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Mr. Handy's Blues Documentary Interview

William Christopher Handy,
known affectionately worldwide as
"The Father of the Blues."

By Paul Cody

If You Love THE BLUES, JAZZ,  MUSIC HISTORY, AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY, HARLEM RENAISSANCE, Will You Help Us Interview, Emmy Winner Joanne Fish, Producer, Director of

MR.HANDY'S BLUES,  A Musical Documentary about Mr. WC Handy, The FATHER of The Blues.

Watch the Funeral of Mr WC Handy then,

SCROLL DOWN FOR QUESTIONS FOR JOANNE FISH FROM Wily Bo Walker, British Blues Award Finalist 2016, " Jack Dappa" Pearley,  Bluesman, and many others.

"Mr. Handy’s Blues" chronicles the life of William Christopher Handy, known affectionately worldwide asThe Father of the Blues. He was born seven years after the Civil War, and died at the dawn of the Space Age.  Handy’s trajectory to success is an against all odds odyssey that took him from a strict religious home in Northern Alabama, to a low point of despair in St. Louis, Missouri to becoming one of the most revered composers of the 20th Century.  His career started with a Minstrel Troupe during the Jim Crow days in the American South and catapulted him to ownership of a thriving music publishing office in New York City in 1918.  Handy Brothers Music Company was the first African American owned entertainment enterprise on Broadway during that time. 

"Mr. Handy’s Blues" is a tale of family conflict, racial tensions and redemption.  The continuous thread is Handy’s vision, his love of music and his talent for transforming the oral traditions of his African American countrymen into a unique and commercial musical genre, namely the Blues. The narrator is W.C.Handy himself through the use of rare audio recordings and interviews.

Since the blues provided the building blocks for early jazz, it could be argued that Mr. Handy was also the father of modern American music. The great composerGeorge Gershwin credited W.C. Handy’s early blues songs as the foundational inspiration for Rhapsody in Blue.

Interviews with Taj Mahal {World Music Legend}, Bobby Rush {the "King of the Chitlin Circuit"} and Vince Giordano {Bandleader and Music Supervisor for Boardwalk Empire and Café Society} bring Handy’s story to life and illuminate the great accomplishments and contributions that Handy made through his universally known compositions and his determination to own his own materials. 

"Mr. Handy’s Blues" features performances of Handy’s songs by current artists, who are direct descendants of his vast musical legacy. Songs like "St. Louis Blues", "The Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues" have been standards for over 100 years, and are considered masterpieces in both the blues and jazz worlds.

Mr. Handy’s Blues features live performances by:

Taj Mahal
Bobby Rush
Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks
Miss Jubilee
Ms. Ruby Wilson {The Queen of Beale Street}
Kim Massie
Matt "The Rattlesnake" Lesch
Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes
The Voodoo Blues Band
Max Russell and the Shakedown Kings
Eric Hughes
Low Society featuring Herman Green
Gary Nichols {The Steeldrivers}
The Sticky Bones {Italy}
Herbie Gretsch {The Netherlands}
Race Simmons and the School of Rock Band
Dr. David Evans
Gary Burnside
The Midnighters {Muscle Shoals}
Diana Stein Kabakoff
Kasimu Taylor
Mick Kolassa, Eric Hughes and Jeff Jensen
The Stax Street Corner Harmonies
Ghost Town Blues Band

Archival Performances By:
Bessie Smith
Ella Fitzgerald
Mae West
W.C. Handy

Interviewees include:
Dr. Carlos R. Handy {Grandson}
Willie Ruff, Professor Yale University
Adam Gussow, Professor, University of MS, Oxford
David Evans, Professor Emeritus, University of Memphis, TN
Dr. Elliott Hurwitt, Music Historian
Loren Schoenberg, Jazz Museum in Harlem
Bobby Rush
Taj Mahal
Vince Giordano

This Interview Questions by Paul Cody, Dale Preece Kelly Co-Founders Career Skunks ,     Wily Bo Walker, British Blues Award Finalist 2016, " Jack Dappa" Pearley, Bluesman, Jack Dappa Blues Heritage Preservation Foundation 501(c)(3),   Mark Jaffe, Former Senior Executive at The Walt Disney Company,  Mike McKinnon ( The Captain ) retired Naval & Submarine Commander and Composer John Dorhauer.

Paul;  Joanne,  how did you decide to make a documentary about W.C. Handy?

Joanne; I have always been a student of American roots music.  I worked in Nashville for several years at CMT, and immersed myself in the early days of Country Music.  I’ve always loved history so I wanted to go further back and that’s when I discovered W.C. Handy.  I was actually in Handy’s hometown of Florence, Alabama to attend a film festival with my last film “The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice: Wanda Jackson”  in 2007.  Florence is a beautiful town and I spent several days exploring everything it had to offer.  I visited the Handy Home and Museum, and learned so much about W.C.’s early years, that I went back several times to soak up more information.  At the time I thought that his life would make a great documentary, but I was sure that it had already been done.  When I got home I did some research and found out that there was not a documentary about him, so I decided I would try to get it going. It had that ‘meant to be’ feeling for me, which is rare, but I was very sure that this was a story for me to tell.

Mark Jaffe; "How does the blues touch your soul in a way that is different from other music"

Joanne;  Thanks for the great question Mark. I’ve always been attracted to the Blues and while I couldn’t have articulated the reason for that power of attraction in the past, I have come to a better understanding since I made my film.  The African American voice is like no other. It cuts straight to the heart and soul in a way that is raw and rich with the painful history of that culture.  The voices take us back to the slave trade, the plantations and  fields where the songs were as ubiquitous as the cotton crop.  The struggle is echoed in the early Negro spirituals that expressed an unwavering faith in ultimate redemption.  Their voices conveyed a heroic strength in the face of abject despair that haunts us to this day.  All of those elements resonate in the Blues, and they cannot be separated from it.  W.C. Handy was first exposed to the Blues in the early 1900’s, and as an ethnomusicologist he was able to weave those unique threads of African American experience into compositions that could be embraced by audiences who did not live that reality.   Handy’s work brought the message to the masses, and cemented its legacy forever.  Of course the Blues evolved, becoming the basis for early Jazz, Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues and so much more. But authentic Blues always reflects its origins, and we cannot help but feel the voices from the past coming through loud and clear.  Handy transformed the songs to make them more relatable to mainstream audiences, and his work opened a portal for the rest of the world to appreciate the art form.  He brought it to the world, and the world embraced it with open arms.  I think Bobby Rush put it best when he said “The same things that make you laugh are the same things that make you cry – that’s the Blues.”  Handy understood that, and harnessed that spirit in his music.  I have tried to convey that spirit in “Mr. Handy’s Blues”.

Dale;  Joanne, what’s the process for starting a project like that from scratch?

Joanne;  I really was starting from scratch, but I was enjoying some success and momentum from my last film with Wanda Jackson, “The Queen of Rockabilly”, so I felt confident about tackling “The Father of the Blues”. 

The first thing I did was go back to Florence during the Handy Music Festival, and meet with the head of the museum, and with Handy’s grandson and his wife who came from Houston.  That was an awesome experience, and once I had the support of the family and the Handy Home, I started doing more research. It took almost a year before I found a true Handy expert who would advise me and guide me through the initial writing process.  I read a lot of books, and talked to a lot of people, and visited Florence several times to go through their photo archives before I did any filming.

John Dorhauer;  Was Handy's music politically or social charged in any way?

Joanne;  I’m so glad you asked that question John!  One of the experts in my film {Dr. David Evans, Professor Emeritus University of Memphis} said that W.C. Handy was always working for social and political change, but he did it by working within the system.  Throughout his career Handy was politically pro-active, using his stature and platform to educate and advocate for civil rights. The first song he wrote was a campaign jingle for a mayoral campaign in Memphis. The candidate, E.H. Crump wanted to court the African American vote, and hired Handy to help the cause.  The strategy worked.  Everyone loved the song Handy composed for the occasion, and voted Crump into office. Later Handy reworked the tune and published it as “The Memphis Blues”.   Handy was a lifelong Republican and big fan of Teddy Roosevelt.  He wrote “The Big Stick Blues March” as a homage to him.  In the 1950’s {near the end of his life}  Handy wrote a song for President Eisenhower, and his band performed it at his inauguration. Eisenhower actually passed a version of a Civil Rights Bill, and perhaps his relationship with Handy had something to with his efforts in that area.   All of Handy’s compositions reflected his experience and the times in which he lived. “Beale Street Blues” refers to the violence in Memphis, but it’s done in a tongue in cheek way.  The lyrics of “Loveless Love” are a comment on modern consumerism  {‘milkless milk, and silkless silk’}.  Handy was first and foremost an American, and he took a great deal of pride in his country.  While he was often treated as a second class citizen, he always rose above it and quietly worked to support and further the cause of his people. 

Paul;  What were the biggest challenges in getting the film made?

Joanne;  The biggest challenge was finding the funding for the production. It’s an expensive process, and I knew I would have to write grants, so I partnered up with a non-profit organization in Nashville called Cinema South.  That allowed me to submit government grants and do other fundraising events to secure some start up monies.  The grant world is extremely competitive – there are a lot of projects that are worthy of the meager funds available.  So I won some and I didn’t succeed with others.  When I received a grant, I would immediately try and shoot something – an interview or a performance that would help me for the next round and get me further down the road. The other challenge was finding people who were knowledgeable about W.C. Handy’s life.  There are a lot of experts on Blues Music, but very few who are conversational about him.  That really proved my point that Handy’s story should be preserved and celebrated.  People were already forgetting about his transformational work, and I wanted to prevent that from happening. So it was a challenge that helped shape my mission, and solidify my commitment to seeing it through to the end. {That was almost ten years ago!}  This has been a true labor of love for me, and I was going to do whatever I could to honor the process, including using my own funds to further it along.  I wouldn’t recommend that to anybody, but that’s just how strongly I felt about Handy, and his immense contributions to American music.

Wily Bo Walker;  Joanne, what do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

Joanne;  Thanks for the question Mr.Walker.  What I love about W.C. Handy’s music and the early days of the Blues and Jazz is the energy and excitement.  I believe that comes from the thrill that the composers and musicians had about introducing a new sound into the world.  When Handy first wrote and published his songs, there was no radio or records! People had to hear the music live, or recreate it from sheet music.  So when I listen to these songs I hear and feel the enthusiasm, the urgency and the creativity.  Researching Handy’s musical journey I learned that he took most of his inspiration from the ‘folk music’ of his people and transformed it {or elevated it, if you will} through classical arrangements with multiple instruments – something that was done by the great European composers before him.  So we are hearing something that was just being born from the decades of oral tradition that came before it and that’s what moves me.  I don’t really miss it because it’s available for us today thanks to the many preservationists who are keeping it alive and relevant. The evolution of the Blues took many paths, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who lived it and paved the way.  Mamie Smith, Son House, Memphis Minnie -  the list goes on and on and I do hope that their voices never get lost. My mission with “Mr. Handy’s Blues” is to preserve his important legacy for generations to come.  We can appreciate the current music scene if we understand the rich history that formed its foundation.  There are so many innovative and exciting things going on in the music world today that all stem from the same humble roots. Music brings us together on so many levels like no other medium, so we embrace the new while honoring the past. 

Mike McKinnon ( The Captain );  Joanne, you clearly have made a difference in keeping "The Blues" alive as part of America's musical culture. Thank you. What other actions can be taken to heighten awareness of this uniquely interesting and important music?

Joanne;  Hi Captain!  There are so many organizations that are striving to do just that. From the Blues Foundation in Memphis, TN to the National Blues Museum in St. Louis, MO and the fantastic efforts of “Blues in Schools” and other Blues Societies who have the same mission. The Jack Dappa Blues Preservation Society is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to educating people about the African American origins of the Blues through the Jack Dappa Radio Show and workshops.  The only way to preserve the heritage and spread awareness is to do it on several fronts.  W.C. Handy’s family is starting a foundation that will provide all sorts of programs for under-privileged and physically challenged children that I’m very excited about.  I would like to see these grassroots efforts grow exponentially in the future.  Music education is so important, and when kids learn about the history of American music they are also learning about the history of our country {and the world}.  This instills an understanding and respect for the past and also gives a framework to the issues we have today in our society.  We see evidence of this in the young musicians who are making their way in the Blues today.  They are honoring the past, and continuing the traditions of their musical inheritance.  I think this will all have a very positive impact on the future of the Blues.

Jack  Dappa  Pearley;  Joanne, who was the man heard playing slide guitar with a knife at the train station?  ( another question from Jack Dappa Pearley below )

Joanne;  Jack, I wish I could answer this question. The Tutwiler Train Station episode has become something of a mythological moment in W.C. Handy’s life.  It’s been researched by many,  but no concrete evidence exists about who that man was, or even exactly what year that encounter took place.  As  you know, in his 1941 autobiography, “Father of the Blues”, Handy wrote: “A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”  But Handy never mentioned his name. It was like two strangers passing in the night.   I often wish I could get in a time machine and go back and find out who he was!  In my mind, this is one of those mysteries that may never be resolved.  I asked all of my experts and everyone had the same quandary.  To me, that “man” represents Handy’s first encounter with what would be called “the blues”.  It was his first exposure to this sound that he said was the ‘weirdest’ music he ever heard.  So in Mississippi at that time, it really could have been anybody.  What we do know is that this man is one of many unsung heroes in the story of the blues, and perhaps it adds more of a mystique to that legend than if we did know his name.   I know there is a lot of loose speculation, but Handy was meticulous in his recounting of everything and everyone that he met on his journey, so the omission in this case is noteworthy.  If Handy didn’t know, there’s no way we can ever know, in my opinion.

Dale;  How did the project evolve from your original idea to the end result?

Joanne;  Because of the long span of time from conception to completion, the film did evolve in some interesting ways.  Over the years I would have to step away from the project to work on other things, and that usually caused me to start looking at the film from different perspectives, and helped me formulate the key moments and experiences Handy had that shaped his incredible trajectory from Preacher’s son to the Father of the Blues.  I never got tired of the story because I was always learning something new.  But I always came back to my original concept and outline.  I had a big cork board with index cards that I made at the beginning, and it didn’t change much throughout the entire production, even through the final edit.  So for anyone who wants to start a project like this, I would say always trust your first instincts, and stay true to the things that drew you to the story in the beginning.

Paul;  What were one or two of your most memorable experiences in the process of making the film?

Joanne;  There are so many magical moments that occurred in the making of this film.  One was meeting Taj Mahal and hearing his take on W.C. Handy’s importance and influence on the current musical landscape.  The other was an afternoon I spent with Bobby Rush, a Blues legend who was inspired by Handy throughout his entire career.  Bobby was a visiting music scholar at Rhodes College in Memphis when we interviewed him and it was a thrill to watch him working with the students there, passing along his vast experience.  Plus he made up a song about W.C. Handy on the spot and performed it for our cameras, so I was on cloud nine for days after that.  We were also able to capture dozens of current artists performing Handy’s iconic songs all over the country.  Hearing his music come to life with such energy and passion was so exciting to me, and I always felt that Mr. Handy was smiling down on us while we were filming. 

Jack Dappy Pearley;  Considering all W.C. Handy’s accomplishments, what was his biggest regret?

Joanne;  In August 1895 W.C. Handy was working with a band on the Ohio River. Handy was 21; years old at the time. He was trying to make enough money to get home to Florence, Alabama to see his parents and younger brother Charlie.    He remembers hearing the ‘roustabouts’ who worked on the river with the steamboats yelling out “Mark Twain/Quarterless Twain” which were signals to the Ship Captain to steer the boat a certain way to avoid running on to the shoals.  Handy couldn’t get down the river to Alabama because the water was too low.  On Sunday August 25 at 10:15pm , his mother Elizabeth passed away from {according to her obituary} a “stroke of paralysis”.  The article goes on to say that “She had been complaining for several days but continued her work about the house until Saturday”.  In an interview with Alan Lomax in 1937 Handy expresses the sense of sadness he had that he couldn’t get home in time to see Elizabeth before she died.  You can hear the regret in his voice over 40 years later.  The article in the local Florence newspaper also states “She was a good old colored woman born in antebellum days.  She was highly esteemed by both black and white.”  The obituary goes on to say that so many people crowded the Methodist Church for the funeral services and right after the casket was carried out the door and everyone stood up the floor of the church collapsed and fell 6 feet!  Apparently the church had been in need of repairs for awhile, and the foundation buckled under the weight of all the mourners. Thank you for asking this question.  I wasn’t able to include the story in my film for several reasons, the main one being time.  But it has stayed with me over the years because the sad tone in Handy’s voice is palpable. We’re fortunate to have the Alan Lomax interview and the article from the Florence Public Library for posterity.   They are both key elements in the important work of preserving the Blues and its history.

P.S. If you have a Question for Joanne Fish about Mr. Handy's Blues a Musical Documentary Contact jfish25@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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