restricted access Chapter Four: Aunt Hagar’s Ragtime Son Comes Home to Alabama, 1900–1903

From: W. C. Handy

The University of Alabama Press colophon
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CHAPTER FOUR Aunt Hagar’s Ragtime Son Comes Home to Alabama, 1900–1903 Old Deacon Splivins, his flock was givin’ the way of livin’ right, Said he, no winging, No ragtime singing here tonight. Up jumped Aunt Hagar and shouted with all her might, Why all this razzing about the jazzing? My boys have just come home . . . Hear Aunt Hagar’s children harmonizing, Hear that sweet melody. —W. C. Handy, lyricist and composer, “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” 1922 The Mahara Company toured the towns of northern Alabama and the Tennessee Valley shortly after its return from Cuba in early 1900. Handy in his memoir of this year includes an account of how his minister father, then living in Huntsville, Alabama, with his recently married second wife, made the momentous decision to attend the Mahara performance there on March 7, 1900, to see his son on the stage. W. C. Handy felt some personal trepidations about taking up his cornet before the show, knowing his father was in the audience; but the minstrelsy entertainment was otherwise avidly anticipated by many other Huntsville residents, black and white. The Mahara brothers had done their usual good job of promoting the show and befriending journalists. “There will be a hot time in the old town tonight,” the town’s Weekly Mercury newspaper that afternoon had promised, enthusias- tically praising the appearance at the Huntsville opera house that evening of the Mahara brothers and “their big colored minstrel show.” The company by this time included, besides the unmentioned Handy, “Prof. Genther’s trained troupe of dogs and ponies, without doubt the best aggregation of educated animals ever seen in this city”; Leroy Bland, the male “soubrette”; and also the celebrated Nettie Goff, “the only colored lady in the world playing the slide trombone.” The “hot time” to which the Weekly Gazette referred was an allusion to the 1896 ragtime song by a black St. Louis saloon keeper, “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and the Mahara troupe, including their orchestra and its leader, gladly brought this new music to the Alabama audience. Handy certainly felt relief that at least his father had seen his musical son applauded at the performance’s end. According to Handy, there followed backstage after the show an emotional reconciliation between the Reverend Charles B. Handy and his grown child, with the elder Handy telling him: “Sonny, I haven’t been in a show [theater] since I professed religion. I enjoyed it. I am very proud of you and forgive you for becoming a musician.” This reunion may have occurred just as Handy sincerely described it; but the story may be an instance of Handy as an inveterate showman who was also given to an equally sincere embellishment. His version of the paternal blessing, published in his memoir in 1941, bears more than just a passing resemblance to that perennial fable of show business enacted in Handy’s lifetime in the popular motion picture The Jazz Singer (1927). Therein the character of Jackie Rabinowitz , a blackface minstrelsy performer who is played by the white Al Jolson, reunites with his parents while on tour. His performance is so brilliant he is movingly forgiven and blessed by his dying, pious father. Just before the Mahara moved out of nearby Florence to perform at other engagements, Handy in a late-night incident drew a pistol on a fellow minstrel. It apparently was the settling of an old grudge. Handy accused the man of having earlier insulted him and his violinist friend Jim Turner, and the man advanced on Handy as if to strike him. Handy scared the fellow away by firing several shots— harmlessly—into the air. Knowledge of this incident in Handy’s life Aunt Hagar’s Ragtime Son Comes Home to Alabama 75 may have contributed to his subsequent reputation with Beale Avenue’s scofflaw gamblers as a bandleader in Memphis not to be trifled with. Unmentioned by Handy in his memoir’s account was the likelihood that the shooting affair, if they learned of it, would have been confirmation to his in-laws of the morally degrading consequences of their son-in-law’s practicing “this or that monkey business ” in colored minstrelsy. After completing this tour of early 1900, Handy returned to his wife in Florence. Perhaps his decision was a result of her insistence that she and her husband lead a more settled life preceding the birth of their first child. If so, it is noteworthy...


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