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Letters to Planet Slade: 2021

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

July: Carlos Handy.

Paul Slade writes: June 2021 was a busy month for anyone interested in Harry Pace, the 1920s African-American entrepreneur who founded the first successful Black-owned record label in the US. Radiolab and NPR both aired major audio projects on Pace and his Black Swan label in that month and I published an expanded edition of my own book about him.
All three of these projects covered, among many other aspects of Pace’s life, his business partnership and friendship with the blues pioneer WC Handy, who Pace worked with in their music publishing company Pace & Handy. When Pace left to form Black Swan in 1920, Pace & Handy became Handy Brothers Music, and that’s the name it still uses today. WC Handy’s grandson Carlos Handy now runs the firm as its president and CEO.
Mr Handy contacted PlanetSlade with some comments on how Radiolab, NPR and I had handled our respective Harry Pace projects, and I suggested he might like to set these out as an article for PlanetSlade readers. It’s always fascinating to hear from anyone with a family connection to an important musical figure like WC Handy, so I’m very pleased to have his article here on the site.


William C. Handy, “Father of the Blues”, versus Harry Pace and the Talented Tenth. A Critique by Carlos R. Handy (grandson)

The value of any historical work, regardless of its accuracy or intent, is the degree to which it provokes a reassessment of our perspectives on the forces that guided us to where we are today. If this agitation of the spirit makes us restless, and drives us to a better place, that of “understanding”, one is grateful. This is the case for the recent work by Paul Slade, entitled Black Swan Blues, and its counterpart on National Public Radio-Radiolab, The Vanishing of Harry Pace.
In this critique we correct several erroneous comments made within the aforementioned narratives. First of all, Harry Pace did not contribute to any of W. C. Handy’s iconic masterpieces, such as The Memphis Blues, The St. Louis Blues (‘’the jazzman’s Hamlet’’), Beale St. Blues, Yellow Dog Blues, etc. This is well documented in Handy’s autobiography, Father of the Blues.
The second correction pertains to the remark that Handy did not join Pace in the creation of Black Swan records due to “generational differences”. There are two more accurate, and coinciding, reasons explaining this. The first of these is referenced in his autobiography. Specifically, the Pace and Handy Music Co published works that were subsequently recorded on White record labels. Had Handy joined Pace, it would have jeopardized this symbiotic relation, through the creation of a competing record label.
The second reason for Handy not joining Pace is more profound; and the result of intense discussions with Bill Doggett and Elliott Hurwitt, noted historians of Black music. It involves the emergence of two conflicting forces within the dynamically evolving Black cultural renaissance of the 1920s, as personified by W. E. B. DuBois and William C. Handy.

Harry Pace did not contribute to any of WC Handy’s iconic masterpieces, such as Memphis Blues

DuBois championed the “uplifting the race” movement, which meant abandoning Black culture in favor of emulating the standards of White society; and in particular, embracing classical music. It would be led by the Talented Tenth, consisting of university educated professionals. Pace was DuBois’ perceived protégé. Through DuBois’ NAACP connections (which he co-founded in 1909 and established its journal, The Crisis, in 1910), he enlisted other elite Black professionals in supporting the creation of Black Swan Records, and its exclusive focus on classical music.
W. C. Handy was the antithesis of this due to the nature of his education, and his embrace of genuine Black musical culture. He was an erudite man of introspective intelligence, keen powers of observation, and an obsession for writing and composing. His professional growth was nurtured by a non-conservatory-based music education, which molded him into a consummate musician and composer. By living amongst his people, poor Southern Blacks, he came to realize that their Afro-American folkloric musical traditions needed to be understood and promoted; and superseded the European adaptations inherent to ragtime and spirituals.
What many “arm-chair” historians, some film directors, and a few ignorant jazz musicians conveniently forget is that there was a time when educated Blacks, and White society, considered the “blues” as a bastardized musical creation, not deserving of any consideration. They forget the daily perils that Black artists faced, while living in a lynching prone society. Indeed, Handy escaped from one such encounter.
W. C. Handy was intellectually attracted to the blues’ musical structure, as revealed in his 1903 Tutwiler, Mississippi, train station epiphany. He distilled its essence and transformed it into a form the rest of the world could understand, while retaining its authentic structure that emphasized “the blue note”, the unrequited romantic emotions of poor Blacks, and more importantly, an appreciation for the power of “Negro phraseology and dialect, because this often implies more than well-chosen English can briefly express”.
W. C. Handy’s interests were incompatible with the “enlightened” goals of the “uplifting the race” movement; therefore, he was not welcomed in the creation of Black Swan records.
Eventually, Handy would become “the poet of the blues”, as acknowledged by George Avakian (producer of the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy) in the only accurate film-biography of Handy’s life (i.e., Mr. Handy’s Blues) by Emmy award winning documentarian Joanne Fish, with insightful musical and historical perspectives by Taj Mahal, Wille Ruff, and Elliott Hurwitt.
Handy did not sire the “blues”. He nurtured and promoted it, as an adoptive parent nurtures an abandoned child. Well into his sixties, he dared to echo what a 1938 radio station had proclaimed: he was the “Father of the Blues”.



November 29, 2020. Martin Hill of South London writes:
“I have been reading your piece about the Whitefield Chapel burial ground with interest as I have recently done some research into Nathan Woolf Jacobson.
“You may be interested to know that Charles Wingard was the father of Annie, the fourth and final wife of Nathan Woolf Jacobson. Nathan and Annie had three children, Charles (born 1877), Rebecca (born 1879) and Julius (born 1880). I am not a lawyer and I don’t know why Charles Wingard and Annie Jacobson appeared to be on opposing sides of the case, but it may be that this was the only way he could help his daughter sort out the legal tangle - ie generate a legal case so that the matter could be settled.
“My own view is that Nathan was probably an unpleasant man. His second wife Mary Ann Isaacs obtained a legal separation and his third, Rebecca Levy, disappeared without trace. But there is no evidence of either a divorce or death.”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter. For the benefit of other readers, I should add that the case we’re talking about here is 1881’s Jacobson v Jacobson. It sprang from the fact that Nathan Jacobson had died intestate, leaving five of his children to sue his young widow Annie over the money he left behind. The five children’s case was spearheaded by what court documents call “their near friend” - one Charles Wingard.
I didn’t know that Wingard was Annie’s father, and the fact that he seems to have ranged himself against her in the case certainly adds another twist to the family’s warfare. I put your idea about Wingard’s motivation to UCL’s Dr Ian Williams, the legal historian who helped me with the original piece. “I think the suggestion is plausible,” he told me. “The litigation may have been contrived as a means to resolve uncertainties about the estate. This is still possible today in succession matters, sometimes with all the interested parties agreed they need the court to decide what needs to be done.”
I agree with you that Nathan Jacobson seems to have been rather a nasty piece of work. Even leaving the burial ground row aside, I’m pretty sure he supplemented the income from his jeweller’s shop and antique dealing with acting as a fence for any stolen goods that came his way. As far as his many wives are concerned, my own assumption was that, as he accumulated more and more money, he’d simply traded each one in for a younger model. Now you’ve got me wondering if it was the wives who dumped him rather than the other way round.

November 30. Martin Hill adds:
“My uncovering of these details stems from my family interest in a Jewish burial ground at Queen's Elm in the Fulham Road. I have spent some years transcribing the inscriptions of the gravestones there and identifying the individuals and their families.
“I am currently preparing a talk for the Jewish Genealogical Society of GB (of which I am Secretary) to set out some of the interesting stories which I have uncovered. It looks as though Nathan Woolf Jacobson will take up most of the allotted time. I have now added to my draft script a reference to the purchase of the site in 1863 and the protracted legal case after Nathan's death (with suitable acknowledgements to your piece). I had already covered the 1880 case.
“I followed the case because of the inscription on Nathan’s second wife's gravestone, her Isaacs family being connected with my own. It is worth noting that Isaac Jacobson was Nathan’s step-father and that his birth name was most likely Nathan Woolf. It would appear from papers relating to his brother Michael Woolf, transported to Australia in 1838, that his mother, Eve Jacobson, set her children up in the Oxford Street jeweller businesses . She refers in a petition to the Home Secretary to having done so for Michael when he was 13.
“I wonder why Nathan’s third and fourth wives married him given his history, but perhaps they felt sorry for the children or thought he was misunderstood. Given that the marriages were probably all conducted by the Chief Rabbi (who tried to conduct all Jewish weddings at the time) one assumes that he would need to have been satisfied that both parties were fit and proper persons. Nathan died in Hastings and his death was registered by the boarding house keeper - perhaps Annie had sent him packing and then found he had not registered the birth of any of their children.”

[You can find a video recording of Martin’s JGSGB Zoom talk here. The Jacobson material runs from 20:20 to 33:50, and adds evidence of wife-beating to the list of Nathan’s crimes. “The more you uncover, the nastier he appears to be,” Martin concludes.]


November 20, 2020. Amanda Lee Braton of Denver, Colorado writes:
“I have been reading through your website, starting with the Cross Bones story, and enjoying it all a great deal. After reading the Pearl Bryan story, I saw that folklore indicated her sister Mabel Stanley had possibly committed suicide. I was interested and looked for her through genealogical sites.
“I have many ancestors in the Ohio-Indiana-Kentucky area, and although they're not related to her, I did discover that Mabel (named Mary or Mary B. on all the records) actually ended up moving to Colorado by 1900, living a full life in Denver and dying there at age 74. This is where I live, oddly enough. I drove past Crown Hill Cemetery today, which is where she and her husband are buried. Mary/Mabel was born in 1864 and died 12 February 1939. Her husband John Stanley died in 1921. They had one daughter, Auta, named for another of her deceased sisters, who never married and who was also buried at Crown Hill.
“The census records show that Mary/Mabel and her family lived in Kansas from at least 1885 to March of 1895. [Newspaper accounts from the time show Mabel & her husband back in Greencastle and running a shop there by February 1896 – Ed.] John Stanley is listed as a grocery salesman on every census, and Mabel is listed with no occupation.”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for making contact. I’m really glad you’ve found so much on the site to enjoy. I always love it when readers reach out with new information on the people I’ve written about. When I begin a project like the Pearl Bryan piece, the people involved are no more than dusty references in the written record to me, but the the more I discover about them the more flesh is added to their bones and the more real they become. Readers’ letters are a fascinating continuation of that process.