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W. C. Handy

W.C. Handy photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941
W.C. Handy photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1941

William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 - March 28, 1958) was an African American blues composer, often known as The Father of the Blues.

W. C. Handy remains among the most influential of American songwriters. Though he was one of many musicians who played the style of music that is distinctively American, he is credited with its invention not only because he was formally educated and able to notate his music for publication and hence, posterity, but because of syncopated rhythms, a style unique to his music.

While Handy was not the first to publish music in the blues form, he took the blues from an obscure regional music style to one of the dominant forces in American music.

Handy was an educated musician who used folk material in his compositions. He was scrupulous in documenting the sources of his works, which frequently combined stylistic influences from several performers. He loved this simple early music and brought his own transforming touch to it.


Early life

He was born in Florence, Alabama to freed slaves, Charles Bernard Handy and Elizabeth Bewer Handy. His father was pastor of a small charge in Guntersville, Alabama, another small town in northeast central Alabama. Handy wrote in his 1941 autobiography "Father of the Blues," that he was born in the log cabin built by his grandfather William Wise Handy, who became a African Methodist Episcopal minister after Emancipation.

Handy was a deeply religious man, whose influences in his musical style were found in the church music he sang and played as a youth, and in the sounds of nature in his hometown, Florence, Alabama.

He cited the sounds of nature, such as "whippoorwills, bats and hoot owls and their out outlandish noises" the sounds of Cypress Creek washing on the fringes of the woodland, and "the music of every songbird and all the symphonies of their unpremeditated art" as inspiration.

Growing up he apprenticed in carpentry, shoemaking and plastering, and bought his first guitar without his parents' permission. His father, dismayed at his actions, asked him, "What possessed you to bring a sinful thing like that into our Christian home?" He then ordered him to "Take it back where it came from," and enrolled him in organ lessons. His days as an organ student were short lived, and he moved on to learn the trumpet.

Musical and social development

His musical endeavors were varied, and he sang first tenor in a minstrel show, moved from Alabama and worked as a band director, choral director and trumpeter. At age 23, he was band master of Mahara's Colored Minstrels.

As a young man, he was playing cornet in the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, and in 1902 he travelled throughout Mississippi listening to various musical styles played by ordinary Negroes. The instruments most often used in many of those songs were the guitar, banjo and to a much lesser extent, the piano. His remarkable memory served him well, and he was able to recall and transcribe the music he heard in his travels.

Shortly after his July 19, 1896 marriage to Elizabeth Price, he was invited to join a minstrel group called "Mahara's Minstrels." In their three year tour, they travelled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, through Tennessee, Georgia and Florida on to Cuba and was paid a salary of $6 per week. Upon their return from their Cuban engagements, they travelled north through Alabama, and stopped to perform in Huntsville, Alabama. Growing weary from life on the road, it was there he and his wife decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence.

On June 29, 1900 in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first of their six children. Around that time, William Hooper Councill, President of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes in Normal, Alabama (a small community just outside Huntsville) approached Handy about teaching music. At the time, AAMC was the only college for Negroes in Alabama. Handy accepted Councill's offer and became a faculty member that September. He taught music there from 1900 to 1902 which is today named Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University.

An important factor in his musical development and in music history, was his enthusiasm for the distinctive style of uniquely American music which was often considered inferior to European classical music. Handy felt he was underpaid and felt he could make more money touring with a minstrel group and after a dispute with AAMC President Councill, he resigned his teaching position to rejoin the Mahara Minstrels to tour the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In 1903 he was offered the opportunity to direct a Black band named the Knights of Pythias, located in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy accepted and remained there six years.

Transition: popularity, fame and business

In 1909 he and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee and established their presence on Beale Street. At that time, American society and culture was distinctively segregated and Handy's observations of Whites responses to native Black music in conjunction with his own observations of his habits, attitudes and music of his ethnicity served as the foundation for what was later to become the style of music popularized as "the Blues".

The genesis of his "Memphis Blues" was as a campaign tune originally entitled as "Mr. Crump" which he had written for Edward Crump, a Memphis, Tennessee mayoral candidate in 1909. He later rewrote the tune and changed the name to "Memphis Blues."

The 1912 publication of his Memphis Blues sheet music introduced his style of 12-bar blues to many households, and was credited as the inspiration for the invention of the dance step the "Fox Trot" by Vernon and Irene Castle, a New York based dance team. Some consider it as the first Blues song ever. He sold the rights to the song for $100, and by 1914 at age 40 his musical style was asserted, his popularity increased significantly and he composed prolifically.

Because of the difficulty of getting his works published, he published many of his own works and in 1917 he and his business moved to New York City. By the end of that year, his most successful songs Memphis Blues, Beale Street Blues and St. Louis Blues had been published. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a White New Orleans jazz ensemble, had recorded the very first jazz record that year, introducing a wide segment of the American public to jazz music. Handy initially had little fondness for this new "jazz" music, but jazz bands dove into the repertoire of W. C. Handy compositions with enthusiasm, making many of them jazz standards.

Handy's foray into publishing was noteworthy for several reasons. Not only were his works groundbreaking because of his ethnicity, but he was among the first Blacks who were successful because of it. The rejection of his manuscripts for publication led him to self publish his works. In 1912, Handy met Harry H. Pace at the Solvent Savings Bank in Memphis. Pace was valedictorian of his graduating class at Atlanta University and student of W.E.B. DuBois. By the time of their meeting, Pace had already demonstrated a strong understanding of business and earned his business reputation by rebuilding failing businesses. Handy liked him, and he later became manager of Pace and Handy Sheet Music.

In 1920, frustrated at white publishing companies that would buy their music and lyrics and record them using white artists, Pace amicably dissolved his long standing partnership with Handy, with whom he also collaborated as lyricist, and resolved to start his own record firm which he later named Black Swan Records.

For years, scholars thought Handy was a founder of Black Swan Records. However, Handy wrote, "To add to my woes, my partner withdrew from the business. He disagreed with some of my business methods, but no harsh words were involved. He simply chose this time to sever connection with our firm in order that he might organized Pace Phonograph Company, issuing Black Swan Records and making a serious bid for the Negro market. ... With Pace went a large number of our employees. ... Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact that people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan Record Company."

Although Handy's partnership with Pace was dissolved, he continued to operate the publishing company as a family-owned business, and published other Black composers works as well as his own, which included more than 150 sacred compositions and folk song arrangements and about sixty blues compositions.

In the 1920s, he founded the Handy Record Company in New York City.

Bessie Smith's January 14, 1925 Columbia Records recording of St. Louis Blues with Louis Armstrong is considered by many to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920s.

In 1926 he authored and edited a work entitled Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs, and is probably the first work of its type which attempted to record, analyze and describe the Blues as an integral part of the U. S. South and the History of the United States.

So successful was Handy's St. Louis Blues that in 1929, he and director Kenneth W. Adams collaborated on a RCA motion picture project by the same name which was to be shown before the main attraction. Handy suggested Blues singer Bessie Smith be placed in the starring role since she had gained widespread popularity with that tune. The picture was shot in June and was shown in movie houses throughout the United States from 1929 to 1932.

The genre of the Blues was a hallmark of American society and culture in the 1920s and 1930s. So much so was it's influence and Handy's hallmark, that author F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his epic fiction work "The Great Gatsby" that, "All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the "Beale Street Blues" while a hundred pairs of golden and sliver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor."

Later life

Following publication of his autobiography, Handy published a subsequent book on African American musicians entitled "Unsung Americans Sing," which was published in 1944. He wrote a total of five books 1. Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs; 2. Book of Negro Spirituals; 3. Father of the Blues: An Autobiography; 4. Unsung Americans Sung; 5. Negro Authors and Composers of the United States.

An accidental fall from a subway platform in 1943 resulted in his blindness. Following the death of his first wife, he remarried in 1954 at age 80 to his secretary Irma Louise Logan, who he frequently said had become his eyes.

In 1955 he suffered a stroke and became confined to a wheelchair. Over 800 people attended his 84th birthday party at the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel.

On March 28, 1958, W. C. Handy succumbed to acute bronchial pneumonia and died. Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Harlems Abyssinian Baptist Church . Over 150,000 people gathered in the streets near the church to pay their respects to one of the worlds greatest musicians and songwriters.

He is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, New York.

Handy had a house in Memphis, Tennessee.


Handy's songs don't always follow the classic 12-bar pattern, often having 8- or 16-bar bridges between 12-bar verses and lovely melodies.

  • "The Memphis Blues", written 1909, published 1912. Although usually subtitled "(Boss Crump)", it is a distinct song from Handy's campaign satire, "Boss Crump don't 'low no easy riders around here" which was based on the good-time song "Mamma Don't Allow It".
  • "Saint Louis Blues" (1912), "the jazzman's Hamlet."
  • "Yellow Dog Blues" (1912), "Your easy rider's gone where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog". The reference is to the Southern Railway and the local Yazoo Delta Railroad , called the Yellow Dog.
  • "Loveless Love", based in part on the classic, "Careless Love". Possibly the first song to complain of modern synthetics, "with milkless milk and silkless silk, we're growing used to soulless soul".
  • "Aunt Hagar's Blues", the Biblical Hagar, handmaiden to Abraham and Sarah was considered the "mother" of the African Americans.
  • "Beale Street Blues" (1916), written as a farewell to the old Beale Street of Memphis (actually called Beale Avenue until the song changed the name), but Beale Street did not go away and is considered the "home of the blues" to this day. B.B. King was known as the "Beale Street Blues Boy" and Elvis Presley watched and learned from Ike Turner there.
  • "Long Gone John (From Bowling Green)", rap-style tribute to a famous bank robber.
  • "Chantez-Les-Bas (Sing 'Em Low)", tribute to the Creole culture of New Orleans.
  • "Atlanta Blues", includes song known as "Make Me a Pallet on your Floor" as chorus.

Honors, performances, recognition, miscellany

  • On April 27, 1928 he performed a program of jazz, blues, plantation songs, work songs, piano solos, spirituals and a Negro rhapsody in Carnegie Hall.
  • He performed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 and 1934 and the New York World's Fair in 1939 and 1940.
  • In 1940, NBC broadcast an All-Handy program.
  • In 1958, a movie about his life - appropriately entitled St. Louis Blues - was released.
  • Each November 16, Mr. Handy's birthday is celebrated with free music, birthday cake and free admission to the W.C. Handy Museum in Florence, Alabama. The hand-hewn log cabin made by his grandfather is his birthplace and museum.
  • He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983.

Awards, Festivals and Memorials

  • The W.C. Handy Music Festival is held annually in the Shoals area of Florence, Alabama. Previous week long festivals have featured jazz and blues legends including Jimmy Smith, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Blue Bland, Diane Schuur, Billy Taylor, Dianne Reeves and Charlie Byrd.
  • Citing "...2003 as the centennial anniversary of when W.C. Handy composed the first Blues music..." the United States Senate in 2002 passed a resolution declaring that beginning February 1, 2003 as the "Year of the Blues".
  • W.C. Handy Park is a city park located on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The park contains a life-sized bronze statue of Handy.


  • "Father of the Blues: An Autobiography." by W.C. Handy, edited by Ara Bontemps: foreword by Abbe Niles. Da Capo paperback, New York; Macmillan, 1941 ISBN 0-306-80421-2

External links



Last updated: 08-07-2005 21:29:33
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13