W. C. Handy: Overlooked Appalachian Visionary

At the 2018 Appalachian Studies Association conference, I propose to reassess the work of Appalachian-native W. C. Handy, an influential musician/composer/publisher. During his life (1873-1958), Handy was publicly revered as a successful African American entrepreneur and as a music pioneer—the “Father of the Blues” (a notion advanced by Handy himself through his myth-making autobiography). In recent years, his reputation declined, a situation likely resulting from his political conservatism, his accommodationist stance on racial matters, and a perception—particularly among younger African Americans—that he had co-opted and commodified his music from tradition (rather than innovatively renegotiating tradition). While other African American musicians from his generation have received scholarly and popular attention in recent years (Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly), Handy has been generally neglected. Today, few of his own recordings are in general release, while even his legendary compositions (“St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis Blues”) are seldom interpreted by contemporary musicians, probably because of a perspective that Handy’s blues compositions are generally considered as defined by and entrenched in an earlier soundscape. In my presentation, I will provide a biographical sketch of Handy, briefly discussing his upbringing in post-Civil War Florence, Alabama; his years as an itinerant teacher and musician in Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Indiana; his creatively innovative years in Memphis, Tennessee, as a regionally and then nationally recognized musician and composer; and his years of increasing financial success as a publisher based in New York City. I will suggest that one of the reasons for neglect of Handy as a culture figure was because his artistic identity was complex—he worked in folk, popular, and elite realms simultaneously without obeisance to rigid aesthetic categorizations. As a businessman he was a pragmatist. He was organized and methodical in his interpretation of traditional materials in the pursuit of marketable cultural expressions of African American cultural values that ultimately appealed to Americans on both sides of the Jim Crow Era racial divide.