The Music Man

Sunday, April 5, 2009

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

By David Roberts.

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. 286 pp. $27.95

W.C. Handy didn't live in St. Louis for long, but the period stayed with him because he was so poor that he sometimes had to sleep on cobblestone levees along the Mississippi River. This was in winter, hence the haunting first line of his most famous song: "I hate to see that evening sun go down." Handy later moved to Memphis, where in addition to "St. Louis Blues," he composed "Beale Street Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues" and many other songs that became hits in versions by such great musicians as Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.

According to biographer David Roberts, the young Handy had intended to be "the colored Sousa": a counterpart to the renowned composer of marches. But when Handy heard what we now know of as Mississippi Delta Blues, he changed his mind. "I saw the beauty of primitive music," he recalled. "Their music wanted polishing, but it contained the essence. Folks would pay good money for it." In giving the blues sophistication, Handy made the genre part of "mainstream American music" -- and made himself a rich man.

-- Dennis Drabelle

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