A solid appreciation that restores Handy to his rightful place in America’s music pantheon.

W.C. HANDY

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE MAN WHO MADE THE BLUES

Poet and biographer Robertson (A Passionate Pilgrim: A Biography of Bishop James A. Pike, 2004, etc.) takes the measure of musical giant W.C. Handy, composer of such classics as “The Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.”

Born in northern Alabama eight years after the surrender at Appomattox, W.C. Handy died the year Elvis entered the Army. At the outset of his lengthy career, this talented cornet player aspired, against the wishes of his minister father, to become “the colored Sousa,” a leader of brass-band music. He became much more. Blending African-American folk-blues melodies “with ragtime and his own distinct notation,” he fashioned the blues into a publishable, commercially successful form. Robertson revisits each stage of Handy’s career: his years as the music director of various fraternal organizations, as the leader of dance bands; as a college music professor; and, most revealingly, as a performer and director on the minstrelsy circuit, where he encountered virtually every form of popular music. The author effectively demonstrates how by 1904 Handy was uniquely poised to turn folk blues into a commodity for a national audience. Handy corralled the notoriously improvisational blues, snatching folk melodies for his compositions and making the “blue note,” unexpected minor and flatted notes, his signature. Robertson stoutly defends Handy against attacks by Jelly Roll Morton and other partisans of the New Orleans tradition, noting that in his time, Handy’s Memphis strain of blues was every bit the equal of anything emanating from the Crescent City, and surely the public’s favorite. If Robertson never quite nails Handy the man—the author includes scant information about Handy’s philandering or the blindness that afflicted half his life—he supplies plentiful details about the career, the timeless blues compositions, the groundbreaking publishing company Handy established and the composer’s late-life attention to spirituals.

A solid appreciation that restores Handy to his rightful place in America’s music pantheon.

Pub Date: March 18, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-307-26609-5

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2009

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

A LITTLE HISTORY OF POETRY

A light-speed tour of (mostly) Western poetry, from the 4,000-year-old Gilgamesh to the work of Australian poet Les Murray, who died in 2019.

In the latest entry in the publisher’s Little Histories series, Carey, an emeritus professor at Oxford whose books include What Good Are the Arts? and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, offers a quick definition of poetry—“relates to language as music relates to noise. It is language made special”—before diving in to poetry’s vast history. In most chapters, the author deals with only a few writers, but as the narrative progresses, he finds himself forced to deal with far more than a handful. In his chapter on 20th-century political poets, for example, he talks about 14 writers in seven pages. Carey displays a determination to inform us about who the best poets were—and what their best poems were. The word “greatest” appears continually; Chaucer was “the greatest medieval English poet,” and Langston Hughes was “the greatest male poet” of the Harlem Renaissance. For readers who need a refresher—or suggestions for the nightstand—Carey provides the best-known names and the most celebrated poems, including Paradise Lost (about which the author has written extensively), “Kubla Khan,” “Ozymandias,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, which “changed the course of English poetry.” Carey explains some poetic technique (Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm”) and pauses occasionally to provide autobiographical tidbits—e.g., John Masefield, who wrote the famous “Sea Fever,” “hated the sea.” We learn, as well, about the sexuality of some poets (Auden was bisexual), and, especially later on, Carey discusses the demons that drove some of them, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath among them. Refreshingly, he includes many women in the volume—all the way back to Sappho—and has especially kind words for Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, who share a chapter.

Necessarily swift and adumbrative as well as inclusive, focused, and graceful.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-23222-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 9, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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