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CHAPTER TWO W. C. Handy and the Music of Black and White America, 1873–1896 In the military camp, in the crowded streets of the city where the troops march to the front, in the ballroom, in the concert hall, at the seaside and in the mountains, go where you may, you hear Sousa, always Sousa. —Musical Courier, on the popularity of John Philip Sousa, the “March King,” July 4, 1898 The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised, and he could not articulate the message of another people. —W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903 With all their differences, most of my forebears had one thing in common: if they had any musical talent, it remained buried.” So did W. C. Handy, in the middle of his life as a distinguished blues composer, look back in his memoir to his family ’s experience of Reconstruction Alabama. He had been born into a family in which the church, not the dance floor, was of importance , and music was shunned for all purposes except the religious and the educational. Among the earliest memories of his childhood in the early 1870s, the composer recalled a corner fireplace in the family cabin where his grandmother and mother would bake corn cakes, or ash cakes, and a trundle bed in the attic where he slept. But there were no childhood memories of any musical instruments in the Reverend Charles Handy’s home. The AME Church, and the work to support it, always came first. Schooling for his firstborn son was important to Charles Handy, but so was his son’s earning wages in order to tithe a portion of his weekly income—a nickel for Sunday school and a dime for the church collection. As soon as he was big enough to be hired outside the family farm, the boy “pulled fodder, picked cotton, cradled oats, clover, millet and wheat, and even operated a printing press” for various Florence employers, all to meet his father’s expectations and to contribute to the upkeep of the church where his father preached. The young Handy was also a willing attendant at his father’s church on Sundays, where he was a careful listener to the folk spirituals sung by the congregation unaccompanied by organ or piano. The boy particularly liked the pleasing melancholy he heard in the black spiritual “Cheer the Weary Traveler” and the fast-tempo excitement of “Gospel Train’s A-Comin’.” His mother, Elizabeth Brewer Handy, was just as pious as his father but not as exacting toward her child. She indulged her firstborn son as far as her domestic skills and the family economics would allow. As a middle-aged man, W. C. Handy still recalled with pleasure how his mother had carefully stitched for him a fluted waistcoat embroidered with lace, to be worn with his best going-tochurch outfit, a small boy’s sailor suit and red-topped brass-toed boots. “Despite my tender years,” Handy recalled humorously, “I was something of a [lady]killer.” Between chores and church attendance, the young Handy also attended classes at the racially segregated Florence District School for Negroes. He was soon praised there by his teachers for his good grades and skill at public speaking. After his school day ended, he would continue his education by entering, unnoticed, into the lobby of the Exchange Hotel. This was the finest commercial establishment of its kind in the town for whites, where the then-current Alabama governor and Florence attorney, Edward A. O’Neal, held sway over a circle of admirers whenever he returned from the state W. C. Handy and the Music of Black and White America 33 capital. The boy would eavesdrop unseen from a corner while the governor, a former Confederate general, sonorously read aloud from regional newspapers and then solemnly pronounced his judgments on the day’s events. These surreptitious visits became “my daily custom,” Handy recalled. As an adult he subsequently would acquire a poet’s gift for writing song lyrics with African American dialect and colloquialisms, but Handy’s later personal manner of public speaking was indelibly set by this boyhood experience. What he learned at the Exchange Hotel was a rhetoric that was...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780817386047
Print ISBN
9780817356965
MARC Record
OCLC
772845426
Pages
307
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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