Handy, W. C. (1873-1958)

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Handy, W. C. (1873-1958)

Though he never would have called himself a blues musician, W. C. Handy is often hailed as the "Father of the Blues." Handy grew up immersed in the folk music of the African American people, a music nurtured by slavery and with roots in the various African cultures from which slaves were torn. A trained musician, Handy translated this "primitive" music into compositions that revealed the richness and diversity of the black musical tradition. His "Memphis Blues" was the first published blues tune, and he left a legacy of musical compositions to which much of the modern blues can trace its roots.

William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in either Florence or Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Both his father and grandfather were clergymen and were eager for young Handy to follow in their shoes, but Handy developed an early love for music. He recalled in his autobiography, Father of the Blues, that his father stated that he would rather follow his son's hearse than have him become a musician. Still, Handy persevered, taking vocal lessons from a church singer and secretly buying a cornet and taking lessons from its former owner. By the time he was a teenager, Handy had amassed a good deal of training in music and, at age 15, he joined a travelling minstrel show that began a tour of the South. The tour soon fell apart, however, and Handy returned home to start a normal life.

In 1892, Handy graduated from the Huntsville Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College and began working as a teacher—until he found out that he could make more working for a pipeworks factory in Bessemer, Alabama. When wages there were cut, Handy left the factory to follow his first love, music. He organized a group called the Lauzette Quartet and left to play the Chicago World's Fair—only to find that they had arrived in Chicago a year early. Dejected, Handy travelled to St. Louis, Missouri, where he eked out a living playing his cornet and soaked up the downscale ambiance of the city's impoverished black population.

Shortly thereafter, Handy, whose reputation as a talented horn player was spreading, had the good fortune to be hired to play for wealthy Southerners in Henderson, Kentucky. "I had my change that day in Henderson," Handy wrote in his autobiography. "My change was from a hobo and a member of a road gang to a professional musician." Handy also found an opportunity to study with a local music teacher, who taught him more about music in a few short months than he had yet learned in a lifetime.

In 1896, a minstrel group known as W. A. Mahara's Minstrels asked Handy to join them, and he traveled extensively with the group from 1896 to 1900 and from 1902 to 1904. On his travels, the group played to an Alabama audience that included Handy's father. "Sonny," his father told him, "I haven't been in a show since I professed religion. I enjoyed it. I am very proud of you and forgive you for becoming a musician." During this time, Handy's band played for white and black audiences. The story is that a white audience asked him to play some of his own music; Handy failed to meet their request and the audience protested. Handy's band was replaced by a group of three local black musicians who played a type of early blues on string instruments. Handy decided that in spite of his musical erudition, he had missed an important lesson. He decided to look into the blues.

Handy put that lesson to good use in 1909 when he was asked to write a campaign song for Edward H. "Boss" Crump of Memphis, Tennessee. The song was soon adapted to include the following lyrics:

Mr. Crump won't 'low no easy riders here. We doan care what Mr. Crump don't 'low, We gon'to bar'l-house anyhow. Mr. Crump can go and catch hisself some air.

This tune, with new words, soon became famous as "The Memphis Blues." It was the first written composition to use the flatted thirds and sevenths, the "blue notes." The great jazz bandleader Noble Sissle claimed that "The Memphis Blues" was the inspiration for the fox trot. Vernon and Irene Castle heard their musical director, James Reese Europe, use the "Memphis Blues" as a cooling off piece during intermissions. The Castles loved the rhythm and developed a slow dance to it, called first the Bunny Hug and then the Fox Trot.

Following the success of this song, Handy decided to specialize in a type of music that was little known outside the South, the blues. Handy had a great musical memory, coupled with a well-developed musical knowledge. He freely acknowledged the roots of his blues being in black folk songs.

Each one of my blues is based on some old Negro song of the South…. Something that sticks in my mind, that I hum to myself when I'm not thinking about it. Some old song that is a part of the memories of my childhood and of my race. I can tell you the exact song I used as a basis for any one of my blues.

At the time, the blues had not yet taken on the classical form in which they are known today. This 12 or 16 bar form in which the I-IV-V chords are used in a set pattern, open to variations, was basically established by Handy as he wrote down the music he heard on his band tours. Handy's blues are more polished than the "primitive" blues that preceded him and were played well into the century by musicians such as John Lee Hooker.

In 1912, Handy, after much struggle, published his first song, "Memphis Blues." Others soon followed, including "St. Louis Blues" (1914), "Beale Street Blues" (1917), and 1921's "Loveless Love," a favorite of Louis Armstrong. The difficulty that Handy experienced in publishing his first song led him to found his own publishing house, but he still had a hard time getting his music distributed. In his autobiography he remembered an encounter with a retailer:

At the time I approached him his windows were displaying "At The Ball" by J. Lubrie Hill, a colored composer who had gone to New York from Memphis some time earlier. Around it were grouped copies of recent successes by such Negro composers as Cole and Johnson, Scott Joplin, and the Williams and Walker musical comedies. So when he suggested that his trade wouldn't stand for his selling my work, I pointed out as tactfully as I could that the majority of his musical hits of the moment had come from the Gotham-Attucks Co., a firm of Negro publishers in New York. I'll never forget his smile. "Yes," he said pleasantly. "I know that—but my customers don't."

Despite such difficulties, Handy continued to publish his works, selling many of them from his own music company, the still-existing Handy Brothers Music Company of Manhattan.

Handy's "St. Louis Blues" is the most recorded song in musical history. At his death in 1958 it was still earning him $25,000 per year. It was the King of England's favorite song and became the Ethiopian fight song against Mussolini. Bessie Smith, with Louis Armstrong on cornet, immortalized the work. Armstrong later recorded the tune a number of times, even playing it as a tango.

In 1917 Handy moved to New York City where he recorded with his Memphis Orchestra. He began his own recording company in 1922, though it soon failed. Handy's written output faltered, as a result of his increasing eye problems, but he continued playing cornet and recorded with a number of top jazz musicians, including Henry "Red" Allen and Jelly Roll Morton.

In 1928 Handy became the first black performer to play in New York's Carnegie Hall. That concert was one of the only elements of Handy's life that was recreated accurately in his film biography St. Louis Blues (1958), which starred Nat King Cole as Handy. While largely inaccurate, the film served to spark rerecordings of many of Handy's tunes. Shortly before Handy's death, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars recorded an album of Handy tunes and Handy was recorded reflecting on his career and on Armstrong. The album, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954), was a fine corrective to the movie.

Handy's autobiography, Father of the Blues (1941), relates his story and struggles in establishing his work. The fact that the blues were so identifiably black in origin and so different from the usual Tin Pan Alley tunes eventually worked in his favor. Anyone could put the word blues in a song, but not everyone could write an authentic sounding blues tune. Handy could and did. The blues became part of jazz and the basis of rock 'n' roll. Handy's music is inseparable from twentieth-century world music, a fact recognized by the city of Memphis, in which Handy is a legend. There is a park named in his honor, and a statue of Handy stands prominently. Handy is in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, has had a postage stamp named after him, and is recognized as a major contributor to American music.

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues, edited by Arna Bontemps. New York, Macmillan, 1941; New York: Da Capo, 1991.

Lee, George Washington. Beale Street: Where the Blues Began, introduction by W. C. Handy. New York, R. O. Ballou, 1934.

Montgomery, Elizabeth Rider. William C. Handy: Father of the Blues. Champaign, Illinois, Garrard Publishing, 1968.