have to do my labor of love. The last big, independent film I did was about Wanda Jackson, The Sweet Lady with the Nasty Voice, which has been on the Smithsonian Channel for seven years now. It was part of their inaugural launch of the channel. It told the story of rockabilly through the eyes of Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly. That led me to Handy, because I was going further back into the roots of music. I was so fascinated by Wanda. And she has a big fan base. She still tours. With Handy, it's a little more difficult because he doesn't have a current fan base. You can't follow him around. So it's taken a lot longer to pull the pieces together."
Fish found the perfect collaborator in Handy's grandson Carlos, who will join her in Memphis this week as she wraps up shooting for the film.
"He's on spring break from Texas Southern University where he is the chair of the physics department, " Fish said. "So it all came together. I wanted to have an event that welcomed a Handy back to Beale Street. He is really thrilled. He was with me at the Blues Foudation in 2010 when they inducted Handy into the Hall of Fame. He's really the spokesperson: He looks like Handy, he plays the horn, and he's a genius physicist."
Carlos Handy is among Fish's last interviews, which she will conduct in Memphis this week before heading back to Florence, Alabama, where Handy was born in 1873. W.C. Handy's story is set in the context of Reconstruction and the early struggles for civil rights.
"The time span of his life goes from the end of the Civil War to the Space Age," Fish said. "Before he came to Memphis, he was in Mississippi. He was a band leader. He would come up to Memphis every now and then, and he would teach musicians. He was very erudite. He knew how to write music and read music. He would come up and scout out the talent and foster that. He wanted to make everyone musicians who were literate in the musical [sense].
"Before he went to Mississippi, he was offered a really big job up in Michigan, and he had a choice, go to Mississippi or Michigan. He said it was better pay and some better conditions. But he was really drawn to go to Mississippi, and that's where it all happened. It's where he heard this music, and he was inspired. "
Handy chose to live in Memphis, and the city is essential to his accomplishments. Handy lived a rather normal life in Memphis. He was a family man who worked with musicians around town, including Frank Steuterman, who was the band director at Christian Brothers High School.
"When he got inspired to write 'St. Louis Blues,' he went and got himself another room. He had to go to a space by himself and really focus. It's almost like he had this vision: I'm going to write this song, and it's going to be the most popular song of the 20th century."
Memphis, as a portal to freedom for many blacks who were fleeing Jim Crow, provided a perfect fit between a larger economy and a place close to the rural, intuitive musical vocabulary that Handy popularized through sheet music publishing. He formed the Pace Handy Music Company, but later fell out with business partner Harry Pace.
"Memphis is where [Handy] honed his entrepreneurial skills. It's also where he said, 'I can't fight it out anymore. I have to go to New York.' I think he was always pursuing more freedom. That comes from being a child born seven years after the Civil War. He was born a free person, but he didn't know what that freedom felt like. Things were getting worse in the South, not better, around the time he left. It's at the heart of the whole story. It's a big story. You can break it down, and Memphis is really at the heart of it. It's really important. So Memphis provided him the platform to share what he had heard down in Mississippi. It was this vortex, where Memphis was already a music city. On Beale Street, he could showcase what he could do. It gave him more freedom to publish and to take charge of his own business. That's the part that resonates with me."
Louis Armstrong popularized much of Handy's music. Fish wants to acknowledge that but also wants to find new places for Handy's work.
"I love Louis Armstrong," Fish said. "I think he made Handy more famous when he started playing St. Louis Blues all over the place. The album Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy was his favorite. Handy was there. They have recordings of the Columbia sessions with them talking. Handy explains why he wrote 'Loveless Love.' They were very close friends. Louis Armstrong respected Handy. He knew what Handy had done, that there would be no George Gershwin without a Handy. It really connects. Now we're losing that connection with current artists. So, I'm trying to change that by having current artists play Handy's songs."
The event on Saturday takes a multidimensional approach to celebrating Handy's work with artists representing the diversity of his work in several different styles.
"We have the Stax Choir," Fish said. "There's 40 of them! Handy did write spirituals, and he did a collection of spirituals founded on folk, again doing that publishing of folk music. They are going to perform a couple of his compositions. The Stax Youth Rhythm Section is going to do 'St. Louis Blues.' And then we have Ms. Ruby Wilson, Ms. Redd Velvet, Mick Kolassa, Jeff Jensen, and the Low Society band with Herman Green."
Also playing are the Eric Hughes Trio, Mother Lode, Robert and Candace Maché, and D&G Boogie Blues. Fish is thrilled to see all of this come together and happy to have Dr. Handy participate.
One of Fish's stops is A. Schwab, the historic general store on Beale where the owners have found documents relating to the Pace Handy Music Company and other artifacts of Handy's time in Memphis.
"Things are popping. I've been prepared through writing and researching and trying to raise money. Last year, we just dove right in, and I have a goal of finishing it this coming fall to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the publishing of 'St. Louis Blues.' This is Handy 2014."
The benefit for Mr. Handy's Blues is Saturday, April 5th, from 7-11 p.m. at the Phoenix, 1015 S. Cooper.