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WC handy and trumpet

W.C. Handy {format} {format} 8:55 Barrett Golding

The Ftaher of the Blues.

Broadcast: Feb 15 2005 on NPR Day to Day Subjects: Music, Historical, Blues

Profile: Recollections of W.C. Handy

February 15, 2005 from Day to Day

MADELEINE BRAND, host: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

(Soundbite of "The Memphis Blues")

BRAND: People danced in the streets of Memphis when this song first was performed by W.C. Handy and his band. The year was 1909. The song became known as "The Memphis Blues."

(Soundbite of "The Memphis Blues")

BRAND: It was the first piece of blues music ever published in America. In the first half of the 20th century, W.C. Handy became known as the Father of the Blues. This African-American musician wrote songs that made the charts dozens of times and were performed by big names such as Guy Lombardo and Rudy Vallee. He died in 1958. Here now an appreciation.

(Soundbite of "The Memphis Blues"; vintage recording)

Mr. W.C. HANDY (Musician): I didn't invent the blues. No one invented them. The blues were melodies sung by Negro roustabouts, farmers and wanderers from Missouri to the Gulf. My part in history was to introduce this, the blues form, to the general public as a medium for my own feelings.

(Soundbite of "The Memphis Blues"; vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: Well, we played that on the corner of Main and Madison and it stopped the traffic, stenographers danced with their bosses, and men ran up to the band to know `What's the name of that? We have to play it over and over and over.' And then later, I published this number, "The Memphis Blues," which was the first blues published. And "The Memphis Blues" carried the first jazz break for the tenor saxophone.

(Singing) Folks have just been down, down to Memphis town. That's where the people smile, smile on you all the while. Hospitality, they were good to me. I couldn't spend a dime; I had the grandest time. I went out a-dancing with a Tennessee dear. They had a fellow there named Handy with a band you should hear.

(Soundbite of "The Memphis Blues"; vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: I am asked to tell the story of the things that led up to my writing "The Memphis Blues." That story would be incomplete if I didn't say something about the era of ragtime. That was syncopation without much melody. I also had experiences in my hometown, Florence, Alabama, where I carried water for the men who worked in the rock quarry who always sang as they worked; something like this. (Singing) A-oh. A-oh. I wouldn't live in Cairo.

It was just such snatches of songs like this that turned my attention to Negro music.

(Soundbite of music; vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: When you speak of the story of the blues, we can't tell it without the story of Joe Turner.

(Soundbite of "The Joe Turner Blues")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) I'm a hip cat, baby, and we call it the Joe Turner Blues.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: Joe Turner was the brother of Pete Turner, governor of the state of Tennessee, who pressed Negroes into peonage and took them down the Mississippi River to the farms. To do this, they had decoys that lured Negroes in Memphis to crap games when they were arrested and put into prison. Women looking for their husbands who were late coming home would ask, `I wonder where my husband is.' Then they would be told, `Haven't you heard about Joe Turner? He's been here and gone. He had a long chain with 50 links to it where he could press Negroes in handcuffs and take them away.'

So the Negroes around Memphis made up a song--(Singing) They tell me Joe Turner's come and gone. Oh, Lordy, tell me Joe Turner's come and gone. Oh, Lordy, got my man and gone.

(Soundbite of music; vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: I couldn't tell the story of "The St. Louis Blues" and leave out a morning when my old teacher down in Florence, Alabama, began to question us as to what we intended to do and be in life. Some wanted to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, merchants and so forth. And when it came to me, I said I wanted to be a musician. He read me a lecture, said music would bring me to the gutter, musicians were idlers, dissipated characters. He wrote my father a note which when he read he said, `Sonny, I'd rather follow you to you grave than to see you be a musician.'

(Soundbite of music; vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: I was determined. I organized a quartet. We sang our way to St. Louis, looking for work which we couldn't get, and we disbanded. And I found that my teacher's prophecy was true because music did bring me to the gutter. It brought me to sleep on the levee of the Mississippi River, on the cobblestones, broke and hungry. Twenty-one years later, all of this hardship went into one song one night. And if you've ever slept on cobblestones or had nowhere to sleep, you can understand why I began this song with `I hate to see the evening sun go down.'

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) I hate to see the evening sun go down.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. HANDY: After I had written several blues, there were hybrid forms that made people look down on the blues. The stories that they told were not attractive; they were belittling. And I've always felt that the blues deal with an epoch in our history. And coming from the same people that gave us the spiritual, they reflected a nominal freedom. All the blues that I have written are either historic or folklore or folk song. So to write a blues that expresses the feeling of a people and a hope for their future on Earth, I wrote a philosophical song, a blues that I called "Way Down South Where the Blues Began." I live in a hope that the South one day will be truly representative of all the high ideals for which America stands. And I put that in that song, which I shall sing with a chorus and play on my trumpet.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: That piece was produced by Barrett Golding with the radio group Hearing Voices. For more on W.C. Handy, visit our Web site,

(Soundbite of "Way Down South Where the Blues Began")

Mr. HANDY: (Singing) Tired nerves twitching from sorrow and care. Tired feet itching to take me somewhere. Some land bewitching, beckons me there.

Unidentified Chorus: I'll be home. Tell me, then I'll wander home.

Mr. HANDY: (Singing) Hard times, that's all I hear on this way.

Unidentified Chorus: Hard times we hear on this way.

Mr. HANDY: (Singing) Hard times, they're growing thinner each day.

Unidentified Chorus: They grow so thin each day.

Mr. HANDY and Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Good times, just 'round the corner so they say. ...(Unintelligible)

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.