restricted access Chapter Eleven: “St. Louis Blues”: The Final Performance, 1958

From: W. C. Handy

The University of Alabama Press colophon
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CHAPTER ELEVEN “St. Louis Blues” THE FINAL PERFORMANCE, 1958 Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? —The poet John Keats, in a letter of April 21, 1819, to his brother in America On a Thursday afternoon, October 28, 1943, W. C. Handy suffered a near-fatal fall from a platform at the 147th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue subway station in New York City. The sixtynine -year-old composer had been a passenger on a subway train, accompanied by his personal companion, Louise Logan, on his way to keep a four o’clock appointment at his office. He then realized he had left his trumpet behind at the apartment they shared in Yonkers. He suggested that Logan return for the instrument, and that he would get off the train and wait for her on the lower platform at the 147th Street stop. While he lingered, Handy went upstairs to the upper level and became disoriented. He fell off the platform and onto the subway tracks. Two bystanders bravely rescued Handy from the tracks, but he had fractured his skull in the fall and was taken to Harlem Hospital. His condition was listed as serious, and, as a result of the injury, his eyes, impaired since the 1920s, did not respond to light. He eventually recovered his mental lucidity, and some of his strength, but this time his blindness was permanent. Handy recuperated at the Yonkers apartment where he lived in the company of Louise Logan following the death of his wife. (“Louise is taking splendid care of me,” he dictated in a letter to William Grant Still three months after the accident. Handy and Logan would marry in 1954.) But even in his blindness, Handy’s oftexpressed optimism did not fail him, nor did his appreciation of an audience. He was deeply gratified by the number of editorials in the national press, read to him, expressing concern about his injury and he was particularly pleased at hearing the praise published about him in the newspapers of his native state, in Florence and Birmingham . “I received so many beautiful testimonials, all races in all sections ,” he commented in another letter written for him to Still. Although he now required a physical guide as well as a stenographer and reader, Handy by mid-1944 attempted to resume his day-to-day supervision of business at his company, and, with extraordinary effort, he managed to complete a major publishing project he had begun earlier in that decade. Handy had commenced the 1940s, three years before his injury, by accomplishing the long-desired legal consummation of an unfinished item of business. This was the recovery of his legal copyright to “The Memphis Blues.” When the period of the original copyright , the rights to which Handy had sold for fifty dollars in 1912, had at last expired in 1940, he had been present at the Library of Congress accompanied by Abbe Niles to successfully assert his claim. Although the original score was now dated musically, Handy’s first nationally popular song was nevertheless a profitable addition to his catalog, and its return brought more than just emotional satisfaction to its composer. Harry James recorded a big-band version of the song in July 1942, and Handy later recalled with pleasure that in that year he had received a royalty of $5,600 for the James recording. (The “St. Louis Blues” alone is estimated to have been returning about $10,000 annually in royalties during the 1940s.) Two other of Handy’s earlier compositions, “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues” and “Loveless Love” of the early 1920s, also had been rearranged for jazz and big-band performances in the 1940s, and had been lucrative for Handy’s company when recorded by Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. Holiday playfully had improvised upon one of Handy’s lyrics in her recording of “Loveless Love,” slyly referring to wartime “St. Louis Blues” 221 rationing and singing of “silkless silk.” Just months before his October accident, Handy had also been in the final preparations for publication by his firm in 1943 of a major anthology of black music and social accomplishment. After his injury and blindness, he completed his editing of this project, and in 1944 he published—but never saw as a book—Unsung Americans Sung. This collection of short biographical essays and musical scores, composed by Handy and others, was both a promotion of...


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