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American History Book Review: W.C. Handy

By Gene Seymour
1/9/2018 • American History Magazine

W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues

by David Robertson; Knopf

That William Christopher Handy insisted on anointing himself the “father of the blues” has been seen since his death in 1958 at age 84 as canny self-promotion, a foxy hubris. Even Robertson, as scrupulous, even-tempered and sympathetic a biographer as any subject could wish for, refers to Handy as “Mr. Micawber”—a reference to Dickens’ hustling, aggrandizing but often cuddly optimist.

As with many great American concoctions—television, the hamburger and so forth—the blues had many progenitors. Robertson knows this, but he also shows that Handy was more adroit than any of his musical peers at merging the raw (work songs, field hollers) and the cooked (hymns, ragtime) into a flexible all-American blend of sound that enraptured all races—and, by the by, made lots of money. His discovery makes Handy a worthy peer not only of European composers, but also of American 19thcentury inventors who made the 20th century possible.

This straightforward account is seasoned with shrewd, reader-friendly musical analysis as well as cunning historical observation. Robertson notes that Handy, like most early 20th-century African-American entertainers, had to endure the humiliations and dread of performing blackface minstrelsy. Yet he strongly implies that Handy’s enduring contributions to pop music may not have been possible if it weren’t for some of the racist “coon songs” that Handy had to perform at great risk to his self-respect. Such are the human paradoxes of art, where glory can arise from the soul’s darkest nights.

 

Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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