Friday, March 2, 2018

Interview w/ Joanne Fish - Her Handy documentary debuts in Shoals

Interview w/ Joanne Fish
Her Handy documentary debuts in Shoals
By Monica Collier - The Times Daily - July 2017

Joanne Fish made her way to a section of Alabama called the Shoals several years ago on one of her many fact-finding missions.  "It took roughly 10 years of her life," W.C. Handy Music Festival Chairwoman Tori Bailey asserted, "but Fish completed her documentary on W.C. Handy” this past November.  She titled it,  “Mr. Handy’s Blues." Now she is headed back to the Shoals to give locals the first peek at her polished gem during a music festival named in the native musician's honor.

“She spent a lot of time, a lot of energy and her own resources on this film — it was a labor of love for her,” Bailey said of Fish. “For her to be able to come back and share that with the festival — we are so fortunate to have her.” 

There will be three free screenings of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” during the W.C. Handy Music Festival with the first being at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame on U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia. The hall of fame will also show the documentary at 1 p.m. Thursday.

The final showing will be at 10 a.m. Friday at the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Visitor Center at McFarland Park in Florence.

“So many people who met Fish, while she was doing interviews for the documentary, are apparently as impressed with her as I am,” Bailey said. “They’re coming to support the screenings. Dr. Carlos Handy — W.C. Handy’s grandson — will be here. I also talked to Dr. (Willie) Ruff — he is coming. He has recently retired from Yale and is back in the area. Dr. Ruff, along with Dr. David Mussleman, are the two who created the (Handy) festival.”

Bailey calls the screenings dual events because not only will there be a question-and-answer session with Fish at each one, Carlos Handy will be present signing copies of W.C. Handy’s "Father of the Blues: An Autobiography."

Fish recently took time from touring with the documentary to answer a few questions by phone.

TimesDaily: You are not from the Shoals, correct?

Fish: That’s correct.

TimesDaily: You are not a musician, are you?

Fish: No.

TimesDaily: So, how in the world did you get interested in telling W.C. Handy’s story?

Fish: OK, well, I’ll make a long story short. I was in Florence, Alabama, in 2007 for the George Lindsey Film Festival. I had a film in that festival, it won second place in the documentary category. I really got a chance to explore the area then.  I had been there once before working for the Discovery Channel on a show just for a day. I had eaten at Ricatoni’s and I had been to the (University of North Alabama) campus, but I really hadn’t explored all around. Being at the film festival gave me that opportunity. The film I had in the festival was about Wanda Jackson, the queen of rockabilly. I’m interested in music. I used to work for CMT and the Nashville Network.

I went to the Handy home. I felt enlightened going through the Handy home. It was like the heavens opened up and gave me this gift of all this information and this wonderful story. The people there talked to me and gave me more information.

I went back three or four times during the course of the four or five days I was there.

After that, I went to a film festival in Texas. It was the last one for my film. I told my husband, I’m going to miss Wanda and the film. He said to me, what about Handy?

TimesDaily: Did you start work right away?

Fish: I told my husband, surely someone has done a documentary about him. I was positive there must be a great film out there. So I spent the next year or so trying to find that film that did not exist.

The following year, I met up with Dr. Carlos Handy (W.C. Handy’s grandson) at the Handy Music Festival in Florence. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said OK. So here were are.

TimesDaily: Yes, here we are roughly 10 years later. Did you realize you were signing up for a decade-long labor of love?

Fish: No. (She said laughing.)

TimesDaily: It has been that long, right?

Fish: Yes ma’am, it has been that long. It’s like when I signed up to run a marathon in the year 2000. If I had known what it was going to take to train for that marathon, I never would have done it.

Fish: Her Gaze Can Daze
I won’t say I spent every minute of the past 10 years working on this. But I was constantly thinking about it and writing grants. First, I had to find the experts to make sure I had the right information. The research and grant-writing took a long time. Also, just making connections and meeting people and trying to figure it all out took time. I’d say that was the first five years.

TimesDaily: You had to put in the legwork before you could get to the fun part?

Fish: Yeah, exactly. The past five years has been the shooting and putting it together.

Documentaries typically take a long time. It’s just a long process. People aren’t funding them every day.

TimesDaily: When I watched the trailer — — I wondered if you found yourself going down a rabbit hole. The documentary is about more than the music Mr. Handy created. It’s about him being a groundbreaker in many ways, correct?

Fish: Yes. Yes.

It is a rabbit hole. That’s a really good way to describe it. You can’t understand Handy unless you understand the entire Civil War and what happened after that …

Then, you have to understand why Florence was such a unique place. It was the fertile ground that gave Handy a lot of the tools and confidence to go forward.

TimesDaily: Was that uncommon for a small southern town in the late 1800s?

Fish: As far as I can tell, it was very unique. Also, his decisions after that — in the face of a Great Depression in 1894 and then Jim Crow – are unique.

When you go to the Handy home, what comes through is the overlay of all of that. This guy has a very optimistic story. This is about a person who was successful against all odds. He was able to make his journey to the top.

TimesDaily: You mentioned the Handy home. Did you work closely with several people in the Shoals?

Fish: Oh yes. It all started with Barbara Broach at the Kennedy-Douglass Center. I met her, and she had to be the first one to say yes and that she would help me. She put me in touch with Carlos Handy. She told me he was the member of the Handy family that I needed to talk to. That really started it all.

Then, I was given access to the Handy home. They have boxes and boxes of photographs in a closet over there. Mary Nicely was my main partner in crime in Florence. I shouldn’t say crime … (laughing), but we spent so many hours going through those boxes after hours and scanning things. We got to be good friends. I respect her and love her so much.

TimesDaily: So you found Florence welcoming and supportive of “Mr. Handy’s Blues” being made?

Fish: Yes! It was so easy. I didn’t have to convince anyone. I am so grateful that Barbara saw me — without knowing me — and said, “OK, you want to do this? Then that’s great.” The only thing she asked was that I made sure people knew Handy was from Florence, Alabama, and not Memphis, Tennessee.

TimesDaily: Not only did you have the blessing of the Handy family, was Carlos Handy part of the project?

Fish: Yes. I couldn’t have done it without Carlos. He gave me the permission. I have permission from the Handy home and I have releases from all the people who interviewed with me, but I had to have the blessing from the family. I think he (Carlos Handy) felt like I did — people should know about W.C. Handy, and we should preserve his legacy. A film is a good way to do that.

I don’t think he (Carlos Handy) thought it was going to take this long, either … (laughing), but he has hung in there. He trusted me. He had patience and faith that we would get this done.

TimesDaily: You interviewed several contemporary artists who have been influenced by W.C. Handy. Did you find that those artists welcomed the film as an outlet to show their appreciation?

Fish: Yeah — and I do appreciate them coming forward. I mean, Taj Mahal and Bobby Rush are huge — not just in blues but in the history and story of music. They are well known around the world.

In fact, Bobby Rush heard about the film and came to us. That meant a lot to me. I wouldn’t have known that W.C. Handy was his idol and how much Handy had influenced him if he hadn’t reached out to me.

TimesDaily: Has “Mr. Handy’s Blues” been well received at the initial screenings?

Fish: Yes, very much so. We had what I called a “St. Louis Celebration of W.C. Handy” a couple of weeks ago. It was a private event, not a festival, for the people of St. Louis who participated and supported the film. I also went there early on to meet people. Wow. Over the years, I’ve gotten so much support. We had the screening in a big movie theater. The mayor proclaimed it “W.C. Handy Day.” It set the tone so beautifully. Handy was only there for a minute, but it was kind of like his crossroads. And, of course, there’s the song “St. Louis Blues.”

There were all kinds of people who attended — young, old, black, white, musicians and non-musicians. I was most surprised by the reaction from the younger people. They know about Handy. They had not even made the connection with the St. Louis Blues hockey team to the song. It’s precious, really. Their eyes lit up and they were happy to know the information.

TimesDaily: Have you thought at all about how special it is for you to be screening the documentary during the W.C. Handy Music Festival?

Fish: I have dreamed about this. I have played out that scenario in my head many times. I do want to mention that we were lucky to have Professor Willie Ruff in the film. He has told me that he will be attending one of the screenings. Interviewing him was such a great experience. He really makes the film because he actually shook the hand of W.C. Handy. That was a key interview.

When I first spoke with Tori (Bailey), who heads the festival, the museum was a place I suggested. I left it up to her, of course, but that came to my mind right away. It’s just amazing how it has all worked out. I’m very excited.

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