William Christopher Handy - Music Revolutionist

Methodology/Abstract

Growing up listening to blues music, I always revered W.C Handy for his works and achievements. This is one of the reasons, I decided to conduct research and extend my knowledge about him. As a pioneer of blues music, I could find some scholarly articles on the performer, including an autobiography of the artist. My sources also come from reputable websites and publications.

Who is W.C Handy?

William Christopher Handy, popularly known as W.C Handy is an African-American musician, composer and music publisher. He was born on November 16, 1873  in Florence, Alabama. He became known as the “Father of the Blues” for his contributions to that musical genre. He introduced the blues into the mainstream popular culture through his music sheets, compositions , performances and recordings.  His songs “St. Louis Blues,” “Memphis Blues” and “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” helped to popularize the genre and were also major commercial hits. 

Early Life and Background

 W.C Handy was born on November 16, 1873 in Florence, Alabama to Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Bernard Handy. He was the son and grandson of ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. At a young age, Handy showed his love for music. Although his maternal grandmother supported him, his father, who wanted him to follow his footsteps and become a minister, strongly opposed and discouraged secular music. He only agreed to pay for organ lessons and urged him to play the harmonium at church. Despite’s his father’s wishes, he was exposed to a variety of traditional secular music in his early years. He learnt folk, popular tunes and some traditional African-American patterns. By the age of 16, Handy was creating four-part vocal arrangements of popular songs and singing them in “barbershop quartet” style harmonies with friends from school. He was also intrigued by the minstrel show musicians who came through Florence and played popular marches and cakewalks.

Education and Career before Music

Born into a prosperous family, Handy was provided with a thorough education in public schools.  He also studied at the  Teachers Agricultural Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama receiving his degree in 1892. Although he earned his degree, he found better paying work at the Bessemer Iron Works outside Birmingham. Handy spent most of 1893 through 1896 playing cornet in brass bands and developing his musical skills while working as a laborer. In 1900, Handy also became a music teacher at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College in Normal. In 1903, after he got tired of teaching, he also received a job offer at  Clarksdale, Mississippi to lead the town brass band. 

Music Career and Hardships

During his travels and performances, Handy learnt a different styles and traditions of music, such as the African-American folk music traditions , which later influenced the blues. In 1892 he formed a band called Lauzette Quartet, and had plans to perform at the Chicago World’s fair. However the band broke up when the fair was postponed. Handy ended up in St. Louis, where he experienced difficult days of poverty, hunger and homelessness.Yet his love for music was not lost, as he continued to play cornet at shows and eventually travelled to Kentucky where he was hired as a musician.  

 In 1907, Handy met Harry Pace, young businessman from Covington, Georgia, and they teamed up in 1913 to found the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis. In 1914 Handy wrote his masterpiece, “St. Louis Blues.” Unlike “The Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues” was a genuine blues piece, and the first published blues to include a section in a minor key. 

He produced hits between 1914 and 1921, including “Yellow Dog Blues,” “Joe Turner Blues,” “Aunt Hagar’s Children Blues,” and “Beale Street Blues.” And a whole lot of others .

Memphis and Louis Blues

As his fame spread, he moved to Memphis and was living there by the end of 1905. As an aspiring musician in the town,  he sought help from the Knights of Pythias, that sponsored his Clarksdale band.

In 1909 Handy wrote what was to become a campaign song called “Mr. Crump,” named after Memphis mayoral candidate Edward H. “Boss” Crump. He won the election, and Handy’s catchy campaign song, “Mr. Crump,” swept town. The song was later reworked and became “Memphis Blues.”Often considered the first blues song every published, “Memphis Blues” was a commercial hit. 

This composition caught the attention of publisher Theron Bennett, who convinced Handy to sell him the rights for $100. Having learned his lesson the hard way, he decided to set up a structure to retain ownership of his songs and created his own publishing company with a young business named Harry Pace. In 1914, he wrote  his masterpiece, “St. Louis Blues.” Unlike “The Memphis Blues,” “St. Louis Blues” was a genuine blues piece, and the first published blues to include a section in a minor key.

Personal Life

At a performance in Kentucky  in 1898, Handy met Elizabeth Virginia Price, whom he later married that year. They would have two children together and remain married until her death in 1937. After her death, Handy married his longtime assistant, Irma Louise Logan in 1954 and lived to experience his works performed by popular jazz greats.

Achievements and Accolades

  In 1941, he published his autobiography, Father of the Blues. He was honored by the United States with a postage stamp in 1969; statues bearing his likeness stand in Florence and Memphis, and a block of 52nd Street in Manhattan was renamed in his honor. Many music awards and festivals were named after him. His life story was also played in a film, St Louis Blues.He died of pneumonia in New York City on March 28, 1958, at the age of 84. More than 20,000 people attended his funeral at a church in Harlem, and thousands more lined the streets to pay their respects.  

Conclusion

A true pioneer of the blues music. With his love for music, hard work and achievements ,Handy influenced and helped to pave the way for blues musicians. Handy’s legacy continues to shine in different genres  of music, with his songs continually reinterpreted in idioms of blues, jazz, pop and classical music.

Discography

ALBUMS 

W.C Handy’s Beale Street : Where The Blues Began(2002) 

W.C Handy’s Memphis Blues Band(1994)

78 RPM Collection(2011)

COMPOSITIONS

Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis.

Handy’s Orchestra

Handy’s Sacred Singers