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W.C. Handy's blues

March 15, 2009 | 11:31 am

Wchandy

That W.C. Handy is not well-enough remembered as the father of the blues is something the new biography "W.C. Handy" by David Robertson may rectify. The book is "an overdue and highly readable account," according to our reviewer Mark Rozzo.

It was Handy, Robertson argues, who first brought African American musical culture to a mainstream audience, on a scale that -- thanks to the powers of mass-produced sheet music and the rising recording industry -- dwarfed the earlier appropriations of minstrelsy and white songwriters like Stephen Foster. And it led to something of a feedback loop, as Handy's hits spread the blues across the country -- including the Delta where Handy first heard them in rudimentary form in 1903 -- inspiring fresh waves of blues artists.

W.C. Handy is remembered in Florence, Ala., where the two-room log cabin where he was born has been turned into a museum in his honor. And he's remembered in Memphis on Beale Street, where a statue helps commemorate his breakthrough song, "Beale Street Blues."

But my favorite place to find W.C. Handy is in this clip from YouTube, in which a contemporary music fan plays a Handy Orchestra of Memphis 78 on a well-tuned vintage phonograph. These are not cheap habits -- collecting vintage 78s and maintaining the equipment to play them -- and it's kind of wonderful to see the recording played at home as it would have been in Handy's day. The song, "Livery Street Blues" from 1917, sounds less like the brass bands Rozzo mentions and more like a novelty blues number intended to amuse: It features a funny sliding change from the trombone and one instrument -- the violin? -- impersonating a horse's whinny.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: W.C. Handy and his Memphis Orchestra, 1918. Handy is in rear center with moustache and cornet.

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