W.C. Handy's Blues Anthology
The African-American composer W.C. Handy (1873 -- 1958) is best-known for his iconic "St. Louis Blues". In 1926, Handy, the "father of the blues' wrote his "Blues: An Anthology" which became the first written introduction to the blues for a broad-based audience. Handy selected the songs for the anthology, many of which were his own compositions and arrangements, and presented them with texts, the vocal line, a piano accompaniment, and chords. Handy had two collaborators on the book. Abbe Niles, a Wall Street lawyer, music critic, and friend of Handy, wrote an extended introduction to the volume together with endnotes for each song. The famous Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904 -1957) prepared eight plates illustrating the blues life of cabarets and singers. In 1949, Handy and Niles reissued the Blues Anthology, and it has subsequently been reissued several times.
Published in 2011, this Dover Press book is the latest version of Handy's Blues Anthology. It offers a comprehensive look at the book and at the various changes it has undergone over the years. The book also offers much insight into the history, musical structure and influence of the blues together with varied perspectives on how the music has been understood. Thus, the book begins with a new introduction to the volume by Handy scholar Elliott Hurwitt which describes the origins of the work including the many earlier editions. The book also includes an introduction to the book written in 1990 by blues scholar William Ferris of the University of Mississippi. A brief 1972 note by Jerry Silverman discusses the arrangements and the guitar chordings. The introductory materials conclude with Abbe Niles' 33-page introduction "The Story of the Blues" to the 1949 edition, an essay which still is valuable to readers with an interest in the music.
As Hurwitt explains, the songs included in the Anthology have varied somewhat over the years in the different editions. This new edition includes 70 songs and instrumentals, some of which were not included in the 1926 or the 1949 editions that Handy and Niles prepared. The songs in the volume are published or written blues rather than the folk blues which were not commercially recorded until after publication of the 1926 book. The essays in this volume offer perceptive discussions of the close relationship between the folk and the written blues, especially in the compositions of Handy.
The songs are presented under Handy's own organization from 1926. The collection begins with an invaluable selection of 14 "Background" songs which comprise early predecessors to the blues. The next and longest section is titled simply "The Blues" followed by a section called "Blues-Songs" and a concluding group of 17 songs called "Bonus Blues". The songs include famous works such as Handy's "St. Louis Blues", "Beale Street Blues", and "Aunt Hagar's Children's Blues", as well as "Careless Love", the "Joe Turner Blues" and many more. The songs include Handy's piano arrangement which, for his works, he regarded as definitive.
Although the book includes the vocal lines, the music will probably be of most interest to pianists. Some of the songs might be sight read on the piano while others are difficult and will require practice. The music is presented in large type and the book opens and rests comfortably on the piano. Niles was himself a good amateur pianist, and in his endnotes offers the following advice in approaching this music.
"A note on blues at the piano: (1) they should be played slowly; (2) but in meticulous time; (3) for a while at least, the white man should play them exactly as written -- that his subsequent embellishments (if any) may be in character; (4) do not skip to the chorus, for what precedes it may be the best part."
Amateur musicians will find in the songs materials to occupy them for years. The texts of the songs, the essays by Hurwitt, Niles, and Ferris, and Covarrubias's illustrations will make this book invaluable to blues lovers who do not play or sing.
It is a treasure to have Handy's Blues Anthology back in print in this handsome, inexpensive and easy-to-use Dover edition.