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Lay for the Day
28th March

The bandleader, composer and publisher W.C. Handy died on this day in 1958 in New York City.
Handy tells a famous story in his autobiography, Father of the Blues: “One night at Tutwiler [a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta], as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed by nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulder and wakened me with a start.” The revelation came in the music of a “lean, loose-jointed Negro” who was playing a guitar while sliding a knife along the strings and singing a song in which each line was repeated three times. It was Handy’s first encounter with the blues.
Now consider, Handy was black, born in the Deep South (in Florence, Alabama, on 16th November 1873), and had been playing professionally and moving about the country on and off for more than 10 years, yet this blues struck him as something utterly new – “the weirdest music I had ever heard”. Whatever degree there is of legend in his account and however much the music may have been the product of long traditions, it seems fair to take him at his word and accept the implications of his amazement: that this kind of guitar blues was either something recently created, or was closely confined to rural backwaters of Mississippi – or perhaps both. Yet by the time Handy died, the blues, particularly through its power-mad bastard offspring, rock’n’roll, had risen from its obscure sources to be a central current in the popular music of the entire world.
Handy, through his writing, adaptation, orchestration and publication of blues, was a key figure in this process, and his honorific, ‘Father of the Blues’, if inaccurate, was deserved.


Blues Hit

Whine of the twined steel
the glass gadget glides on,
dodging along and back
to the fingernail’s pluck,
the tapping and thump of a bootsole and heel,

and the thumbtack-studded rubbed-out felt
on the hammers of a split-backed,
ivory-cracked and ebony-(black-paint)-
worn-away upright
bonging and plinking the big rigid strings

while the wheezing and wail
of a breath-rattled sliver of metal
in the toylike tinplate instrument ’s
humming and moaning in sidesucked air,
cupped in one hand while the other hand’s clapping the end,

and the crash, bump, rattle of the three-piece kit,
kickdrum and traps and ride
keep time, a kind of time
with the belligerent bullfiddle’s shoving:
Oohee babe, I need your kind of, kind of loving.

John Gibbens
The Improvised Version, Vol. 1

The Lay Reader
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