16 November 1873, 140 years ago, the “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy was born in Florence, Alabama.
“All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor." (F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”)
|Handy’s Memphis Orchestra, ca 1918 – W.C. is standing in the centre, wearing a moustache and holding his trumpet.|
By 1900, the blue third and seventh notes had already taken roots and flowered in American music. Their distinctive sound shot from the work or rather forced labour songs of the Africans dragged to the New World with their call-and-response elements mixed with the pre-Islamic tunes of the banjo’s West-African predecessor, the akonting folk lute and the harmonies of the Scottish and Irish hymns of the plantation owners. The word “blues” itself might derive from the West African custom to dye clothing blue with indigo to express suffering. During the 1870s, the music later known as the blues began to emancipate itself from the various other styles of Jazz that developed from the same cradle in the Deep South of the United States and in 1908, Antonio Maggio published the first music sheet that included the line “I Got the Blues”. Four years later, W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues” was performed for the first time.
W.C. Handy’s father, a pastor in Guntersville, Alabama, believed that musical instruments were tools of the devil and young William Christopher made his first acquaintance with purely vocal music while singing in the church choir. The sounds of nature, Handy claimed later had equally influenced him and then he bought a corned, practiced every free minute and played in a small band. Without knowledge of the pastor, naturally. In 1902, he became a music teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, and began studying the blues, fell out with principal and began touring the South with a minstrel show and finally formed his own band with gigs in clubs on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. “Memphis Blues” was a smashing success in 1912 and the blues became more and more popular. Handy mixed the tunes with other styles of Jazz, moved to New York, founded his own record company and artists like Bessie Smith, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong made his compositions Jazz standards.
“Beale Street Blues”, “Saint Louis Blues”, “Careless Love”, “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” and 60 other compositions, five books and a movie became an integral part of America’s musical heritage as well as Blues and Jazz in particular and when W.C. Handy died in 1958 at the age of 84, 25.000 people attended his funeral in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in the neighbourhood where he lived since the 1940s and 150.000 gathered in the streets to pay their respects. Handy himself described his first encounter with the blues in the train station of Tutwiler, Mississippi in 1903 while sleeping on a bench and waking up from a strange sound with the following words: “a lean, loose-jointed Negro [who] had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings in a manner popularised by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. ... The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly... The singer repeated the line ("Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog") three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.“
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