Director Joanne Fish discusses new film ‘Mr. Handy’s Blues: A Musical Documentary’

Posted by | July 7, 2014

Joanne headshotPlease welcome guest author Joanne Fish. Miss Fish is an Emmy winning television producer/writer/director with more than 20 years of experience. She also directs independent documentaries about pioneering figures in American Music. Her 2007 documentary “The Sweet Lady With the Nasty Voice” is about the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda Jackson. The film won several awards at film festivals and airs on the Smithsonian Channel. Joanne is currently in production with “Mr. Handy’s Blues: A Musical Documentary”, which chronicles the life of The Father of the Blues.


I was attending a film festival in Florence, AL in February of 2007 when I first met W.C. Handy. He was born there in 1873 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I consider myself a student of roots music, so The Handy Home and Museum in Florence was of great interest to me. I was very moved by his story during my first visit and returned to the museum several times. By the end of the week I decided that Handy should be my next project. I was very surprised to discover that there was not already a film about The Father of the Blues, and seven years later I still feel very privileged to be heading up this production. It’s a labor of love, and so far it’s been a wonderful experience learning about him, and his amazing contributions to American culture.

W.C. Handy (1873-1958).  Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

W.C. Handy (1873-1958) Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

I spent the first year researching and looking for experts on Handy’s life and his music. It was very difficult to find anything written about him outside of his own wonderful autobiography “Father of the Blues”, but I found a fellow in New York who had written a PhD thesis on Handy’s music publishing company. Elliott Hurwitt has been my close advisor ever since, opening doors to other scholars who have specialized in Handy’s work over several decades.

Handy was born into the post Civil War South, eight years after Lee’s surrender, where tent shows and traveling minstrel troupes provided the only form of popular entertainment. His life ended at the beginning of the Space Age, with Handy performing at the inauguration of President Eisenhower and being honored at a concert in Carnegie Hall. His story is full of colorful characters, racial tension, family drama, and a whole lot of courageous decisions.

To date I’ve interviewed Taj Mahal for the film, as well as several experts, scholars and musicologists. Vince Giordano, the bandleader and Music Director for “Boardwalk Empire” also sat down to talk about his respect and admiration for Handy’s compositions, arrangements and self-determination. Blues legend Bobby Rush summed it up: “If it wasn’t for people like Handy, I wouldn’t have a direction. I would have nothing to measure up to. Because my whole life has been ‘I want to be like Handy’.”

Young blues and jazz musicians today are reminded of where their favorite music comes from when they hear his early blues songs. George Gershwin inscribed the score to “Rhapsody in Blue” to Handy, thanking him for his early ‘blue songs’. (Handy was an honorary pallbearer at Gershwin’s funeral.)

'Rhapsody in Blue' inscription from George Gershwin to W.C. Handy. Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

‘Rhapsody in Blue’ inscription from George Gershwin to W.C. Handy: “Mr. Handy, Whose early ‘blue’ songs are the forefathers of this work. With admiration and best wishes, George Gershwin Aug. 30, 1926″ Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

W.C. Handy’s influence is felt but not necessarily recognized in all of our modern forms of music. I want to make that connection and preserve his legacy for generations to come.

I’ve spent countless days and nights going through Handy’s personal scrapbooks, and other treasures at the Handy Home and Museum, and interviewing the people in Florence, AL who keep the flame burning brightly for their native son. I’ve scanned hundreds of pictures and documents from their collections which have never been published. These provide some fantastic visuals and help to flesh out Handy’s harrowing story. I’m also capturing new performances of his classic songs.

Born during the Reconstruction era, William Christopher Handy grew up listening to his father and grandfather (a former slave) preach in the African Methodist Episcopal church they established. His love for music was evident from an early age. Handy writes about the countryside where he grew up, and the sounds that caught his ear and his imagination. He could hear music and rhythms in nature and recognized a French horn in the breast of a blue jay.

He learned from the mournful obbligato of crickets, and the hooves of horses beating in syncopation. When traveling musicians came through town, Handy did whatever he could to familiarize himself with their instruments. But in the strict Handy household, only spirituals and hymns were sung, and the organ was the only acceptable instrument. His entrepreneurial spirit also took hold at that time.

Handy with band in undated photo. Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

Handy with band in undated photo. Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

According to Sandra Ford, director of the Handy Home and Museum in Florence, AL, at the age of 10 Handy started making lye soap and selling it to save enough money for a guitar. When he earned enough, he proudly brought his treasure home to show his parents. His father, Charles Handy, called it the devil’s instrument and made his son exchange it for a dictionary.

After he finished school, Handy worked first as a teacher, and then in the Bessemer, AL Pipeworks. He formed the Lauzetta Quartet, an a cappella group, and they decided to go to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, IL. Upon arrival they were told that the Fair had been postponed because of the “Panic of ’93″ (one of the worst economic crises to hit the U.S., considered second only to the Great Depression).

The group broke up, and Handy traveled alone looking for work. He ended up in St. Louis, on the levees of the Mississippi River, with no money and no prospects. He remembered his father’s stern warning, “Music will bring you to the gutter”, and realized that was exactly where he stood. This is the turning point in Handy’s career. He could have gone home, taken a respectable job and given up music. But he decided then and there that he would fight it out and pursue his calling. Twenty years later he wrote “St. Louis Blues”, the song inspired by those dark days on the cobblestones under the Eads Bridge.

Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

Courtesy of the W.C. Handy Home and Museum

Another transformative moment came in a train station, circa 1903. By this time Handy (age 30) had become a well-known band leader. One night while waiting for a train in Tutwiler, MS he heard a strange sound. It was, in his words, “the humble moans of a creaky guitar”. The fellow beside him was using a knife to slide up and down the strings, and singing “Goin’ where the Southern Cross the Dog”.

Handy said, “Life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start”. It was the beginning of Handy’s journey to the blues.

Handy’s contributions to American music are vast. He wrote one of the first blues songs, “Memphis Blues”.

He recalled elements of the folk tunes he heard in the Delta, and used them as the foundation of a new musical form. He transformed these components through his compositions. In 1913, with his business partner Harry Pace, Handy opened the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis, TN. This was born out of necessity when Handy’s publishers cheated him out of his royalties for “Memphis Blues”.  Handy wrote: “I saw the song that I had sold for $50 become a tremendous hit and a gold mine for the new owner. That started the ball rolling.” With sales from sheet music and royalties from recordings (including Handy’s own first records in 1917), Pace & Handy prospered. The pair moved to New York City a few years later and established the first African American entertainment business on Broadway.

Through their publishing business the music was distributed to a mainstream audience. The company was instrumental in popularizing this once regional, and purely oral, tradition, giving it structure and context.

Joanne Fish interviews blues legend Taj Mahal about W.C. Handy. Courtesy the author.

Joanne Fish interviews blues legend Taj Mahal about W.C. Handy. Courtesy the author.

W.C. Handy’s songs have a timeless quality and have been interpreted in myriad ways over the past 100 years. “Memphis Blues” inspired Vernon and Irene Castle to create the Fox Trot. And it was recruited as the Ethiopian fight song in that nation’s battle against Italy. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about “Beale Street Blues” in “The Great Gatsby”. “St. Louis Blues” was the most recorded song of the first half of the 20th Century. Both “St. Louis Blues” and “Yellow Dog Blues”, the song that pays homage to Handy’s first encounter with the blues in Tutwiler, MS celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2014.

Before he passed away W.C. Handy wrote: “If my serenade of song and story should serve as a pillow for some composer’s head, as yet perhaps unborn, to dream and build on our folk melodies in his tomorrow, I have not labored in vain”.

I love this quote and I want to make sure that he did not labor in vain. He was the poet of the blues, in so many ways, and honoring his work is what Mr. Handy’s Blues is about.

W.C. Handy was a major force in the development of the blues and early jazz. He was a gifted man who had challenges throughout his life, but he handled himself with class and dignity. He was an American Original, a pioneer, charting unknown territory, and in the end a teacher. I believe his story will be inspirational on many levels.

We hope to complete the film by the end of 2014 to coincide with the centennial celebrations for “St. Louis Blues”. I have to admit part of me doesn’t want this journey to end.


The film is sponsored by Cinema South, a non-profit organization based in Nashville, TN. Much of the footage can be re-purposed for use in schools and museum exhibits. For more information, or to make a tax deductible donation, please visit the Cinema South site.

One Response

  • Ellen Overman Sinclair says:

    Joanne our 40th Hollins Reunion is coming up? I would love to see you. We had a connection then poof it was lost after graduation and I am so sorry. I would love to catch up. I have some funny photos to share from Hollins Abroad. if you can’t come please contact me at my email address. it would be fun to catch up. you were one of the few I could connect with at Hollins..kindred art spirits. let’s reconnect…it will be fun!

    I hate loved reading about you on the Internet! I always knew you would do great things!

    Ellen Overman Sinclair

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