Mr. Handy cannot prove anything is music that he has created."
So wrote Ferdinand Le Menthe, better known as New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton, in response to a radio program in 1938.
Morton, at the time, was the proclaimed (and self-proclaimed) "father of jazz," and he was reacting to W.C. Handy proclaimed, on that radio program, to be the "father of the blues." David Robertson, author of W.C. Handy (Knopf), meets the issue head-on.
Morton asserted that Handy was pretentious (as a "professor" of music); undistinguished (as a bandleader); an amusement (for white audiences); and, to top it all, a thief (for stealing the musical form and lyrical "snatches" we recognize as the Delta blues). But Robertson handily clears things up in the subtitle of his biography: "The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues."
The key word is "made." Handy never claimed to have invented the blues, but he did succeed in popularizing it — by scoring it, publishing it, and playing it before black and white audiences on stages, on records, on radio, and on film.
Leonard Bernstein, Lena Horne, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker, and even Rudy Vallee wouldn't argue the point. But here's Robertson to close the case in his book's prologue:
"[Handy] was not properly the Father of the Blues ... but he was certainly the maker of the blues in the early twentieth century. He made the blues as a consciously composed art ... and he also made them in that word's sense of guaranteeing their success and of commercially promoting this music."
'Nuf said. Next question: Who was Handy the man?
He was William Christopher Handy, and at his death in 1958, an "audience" of more than 150,000 lined the streets of Harlem. Inside the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. delivered the eulogy. Marian Anderson, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Oscar Hammerstein, Langston Hughes, and Ed Sullivan were there to hear the words about a man who grew up the son of former slaves in Alabama but who went on to be honored in Carnegie Hall.
How much, in Robertson's pages, do we learn of Handy's home life and two marriages? His relationship with his children? The full impact of his blindness late in life?
Maybe the record is too spotty to tell. But this we know: It took Handy decades to arrive at the "blue note" that made him famous: years growing up in the post-Civil War South; years the son of a preacher who disapproved of Handy's musical interests; years on the road, when Handy was riding the rails — unemployed, homeless, and hungry; more years on the road, as a cornet player in marching bands; then years playing the "ragged" tunes and "coon" songs of traveling minstrel shows. Those years also introduced Handy to the worst of Jim Crow. Through it all, he kept his celebrated, public smile.
Then, at the train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi (in 1903 or '04, the year's unclear), Handy had an epiphany: He heard a black musician "worrying" the strings of a guitar using the blade of a knife. The song's form was simple. The lyrics were syncopated. The end notes were flattened, minor.
Handy called it "the weirdest music" he had ever heard. We call it the blues, and in 1909 Handy made it his own in a campaign song for an up-and-coming politician running for mayor of Memphis, the city where Handy made his home before moving to New York. Handy called that song "Mr. Crump." We call it by its better-known name: "The Memphis Blues."
He followed it with "Beale Street Blues," then "St. Louis Blues" — a song, at last count and according to the Library of Congress — recorded 1,605 times by singers and musicians worldwide.
Father of the blues or maker of the blues — David Robertson in W.C. Handy gives Handy his propers in the first biography of the man in decades, a man who changed the face of American popular music permanently. Robertson's sizable research and readable if workmanlike prose gives us a Mr. Handy in all his triumphs and his setbacks, both professional and personal.
Those who agree with Jelly Roll Morton can think what they want.