W. C. Handy and the “Birth” of the Blues

Illustration by Lamar Sorrento.

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W. C. Handy and the “Birth” of the Blues

by Adam Gussow
Southern Cultures, Vol. 24, No. 4: Winter 2018

“Seductive as [the] Delta blues origin story has proven to be over the years, it rests on surprisingly shaky foundations.”

Metaphors of birth are a regular feature in the origin stories of vernacular American music. Middlebrow journalists and popular historians speak of the birth of jazz in New Orleans’s Storyville, the birth of rock ’n’ roll at Sun Studios in Memphis. But there is something uncanny about the tenacity with which the birth metaphor clings to the blues; many people through the years have found it almost impossible to think about the music’s origins without invoking it. In Dutchman (1964), playwright LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) prophetically satirized this tendency by having white female seductress Lula repeat the phrase “And that’s how the blues was born” four times in quick succession, emptying it of all content except her desire to burlesque and mock those—above all, Clay, the younger black protagonist—who would take the music seriously. Clay finally slaps her across the mouth and shouts, “Now shut up and let me talk,” before offering his own furious explication of the music’s origins in sublimated rage. Yet the birth-of-the-blues cliché, despite such critique, remains seductive—especially in the world of contemporary blues tourism.