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Whose Blues?Facing Up to Race and the Future of the Music$
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Adam Gussow

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781469660363

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2021

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469660363.001.0001

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W. C. Handy and the “Birth” of the Blues

W. C. Handy and the “Birth” of the Blues

(p.105) Bar 6 W. C. Handy and the “Birth” of the Blues
Whose Blues?

Adam Gussow

University of North Carolina Press

Where do the blues come from, when do they come into being, and why has the metaphor of blues “birth” proved so irresistible over the years to music historians, tourism boosters, and others who traffic in the blues? This chapter offers some answers, beginning with a survey of revisionist scholarship that sources early blues music in a range of places other than the Mississippi Delta. Sheet music, much of it composed by white songwriters, is a part of the story; so is early black vaudeville, epitomized the unrecorded and forgotten star, Butler “String Beans” May.” W. C. Handy, as songwriter, autobiographer, and foundational mythmaker of the blues, is another key figure. By finding a sheet music analogue for the tensed major-minor tonality of Black southern blues singing, he introduced that bittersweet and compelling sound into American popular music through his best-known composition, “St. Louis Blues.” He also crafted a myth, with the help of two episodes in Father of the Blues (1941), through which the Mississippi Delta becomes the primal scene of blues music’s national emergence and the Black male musicians who make “weird” music there become the carriers of the tradition that Handy will later popularize and profit from.

Keywords:   W. C. Handy, Blues, Mississippi, Black vaudeville, Delta, “St. Louis Blues”, autobiographer

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