Soon after Johann Sebastian Bach died in 1750, he became almost a non-person in Europe. Only a few aficionados remembered the work of this arguably greatest composer of sacred music until it gained new recognition nearly a century later under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Some jazz fans wonder if W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues," is not experiencing a similar fate in his homeland, the United States.
To be sure, the enchanting university town of Florence, Ala., where he was born as a preacher's child in a log cabin 140 years ago, does keep his memory alive.
The cabin, which has been transplanted six blocks from its original location, has become a museum showing memorabilia such as the upright piano on which Handy composed the St. Louis Blues in 1914. His trumpet is there, too. And Pearley J. Woods, the curator, makes you don white gloves, if you wish to consult the scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings about her hero's accomplishments.
So it's not that there wasn't any reverence for this man whose paternal grandfather was the first freed slave to have bought land in Florence, where an entire hill bears his name. There's the W.C. Handy School, once Pearley Woods' place of work. There are the W.C. Handy Recreation Center and the Handy Homes housing project -- now integrated -- right there where the composer harvested cherries, pears, damsons and quinces as a boy way back in the 19th century.
There's even a Beale Street running through this estate; it bears the name of another of Handy's celebrated Blues -- and the main drag of the black section of Memphis long, long ago.
But before coming to Florence, this writer asked Americans, black and white, what they thought about this William Christopher Handy, and was astonished to find that many had never heard of him. This is what it must have been like in Leipzig, Germany, after 1750, when some oddball queried locals about the cantatas and oratorios by a certain Herr Bach.
Perhaps it's even worse. There were at least Bach hymns in Lutheran hymnals even then. But when I went to the Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which Handy's father and grandfather had been pastors, I leafed through the A.M.E. hymnals in the pews of this attractive sanctuary designed by Pearley Wood's husband, William, after the congregation had moved from downtown.
Handel was present in its pages, but not Handy, the denomination's musical genius, who has written or arranged at least 40 spirituals, especially late in life when as a blind man he rhymed:
"O Lord, who has made me see / Continue to strengthen me /No darkness for me impose / No darkness for me impose / I count my blessings / Living on, I see, though my eyes are closed."
Florence, though, honors its native composer more than 18th century Leipzig paid homage to Bach.
In Florence's downtown park there is a handsome Handy monument, and every summer every part of the town, every church, every bar, every church corner swings, stomps and jives during the weeklong W.C. Handy Music Festival, which lures tens of thousands into town, including many Handy fans from overseas. This year the festival is scheduled from July 27-Aug. 2.
Then, on Nov. 16, there's a W.C. Handy birthday party with masses of music and a huge cake.
"This is a very musical place," says Barbara Broach, Florence's director for museums and the arts. "There is nobody here who doesn't sing or play an instrument. The churches, of which we have an enormous number, are very active in this field." Hence, Alabama's Florentines, she insists, do not tolerate bad music.
What has made this town so? For one thing, there are the Shoals in the Tennessee River. In the 19th century, these rocks were a major hurdle for shipping. Boats went as far as Florence and no further when the water level was too low. So he vessels' musicians got off and played in town until the water level rose and the journey could continue, according to Barbara Broach.
That's the prosaic explanation. There's a mysterious one, too. Locals call the Tennessee the "singing river," which is what a Creek Indian squaw called it famously centuries ago. The Tennessee chants as it flows northward, and its song was accompanied by the most wonderful noises of nature back in the late 19th century, when Handy grew up here and taught himself to swim by leaping into the Tennessee's treacherous waters.
In his 1941 autobiography, "Father of the Blues," he described how the outlandish cacophony of the amazing local fauna -- from hoot owls to whippoorwills -- trained his sense of sound. In his mind, he assigned instruments to every one of them:
"There was a French horn concealed in the breast of a blue jay. The tappings of the woodpecker were to me the reverberations of a snare drum. The bullfrog supplied an effective bass. In the raucous call of a distant crow I would hear the jazz motif... As I grew older I added the saxophonic wailing of the moo-cows and the clarinets of the moody whippoorwills."
Handy's Florence was a musical kindergarten, as he called it. Mocking birds "thrilled cadenzas," and the "purple night would awaken a million crickets with their obbligatos of mournful sounds."
Add to this other impressions -- the haunting African chants of black cotton field workers, the hooting and rattling of railroad trains, the choirs in his father's and other churches -- and you had the unique ingredients of an art form that is America's unique contribution to the world of music: blues and jazz based on the spiritual, which according to Handy only "negroes" -- and only those brought up in America -- can sing authentically.
Not that Handy's musical calling pleased his father, a stern Methodist preacher who considered stringed instruments devices of Satan. He obliged young William Christopher return a guitar, which he had bought with his own money, earned by making soap from bones he had found in the woods. He was to exchange it for a new Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
But although his father told him he'd rather see him in a hearse than on stage as a musician, W.C. Handy was unstoppable. "'We ... kids made rhythm by scraping a twenty-penny nail across the teeth of the jawbone of a horse that had died near by," he recalled. "By drawing a broom handle across our first finger lying on the table we imitated the bass. We sang through fine-tooth combs."
An English teacher at age 19, Handy went through extraordinary lengths to learn music. A white drunk taught Florence blacks how to handle instruments, while Handy stood outside on the sidewalk observing every detail. He learned the art of conducting and arranging by hiring himself out as a handyman to a German Liederkranz singing society in Kentucky and its conductor, whose name happened to be Professor Bach. This he called his "graduate school."
Jazz fans the world over love Handy's secular music -- the Saint Louis Blues, the Memphis Blues, the Beale Street Blues, the Yellow Dog Blues and the hilarious Long Gone, which he frequently performed in unsavory places, such as Mississippi bordellos. Less is known about Handy is his substantial Christian work, with which he proved that his upbringing in a parsonage had not been in vain.
Long before W.C. Handy died in New York, in 1958, he wrote: "If, as my teacher predicted, 'music brought me to the gutter,' I can confess it was there I got a glimpse of heaven, for music can lift one to that state. If, as my father often said, 'Your are trotting down to hell on a fast horse in a porcupine saddle,' I rode with a song on my lips and its echo in my heart."
And then he concluded, "I also hang on the memory of these words from my mother's prayer, which so aptly express my innermost feelings, 'Lord, I thank thee that were are living in a Christian land and a Bible country.'"