Beginnings of the Blues
Innovation in American music begins with the blues, and the widespread propagation of the blues begins with a man from Florence.
Marcus Johnson and Quincy Kemp of the Bay City Band lead the Street Strut at the annual W.C. Handy Festival in Florence.
Photo by Chris Rohling, courtesy of the Alabama Tourism Department
There is a special handwritten note exhibited at the W.C. Handy Home and Museum in Florence. It sits amidst the sheet music and instruments that are on display in the humble cabin where Handy was born in 1873. A mere 19 words in length, but still plenty long enough to illustrate the tremendous influence that Handy had on 20th century music.
The note reads, “Mr. Handy, Whose early ‘blue’ songs are the forefathers of this work. With admiration and best wishes, George Gershwin.” This inscription, dated Aug. 30, 1926, was written atop the musical score of one of the most famous tunes in the history of American music, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Such was the impact created by William Christopher Handy, an African-American preacher’s son from small-town Alabama, who brought widespread popularity to an entire genre of music commonly known as the blues.
Handy has long been called the “Father of the Blues,” but that title is a bit misleading, since he certainly did not give birth to this soulful sound. Blues music in some form has been around basically as long as people have been feeling blue. Tell a story of the struggles of life, put it to a beat, and you literally are singing the blues.
No, Handy was more of the seller of the blues. He was the first person to take these songs — which often were sung with nothing more than hand claps and foot taps for instruments — and successfully turn them into musical scores complete with sheet music. This allowed the music to be sold and played throughout the country, and for Handy to receive royalties. In the process, the soundtrack of front porches and cotton fields was transported to major U.S. cities.
“Blues had been around much longer than Mr. Handy, but before him it was just somebody sitting down, maybe with a guitar, and banging out some songs,” says Dick Cooper, who recently retired as curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. “In addition to being a musician, Mr. Handy was a businessman, and he approached things from a business perspective.
“He wanted to create sheet music and recordings that could be sold, and make his music something he could acquire royalties from through publishing. It was very innovative simply because nobody had ever published anything like that before. It brought the music to a wider audience, and certainly an audience that was completely different than the people the average blues player was reaching at that time.”
Handy traveled and played music throughout the Southeast in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He performed frequently in the clubs along Beale Street in Memphis, and in 1909 wrote a song called “Memphis Blues.” Handy made a deal in 1912 to have the song published, leading to the creation a year later of the Pace & Handy Music Co., which he founded along with business partner Harry Pace.
Handy now had a way to reach the masses with his music, and in 1914 he did just that with the recording and release of “St. Louis Blues” — widely considered to be the first true blues song to receive national recognition. Over the years it has been recorded by such legends as Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Herbie Hancock. The song quickly established two elements that became staples of blues music: a repetitive opening line and a tale of lost love.
“I hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,
Hate to see the evenin’ sun go down,
’Cause, my baby done left this town.”
“Before that song, most popular music was just instrumentals,” says Scott Boyer III, owner and CEO of Muscle Shoals Artists Unlimited, a talent management and booking agency. “If there were lyrics in something it was more vaudeville, more of a theatrical presentation. By setting lyrics to ‘St. Louis Blues,’ W.C. really revolutionized the entire genre of blues music.”
The ability to publish “St. Louis Blues” and receive royalties off the song helped make Handy a wealthy man. It has been reported that at the time of his death in 1958, Handy was still earning $25,000 a year in royalties off that single song.
Handy moved to New York City in 1918 and a few years later opened his own record company. He spent most of the 1920s promoting blues music, both his compositions and those of other artists. In 1926, he edited a blues anthology book that contained arrangements for vocals and piano, and in 1928 he organized the first blues performance held at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
“He was influential on so many different levels,” says Nancy Gonce, executive director of the annual W.C. Handy Music Festival in Florence. “He had an influence on blues and jazz and spiritual music. What he did in the publishing industry gave people the opportunity to see and hear the music in a different way, and that led to the expansion of the music.”
The Muscle Shoals area of northwest Alabama continues to feel the influence of Handy. In addition to being his birthplace and host to a music festival that bears his name, the region also became famous in the 1960s for the creation of the Muscle Shoals Sound.
Numerous Motown artists, including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, came to the Shoals in the 1960s to record songs, with the all-white band The Swampers playing backup. This combo worked so well that the Shoals became a musical mecca for a wide variety of acts, including the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Willie Nelson.
Boyer says Handy played a role in the Muscle Shoals Sound, even though he had died in 1958 at the age of 84. Without Handy, Boyer says, it is unlikely that the racial harmony that existed in those recording sessions would have taken place in Alabama during the height of the Civil Rights conflicts.
“W.C. was such a notable figure from here, it gave the area a certain amount of credence to the African-American artists who were coming in, and it gave a certain understanding of those artists to the local white producers and musicians,” Boyer says. “So there were really no racial barriers. The music was what connected everybody. When they got in the studio and realized what a great sound was coming out, any tension that existed before that moment dissipated immediately, and it was all about the music.”
Which is appropriate. Because the music is what W.C. Handy was all about as well.
Cary Estes is a freelancer writer for Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.