William Christopher Handy (November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958) was an African American composer and educated musician, known as the Father of the Blues, who used elements of folk music in his compositions and was scrupulous in documenting the sources of his works, which frequently combined stylistic influences from various performers. Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in the log cabin built by his grandfather William Wise Handy, who became an African Methodist Episcopal minister after emancipation, at Florence, Alabama, the son of Charles Barnard and Elizabeth Brewer Handy. His father was the minister of a small church in Guntersville, a small town in northeast central Alabama.
Growing up, Handy apprenticed in carpentry, shoemaking and plastering. He was deeply religious, and his musical style was influenced by the church music he sang and played as a youth. It was also influenced by the sounds of the natural world. Without his parents’ permission, Handy bought his first guitar, which he had seen in a local shop window and secretly saved for by picking berries and nuts and making lye soap. His father arranged for his son to take organ lessons. Handy moved on to learn to play the cornet. He joined a local band as a teenager. He purchased a cornet from a fellow band member and spent every free minute practicing it.
Handy worked on a “shovel brigade” at the McNabb furnace and described the music made by the workers as they beat shovels, altering the tone while thrusting and withdrawing the metal part against the iron buggies to pass the time while waiting for the overfilled furnace to digest its ore. In September 1892, Handy travelled to Birmingham, Alabama, to take a teaching exam. He passed it easily, and gained a teaching job in the city. Learning that it paid poorly, he quit the position and found employment at a pipe works plant in nearby Bessemer. In his time off from his job, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read music. He later organized the Lauzetta Quartet. When the group read about the upcoming World’s Fair in Chicago, they decided to attend. To pay their way, they performed odd jobs along the way. Next they headed to St. Louis, Missouri, but found working conditions were bad.
After the quartet disbanded, Handy went to Evansville, Indiana, where joined a successful band that performed throughout the neighboring cities and states. He played the cornet in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. His musical endeavors were varied: he sang first tenor in a minstrel show and worked as a band director, choral director, cornetist, and trumpeter. In 1896, while performing at a barbecue in Henderson, Kentucky, Handy met Elizabeth Price. They married on July 19, 1896. At the age of 23, Handy became the bandmaster of Mahara’s Colored Minstrels. In a three-year tour they traveled to Chicago, throughout Texas and Oklahoma, to Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and on to Cuba. Handy was paid a salary of $6 per week. Returning from Cuba the band traveled north through Alabama, where they stopped to perform in Huntsville. Weary of life on the road, he and his wife, Elizabeth, decided to stay with relatives in his nearby hometown of Florence. She gave birth to Lucille, the first of their six children, on June 29, 1900, after they had settled in Florence.
Around that time, William Hooper Councill, the president of the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes (AAMC, now Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University), in Normal, Alabama, recruited Handy to teach music at the college. Handy became a faculty member in September 1900 and taught through much of 1902. Handy felt he was underpaid and could make more money touring with a minstrel group. In 1902 Handy traveled throughout Mississippi listening to various styles of black popular music. The state was mostly rural, and music was part of the culture—especially in cotton plantations in the Mississippi Delta. Musicians usually played the guitar or banjo or, to a much lesser extent, piano. Handy’s remarkable memory enabled him to recall and transcribe the music heard in his travels.
After Handy resigned his teaching position, he rejoined the Mahara Minstrels and toured the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. In 1903 he became the director of a black band organized by the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Handy and his family lived there for six years. About 1905, while playing a dance in Cleveland, Mississippi, Handy was given a note asking for “our native music” and played an old-time Southern melody. In 1909 Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they played in clubs on Beale Street. The genesis of his “Memphis Blues” was a campaign song written for Edward Crump, a successful Memphis mayoral candidate in 1909. The 1912 publication of the sheet music of his “Memphis Blues” introduced his style of 12-bar blues. By 1914, when he was 40, he had established his musical style, his popularity had greatly increased, and he was a prolific composer.
One of the most popular American songs composed in the blues style is Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues,” published in September, 1914. It was one of the first blues songs to succeed as a pop song and remains a fundamental part of jazz musicians’ repertoire. Handy said that he had been inspired by a chance meeting with a woman on the streets of St. Louis distraught over her husband’s absence, who lamented, “Ma man’s got a heart like a rock cast in de sea,” a key line of the song. Handy met Harry H. Pace at the Solvent Savings Bank in Memphis. Handy liked him, and Pace later became the manager of Pace and Handy Sheet Music. In 1917, he and his publishing business moved to New York City, where he had offices in the Gaiety Theatre office building in Times Square. By the end of that year, his most successful songs “Memphis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and “Saint Louis Blues,” had been published:
In 1920 Pace amicably dissolved his long-standing partnership with Handy, with whom he also collaborated as lyricist. Although Handy’s partnership with Pace was dissolved, he continued to operate the publishing company as a family-owned business. He published works of other black composers as well as his own, which included more than 150 sacred compositions and folk song arrangements, and about 60 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 “Saint Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong on cornet is considered by many to be one of the finest recordings of the 1920s.
In 1926 Handy wrote and edited a work entitled Blues: An Anthology—Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs. On April 27, 1928, he performed a program of jazz, blues, plantation songs, work songs, piano solos, spirituals and a Negro rhapsody at Carnegie Hall. So successful was Handy’s “Saint Louis Blues” that in 1929, he and director Dudley Murphy collaborated on a RCA motion picture of the same name, which was to be shown before the main attraction. Handy suggested the blues singer Bessie Smith for the starring role, since she had gained widespread popularity with her recording of the song. The picture was filmed 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 great was its influence, and so much was it recognized as Handy’s hallmark.
Following the publication of his autobiography, Handy published a book on African-American musicians, Unsung Americans Sung (1944). He wrote three other books: Blues: An Anthology: Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs, Book of Negro Spirituals and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States, During this time, he lived on Strivers’ Row in Harlem. He became blind following an accidental fall from a subway platform in 1943. After the death of his first wife, he remarried in 1954, when he was 80. His new bride was his secretary, the former Irma Louise Logan, who he frequently said had become his eyes. In 1955, Handy suffered a stroke, after which he began to use a wheelchair. More than eight hundred attended his 84th birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
On March 28, 1958, Handy died of bronchial pneumonia at Sydenham Hospital in New York City. Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Over 150,000 people gathered in the streets near the church to pay their respects. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. “St. Louis Blues” was a massive and enduring success. At the time of his death in 1958, Handy was earning royalties of upwards of $25,000 annually for the song. The original published sheet music is available online from the United States Library of Congress in a searchable database of African-American music from Brown University. W. C.Handy was one of the most influential songwriters in the United States. One of many musicians who played the distinctively American blues music, Handy did not create the blues genre and was not the first to publish music in the blues form, but he took the blues from a regional music style (Delta blues) with a limited audience to a new level of popularity.
The following work by W. C. Handy is contained in my collection:
St. Louis Blues (1914).