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Mr. Handy's Blues to be shown during 35th Annual Reel Music Festival

By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Film chronicles life of W.C. Handy

The life and legacy of W.C. Handy are explored in the documentary "Mr. Handy's Blues", to be shown on Saturday, January 27 as part of the 35th Annual Reel Music Festival.

Born in Florence, Alabama, in 1873 Handy is widely credited as the father of the blues. Told in chronological order over Handy's lifespan, the film includes audio recordings of Handy (some done by Alan Lomax), interviews with many contemporary musicians and historians, and several video clips of his works being performed in film, concert, and television.

The film does do an excellent job of exploring the context of Handy's life, especially his time in New York City and Memphis. However, the chronological telling of Handy's story makes it difficult to tease out some of the more fundamental questions surrounding his life and contributions.

Although he and Robert Johnson were contemporaries both in time and geography, the film only mentions this overlap in passing and no analysis of the contributions of each is offered. Likewise, a deeper analysis concerning issues of race would have increased the film's impact.

Born the son of emancipated slaves, Handy managed to bridge deep racial gaps in post Civil War America and became widely accepted in white society, the same society that for decades spurned the contributions of African American musicians to both the birth of rock and roll and the emergence of blues music in the tradition of artists such as Johnson and Leadbelly. The question of why Handy was accepted and not these other core contributors to the blues is largely missing from the film.

Overall, "Mr. Handy's Blues" is a wonderful contribution to music history and a delightful telling of his story, creating a solid foundation to ask more fundamental questions about his life, career, and contributions.

Tickets are still available and the showing will be at 4:30PM at the Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum.

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