W.C. Handy: The Man Who Made the Blues
David Robertson explores the genre’s origins
In a telling anecdote in this well-researched and -written book, rife with copious notes and cogent text, Mississippi bluesman Charlie Patton tries to sit in with Handy's band. Being unable to do so sums up the difference between blues that grew out of an oral tradition and the blues of sheet music publishers.
Patton is one of the most important Delta blues stylists, referred to by music historians as the "Father of the Delta Blues." According to author David Robertson, "Patton enjoyed Handy's music and a mutual friend earlier had praised Patton to Handy with some qualifications-'He can play what he knows to play.' Handy generously had invited Patton to attend an engagement with his orchestra in Beulah, Mississippiâ€¦ But Handy's band were strictly score-reading musicians, and Patton soon realized that he 'couldn't play no-how 'cause he couldn't read that music.' He gave up any ambition to play with Handy's band."
Robertson is wise to subtitle his text as The Man WhoMade the Blues, for Handy structured for publication and rote performance what others (Patton included) came to without academic training. Handy made the blues out of extant materials. He did not create it. But his creations altered blues tunes and brought the idiom into prominence.
Robertson continually poses the question of "What did Handy originate, what did he copy, and what did he rearrange?" By the end, it becomes quite clear that Handy is the surrogate father of the blues by virtue of artificial dissemination. This takes absolutely nothing away from Handy's achievements but, instead, places them perfectly where they should be and, at the same time, should end the confusion about what is and is not the blues.
A young William Faulkner attended more than one Handy performance in the college town of Oxford, Miss. Blues enters high culture through encountering the fictional characters in his novel, Sanctuary, embracing an outsider's tune and dancing to wild, unpredictable, sensuous-but published and scored-music called the blues, which fills gaps left by society's rigid formalities.
It is unlikely Faulkner would instead have chosen Patton for all this imagery. Yet, without Patton, there would not have been Handy and then never Faulkner's high-culture take on blues as a soundtrack for nonconformist character development. The blues got a mean reputation early on through W.C. Handy as he rearranged, copied and originated a form of blues music.
Nowadays Robert Johnson may be the most familiar figure from the early days of the blues on the strength not only of his legend, but also his songs. Interestingly, Handy paid him no heed at the time. Maybe he saw that Johnson was like him but closer to the original imagination contained in the primary source materials. Handy made the blues into a "consciously composed art" and Johnson kept the veil of mystery pulled over his compositions. Johnson crafted his persona. Handy established a publishing business.