William Christopher Handy is often called the "Father of the Blues" because of
his enormous contribution, during the early years of the 20th century, to the
introduction of this style of music to the world. Handy himself stated
that, far from inventing the blues, he merely wrote them down and
brought the blues to the masses. This rather modest claim probably
understates the importance of Handy's role in the development of blues
music and even jazz, rock, and folk. His remarkable life
started eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War ... which
began a new era for black people. Handy would help define this
new era by introducing black music to the world.
Click on small
photos for enlargements
W. C. Handy was
born in a log cabin in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873, to a
family of former slaves.
parents and grandparents were among the four million slaves freed by
Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. His grandfather, William Wise Handy,
built their log cabin home and became a well-respected citizen
of Florence and the Methodist minister of his own church. Handy’s
father followed in those footsteps, and the same future was planned
for the young Handy.
intelligent, well educated and musically talented. His
grandmother encouraged his destiny when she suggested that her
grandson's big ears meant he had a talent for music.
Handy Birth House
Handy - 19 yeas
As a young child Handy showed great aptitude for music but this wasn't
encouraged by his family who regarded musical talent, especially
musical instruments, as not being suitable for a good Christian youth.
At the age of 12, he fell in love with a guitar in a shop and saved
his money from odd jobs to buy it. According to his
autobiography, Father of the Blues, his angry father demanded
that he return the
and exchange it for
do you some good."
Handy was an exceptional student and attended the Florence District
School for Negroes and then continued to college. He qualified as a teacher
by the age of 19, and received a teaching degree from the Huntsville
Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College ( A & M) in 1892.
However, after a brief stint at teaching, the low pay forced him to take manual
work in a factory. But during spare time, Handy organized a small string
orchestra (Lauzetta Quartet) and taught the musicians how to read notes.
A & M -1883
When the group read about the upcoming
World's Fair in Chicago,
they decided to attend. To pay their way, group members performed
odd jobs as they traveled to Chicago. Upon arrival in the city they
learned the Fair had been postponed for a year. So they headed to
only to find that working conditions were really very bad. The Lauzetta
Quartet disbanded and the broke Handy subsequently
slept outdoors on the cobblestones and faced other privations.
Talk about "the Blues"... Handy soon leaves for Henderson, Kentucky.
St. Louis -1900
From the mid 1890s to the early 1900s, Handy lived in Henderson where
he met his future wife, Elizabeth Virginia Price. (They marry in 1898
and will have six children).
1896 he was invited to join a minstrel group called "Mahara's
Minstrels." With his wife, Handy joined a 3 year tour which took them
throughout the states of Texas and Oklahoma, across through Tennessee
and Georgia, on to Florida and eventually to Cuba. Handy stayed with
the Minstrels until 1903.
While with Mahara’s Minstrels, he became a solo coronetist, arranged
orchestrations and progressed to leadership of a 30 piece band.
W. C. Handy
shows, tent shows, medicine shows, and revivals introduced some notable
Southern blues musicians to the
country. The shows consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing,
and music. The actors were generally white and performed in
blackface. But after the Civil War, thousands of emancipated slaves
performed in the shows with their newly gained freedom to travel and to
make a living playing music.
that blacks were capable musicians and entertainers, enabling them to
achieve limited acceptance in society. The racism of
the minstrel shows makes them difficult to stomach today, but the variety
acts , comedy, dance, and music gave many Americans their first exposure
to African-American music and culture. W. C. Handy
was the band master of Mahara’s Minstrels. Ida
Cox, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Butterbeans and Susie got
their start with minstrel shows.
Traveling Tent Shows
Handy left Mahara's Minstrels briefly and spent time with his family in
Florence. While in Florence, Elizabeth gave birth to the first
of six children. During this time, Handy was asked by W. H.
Councill, President of Agricultural and Mechanical College about a
teaching position. This was one of the two black colleges in
Alabama at the time and Handy accepted the job of bandmaster and music
A & M College Band
Florence, Alabama - Vintage
William Hooper Councill
A & M ... 1883
He was soon disheartened to discover that American music was often
cast aside by the college and instead emphasized inferior foreign
music considered to be "classical". It also became apparent that
Handy was being underpaid and he could make much more money
touring with the minstrel group. After a dispute with President
Councill, Handy resigned his position and rejoined the Mahara
Minstrels to tour states in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
In 1903, he
received an offer to direct a black band called the Knights of
Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This job proved to be very
rewarding and Handy remained there for six years. During this period in the Mississippi Delta,
at a layover in the Tutwieler train station,
Handy says he "... discovers the blues." He saw a man
plucking a guitar using a knife on the strings - Hawaiian style.
Handy said "The effect
was unforgettable and so was the song." "He sang "Goin’
where the Southern cross’ the Dog," three times".
The man was singing
about Morehead, Mississippi, where the north and south bound trains
crossed the east and west bound trains. And he was totally
absorbed in the music based on everyday life and places.
Handy never forgot this. As his band, the
Knights of Pythias played all over the Delta and Handy came to know
it, the people and the music intimately, he began to understand the
blues. Ultimately, this would lead to his first hit song.
Clarksdale Train Station
Sunflower River Bridge 1890
Memphis Beale Street 1930s
... Memphis Beale Street would have looked like this when Handy
In 1909, Handy and his band moved to Memphis,
Tennessee and established headquarters on Beale Street. His years of observing the reactions of white people to native black
music, as well as his own observations of the music, habits and attitudes
of his race, had begun to influence his music more and more, igniting what
would later be called "the blues." Memphis would
become the "Home of the Blues" and in 1977 an act of Congress made
that title "Official".
Pee Wee Saloon
Handy's Band 1918
Memphis Jug Bands
been home to everything from bars and clubs to gamblers and musicians,
as well as prostitutes to churches. During its early history,
Beale was mostly occupied by white shop owners who traded along the
But after the
many black traveling musicians began performing on Beale, and the
street became a Mecca for African-Americans from all over the
South. By the end of the 1800's, Robert Church, a freed slave and the
first black Southern millionaire, had built Church Park at the corner
of 4th and Beale, as well as a large recreational-cultural center and
a first-class Hotel for blacks. In the early 1900's Beale was
still filled with shops, restaurants, and clubs, but now, many of them
were owned by African-Americans. This is the Memphis that W. C. Handy
would know. His band played at Beale's famous Pee Wee
Church Park and
Handy composed a song about a Memphis mayoral candidate, Mr. Ed Crump, called "Boss Crump Blues". It became very popular so
he changed the lyrics and renamed the song "Memphis Blues".
It quickly caught on in the clubs due to its unique sound and became
so popular that Handy made a deal to get it published in 1912. He sold the
rights to the song for the sum of $100 and unfortunately didn't reap
the rewards of its success. To avoid this problem in the future,
he published his next successful song using his own company "Handy
Music Co". With
the publishing of "Memphis Blues", Handy's
musical style had been defined and "Memphis Blues" becomes the first
E. H. Crump
Click on the middle arrow to hear Handy play "Memphis Blues"
And two years later, at the age of 40, Handy published his most famous
composition, "St. Louis Blues." (1913-14). He had created a
revolution in music that resulted in the first uniquely American music
Memphis Falls Building was designed especially for cotton merchants in
1902. On the roof of the building was a nightclub called The Alaskan
Roof Garden. This became
Memphis' premiere nightclub and W. C. Handy was the featured
bandleader. He introduced his most famous composition, "St.
Louis Blues" here in 1914. In addition the city's first
radio transmission was from the roof in 1913. Today, the building is home
to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce.
Gerbers Dept Store
song that would become the best known blues song in the
world was initially turned down by every publisher Handy approached. He
finally published it himself, in September of 1914.
Gerber's Department Store became the first WHITE store to sell sheet music
from a BLACK composer (1914). St Louis Blues will become one of the
most recorded songs in history. Handy will say years later that the
royalties create more money for him each year that any new salary.
Click on the middle arrow to hear Handy play "St. Louis Blues"
other hits followed including "Yellow Dog Blues (1914) and "Beale Street
Blues" (1916), Joe Turner Blues, and Jogo Blues. .
The "Yellow Dog" was the local name for the Yazoo Delta Railroad.
It was originally published as "Yellow Dog Rag" and didn't sell well.
After Handy changed the name to "Y D Blues", it sold very well.
Handy's melody for "Jogo Blues" came from his preacher, who chanted the
tune as the collection plate was passed.
Yellow Dog Blues
Beale Street Blues
Joe Turner blues
Handy moved to New York City in order to be in the heart of the Publishing
Industry. But he continued his connection to Memphis. He
and his band frequently returned to play engagements at the Robert
Church Community Center Auditorium. Church had built this excellent
auditorium that would draw major black performers to Memphis, and he
also built a first class hotel where these performers could stay while
they were in the city. During the Jim Crow years this was a good
arrangement for all.
1920 Ad for
It's not that Handy hadn't been appreciated in Memphis, but it wasn't
until 1931 that the city honored him by establishing a park in his
name. The old Beale Street Market House was torn down to make
room for Handy Park. When the park was dedicated, Handy came from
New York and rode in a big parade down Beale Street. The parade
was extensively covered by the news with the issue of a special
edition which was used on a later cover of Beale Street Blues sheet
The old Market House
creation, Handy park has been a meeting ground for musicians and Blues
artists who play in the park for tips. Today, the area has
outdoor performing arts park, where in good weather, street musicians
start wandering about noon. Handy loved the park and visited often. The statue of Handy in the park was
dedicated in 1960.
Handy visit park -
Children at the
Handy Home moved to
In 1947, the
W. C. Handy Theatre
opened in Memphis.
The 1102 seat theatre was a showplace for
African Americans. First run movies were shown and afterward top live
shows featuring the finest in African-American entertainment.
There were also late shows "for whites". W. C. Handy came for the opening
of the theatre.
Andrew "Sunbeam" Mitchell opened the Mitchell Hotel in the old
Battier's Drug building on the corner of Beale and Hernando. The
hotel was on the 3rd floor. The 2nd floor was occupied by the Domino
Club. In the late 1940s, Mitchell changed that name to
and it became the last club on Beale to book headline acts.
W. C. Handy
Opening . Billboard
In 1918, Handy's
partner Harry Pace suggested he move the music company to New York,
which he did. Handy brought with him a song he had purchased entitled,
"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" which had great success on Broadway.
Its popularity spread worldwide and so did Handy’s fame.
He began to write and publish prolifically throughout the 1920's and
1930's despite problems with his vision. After two years Pace and
Handy split, and the company became Handy Brothers Music Company.
The company still exists in NYC.
Handy Bro location
In the 1930's W. C. Handy
went blind but kept composing and publishing his music in Braille.
wife died in 1937.
In 1928 the Handy
Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall, becoming the first black band to
perform there. This
important concert on April 27, 1928, featured
Fats Waller on piano and organ. The program
featured what was known then as "Negro music" - the first evening of black
music presented in this bastion of white classical music. On
this occasion, Handy's daughter, Katherine, sang "St. Louis
exactly 50 years later, this concert was recreated at Carnegie
Hall - without changes. Handy's daughter again sang "St. Louis Blues".
Carnegie Hall -
1938, Carnegie Hall honored W. C. Handy with a concert for his 65th
1938 Ad - Program
In 1943 Handy fell from a subway station
platform which caused him to go totally blind.
married his secretary, Irma Louise Logan, who had become "his
In 1955 Handy suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair.
1957 a birthday celebration was held at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
More than 800 actors, musicians, and public personalities showed up.
President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon sent congratulations.
W. C. Handy
Paramount Studios released "St. Louis Blues", a movie based on
Handy's life. The movie starred Nat King Cole as Handy.
By the 1960s, the blues sound had significantly influenced the
development of jazz, classical music, and the rock and roll of such
performers as Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones.
a commemorative stamp was issued in his honor. The United States
Postal Service issued the stamp in honor of 150th anniversary of
the founding of Memphis and chose the image of Handy and his
trumpet for the stamp design
In the course of his
career W.C. Handy wrote 60+ music compositions. He popularized a whole new style of music
which incorporated the now traditional 12 bar form recognized as the
Blues. Together with Harry Pace he established a music publishing company
which was the first of its kind. A stamp was issued in his honor. He was
given a tribute in 1938 at Carnegie Hall. A movie of his life was released in 1958. The most
prestigious award given to blues artists bears his name. In 1987 he was
inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. His birthplace has been
restored and is now a museum in Florence, Alabama. "The Memphis Blues" and
"The St. Louis Blues" are considered classics. They have been recorded by
14 different performers or bands between 1914 and 1948, hitting the
Billboard Magazines’ chart at #20 or above, 21 times.
W. C. Handy became world famous because of a life long pursuit of
something he loved, music. His hard work, thirst for knowledge,
and perseverance in the face of hardships, brought him success. Because of his broad musical
knowledge and experience, he was able to put on paper and give voice to
the music of the Mississippi Delta. For this he will always be remember as "The Father of The Blues."
lived in New York until his death on March 28, 1958, at the age of 84.
He was buried there as well.
Many notable figures attended the funeral service and an estimated 150,000
people lined the funeral route.
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