Racial Violence, "Primitive" Music, and the Blues Entrepreneur: W. C. Handy's Mississippi Problem. (Essay)

Article excerpt

Composer of the best-selling "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues," author of an autobiography titled Father of the Blues (1941), W. C. Handy (1873-1958) has a curious place in the history of American blues music. He was not, after all, a bluesman; he was a pre-jazz cornetist and bandleader, a skilled sight-reader and arranger who plied his trade on the black minstrel-show circuit of the 1890s. Educated to be a schoolteacher, a member of Florence, Alabama's, black elite, Handy scandalized his family, at least at first, with his willful class descent into show business. "A box," his father famously gasped when young William showed him a guitar he'd purchased with saved-up pennies. "A guitar! One of the devil's playthings. Take it away. Take it away, I tell you. Get it out of your hands. Whatever possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?" But scandalizing one's family with socially retrograde behavior and earning professional and scholarly respect as a foundational blues figure are two different things. The black press may have crowned Handy "Daddy of the Blues" as early as 1919, but his reputation has long been shadowed by the parallel charge that Handy was a Great Imposter. "Mr. Handy cannot prove anything in music that he has created," fumed New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton in an infamous open letter to Downbeat magazine after hearing Handy described in a 1938 Ripley's Believe It or Not! radio broadcast as "the father of Jazz" as well as blues. "He has possibly taken advantage of some unprotected material that floats around.... [T]hese untruthful statements Mr. Handy has made, or caused you to make, will maybe cause him to be branded the most dastardly imposter in the history of music." "Even to claim, or accept, the title Father of the Blues, as Handy has done," wrote jazz historian Rudi Blesh in Shining Trumpets (1946), "is as absurd as it is presumptuous.... [Handy,] from the time of his youth [seems] to have been in the un-Negroid tradition ... a tradition that has always aimed at `disinfecting' Afro-American music by `Europeanizing' it." Literary critics, too, have had their dismissive say. Father of the Blues, argues Houston A. Baker, is "only a simplistic detailing of a progress, describing, as it were, the elevation of a `primitive' folk ditty to the status of `art' in America." (1) W. C. Handy as an absurd, presumptuous, simplistic, dastardly impostor? Not since Papa Hemingway, perhaps, has an acknowledged cultural father-figure accumulated such a body of parricidal commentary.

Mistaken as Morton, Blesh, and Baker are about Handy's true status as the pivotal first textual consolidator of an emergent blues form, their charges nevertheless contain a grain of truth. Handy's claim on blues music does, in fact, rest on a kind of cultural appropriation, what might be called his "Mississippi problem." But it also rests--and this is poorly understood--on a familiarity with, and felt subjection to, racist southern violence and demagoguery of much the same sort that marked the lives of the "real" bluesmen whose music he appropriated. Before coming to Mississippi in 1903, Handy had spent most of the preceding seven years on the road with Mahara's Minstrels, a white-owned black troupe. He and his fellow professionals had come into repeated contact with lynch mobs (in Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee) and other racial violence, deadly or merely humiliating: white men who shot at the black minstrels and their private Pullman coach, white boys who lassoed them and threw rocks at their drums and tubas while they were parading through small southern towns. In Tyler, Texas, where the minstrels and their female associates were quarantined on threat of mass lynching during a smallpox scare, Handy and trombonist Will Garland opposed their guards with rifles to ensure that the women would be allowed to walk the railroad tracks down to the nearby woods and relieve themselves unaccosted. …