For a figure so tied to Memphis history and to American music history, what do you know of the life and times of W.C. Handy, the "father" of the blues? If you think of Beale Street and Handy Park or "The Memphis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," or "St. Louis Blues," you know really next to nothing. To learn something, see David Robertson's readable, well-researched W.C. Handy: The Life and Times of the Man Who Made the Blues (Knopf), the first biography of Handy in decades. And to start, you have to go back decades, decades before Handy made Memphis and Beale Street his home and nationally famous. >>>
"Home," to begin with, was Florence, Alabama, where William Christopher Handy was born in 1873, the son of former slaves. "Home," by the time Handy died in 1958, was New York City. But between those two place names and dates, Handy lived (against his preacher father's wishes) as a frustrated cornet player riding the rails in search of work; as a member of a marching band, as a player on the minstrel circuit, and as an African American narrowly escaping on more than one occasion the violence that threatened him and his bandmates in the Jim Crow South. The gutbucket blues he overheard in 1903 (or it may have been '04) on a train platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi, would change his life and change the course of popular music in America.
Was Handy the father of the blues, as he claimed in the title of a book he wrote and as the country continues to think of him? Robertson argues, pro and con, the case, but "made" the blues (as Robertson has it in his subtitle) is more like it. Handy played it, he transcribed it, he composed it, he published it, and he was honored for it. If that's what it means to act as "father," so be it. And thanks to David Robertson's W.C. Handy , there's now no excuse not to know more about the man.
There's been, of course, no shortage of words on the life and times of Elvis Aaron Presley, and author Daniel Wolff (who's written a highly regarded biography of Sam Cooke and collaborated with Memphis photographer Ernest Withers) knows it. So it isn't Wolff's intention in his latest book to rehearse well-trod territory. But, like Robertson on Handy, Wolff's How Lincoln Learned To Read (Bloomsbury USA) is about how a selection of famous Americans were "made" — made by their formal and informal educations.
It isn't a new idea — education being part and parcel of any book-length biography. But with Wolff, it's a focused look at what went into the making of men and women such as Benjamin Franklin, Sojourner Truth, Helen Keller, and John F. Kennedy: family histories, the forces of history, accidents of history, cultural settings, socioeconomics — the works. The last profile, out of a total of 12 in Wolff's book, just so happens to be also some of the most perceptive words written about the man who would be King. What do you really know of the early life and larger times of Elvis Aaron Presley? Read Wolff.
And for suburban Memphis in the '50s, see poet and teacher Doug Anderson, author of the memoir Keep Your Head Down (W.W. Norton). That title of Anderson's: It was good advice growing up just north of Jackson Avenue in Memphis during the Cold War. It was good advice during Anderson's term in Vietnam as a medic. And it was what Anderson didn't do in Tucson and New York after the war when he got deeply into leftist politics, alcohol, drugs, and a series of wrong turns and dead-ends.
That this man is still alive — and sober and "clean" and writing — is almost a miracle. That he writes in all honesty of growing up practically fatherless and with a mother with rarely a kind word for her only child says something about resilience in the face of some rotten family dynamics. For Memphians, Keep Your Head Down is a look, in writing, at the city — its postwar neighborhoods, its social climate — that's been too often overlooked.
CALL FOR ENTRIES
It's that time of year again. Time to hit "Save" and send that manuscript of yours to Memphis magazine for its annual short-story contest, now in its 20th year. Here are the basic rules:
Authors must live within 150 miles of Memphis; stories (the theme needn't be Memphis or even the South) should be between 3,000 and 4,500 words; and each story (you may submit more than one) must come with a $10 entry fee, along with a cover letter with your name, address, phone number, and the title of the story. (Keep your name off the story itself!)
Mail your manuscript (double-spaced, unstapled, and with numbered pages) to: Fiction Contest, c/o Memphis magazine, P.O. Box 1738, Memphis TN 38101. (No faxes or e-mails, please.) The deadline for entries is August 1st. Winners will be contacted in September.
What's there to win? A $1,000 grand prize (and publication in a future issue of Memphis magazine), plus $500 each to two honorable mentions, if quality warrants.
Here's thanks to the Fiction Contest's co-sponsors, Burke's Book Store and Davis-Kidd Booksellers.