William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama. Handy's life allowed Handy to be commonly recognized as "The Father of Blues." Along with his life it is also Handy's works that allow him to be commonly accepted as "The Father of Blues." Whether or not he deserves this lofty reputation, there can be no doubt that Handy played a major role in the early popularization of blues.
William Christopher Handy grew up in a family that did not readily accept his passion for the playing of musical instruments (collier 1). Handy was the son of Charles Bernard Handy and Elizabeth Brewer. Both his father and grandfather were ministers (Gussow 1). Although his family did not encourage his desire for music he longed to own a guitar. He saw this guitar in a local shop window. Handy wanted this guitar greatly. W.C. Handy saved enough money for the guitar by picking berries and making lye soap.
After purchasing the guitar Handy's father made him take the guitar back and exchange it for a dictionary (collier 1). Handy was an exceptional student in school, and he placed near the top of his class. After school Handy made the time to pursue his dream of playing in a band. Handy eventually became proficient on organ, piano, guitar and especially cornet and trumpet.
After school graduation he left Florence in 1892 and organized a brass band in Bessemer, Alabama (Gussow 1). Handy continued to drift along playing for various bands until in 1896 at the age of twenty two he moved to Chicago. It was in Chicago where he joined the band of Mahara's Minstrels. W.C. Handy eventually became the lead cornettist, arranger, and bandleader by the age of twenty three (Morrison 59). Handy was paid a salary of six dollars per week of touring with the Mahara's Minstrels (Gussow 3). It was during his time with Mahara's Minstrels that Handy met his soon to be wife Elizabeth Price at a barbeque. The two were married on July 19, 1896. During his tour with the Mahara's Minstrels he played as far west as Oklahoma and as far south as Cuba (Morrison 59). When Handy's father saw him perform as a member of Mahara's Minstrels he apologized to his son for being so unsupportive of his goals. Handy shortly after touring in Cuba when home to stay in Florence with his family and to rest (Gussow 5).
In Alabama over the next two years he worked as a professor at the Agricultural and Mechanical College. The school was one of only two black colleges in the state of Alabama. In 1902 he formed his own band in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He began arranging songs and ragtime tunes for his band. His new band was popular with both black and white audiences (Oliver 2).
One of Handy's strengths as an artist was his strong musical background and his ability to remember any song he heard. The roots of the blues songs he wrote were taken from black folk songs. In an interview he is quoted as saying: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 (Oliver 3).
In 1903 he moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi to accept the offer to direct a black band named the Knights of Pythias. This job proved to be very rewarding and Handy remained there for six years (Morrison 60). In 1909 Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Handy and his band established their headquarters on the famous Beale Street. Handy and his band were asked to play by Edward H. Crump for his political campaign for Memphis political boss. The song "Mr. Crump" became very popular. After the election, a jazz break was added to the song and it was renamed "Memphis Blues" (Gussow 12). Mr. Crump later acknowledged that the power of Handy's music had helped to win the election. "Memphis Blues" was the first blues song Handy ever wrote. Many consider it to be the first blues song in history (Oliver 2).
Racial prejudice was a clear factor in making Handy's songs difficult to sell, but in the year 1912 he had a successful career as a composer, arranger, and publisher of blues music. While still living in Memphis Handy wrote "St Louis Blues." This songs popularity was known around the world. (Morrison 61). The song was an Ethiopian battle hymn when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy (Gussow 22). From 1924 till his death Handy turned his attention to the arrangement and publication of traditional spirituals. His wife Elizabeth died in 1937. In 1943 Handy fell from a subway station platform and became completely blind. In 1939 at the New York World's Fair Handy was awarded as the leading contributor to American culture. He died on March 28, 1958 of pneumonia. (Oliver 4).
W.C. Handy has been called "the Father of the Blues" having single-handedly introduced a new style of music to the world. There have been many honors given to Handy since his death. The city of Florence also holds an annual music festival in his honor. W.C. Handy is "the Father of the Blues" and he continues to influence many blues writers.
Works CitedMorrison: 'W.C. Handy: Broadway's Grand Old Man of Music', Ebony, ix/11 (1953), 59-62Gussow, Adam. "The Blues in African-American Culture." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Ed. Colin Palmer. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. 5 pp. 6 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Univ of Tennessee Library Serials Dept. 18 Nov. 2008"Handy, W. C." The Columbia Encyclopedia. The Columbia University Press, 2000. 16912. International Directory of Company Histories. Gale. Univ of Tennessee Library Serials Dept. 18 Nov. 2008Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990William Christopher Handy: Father Of The Blues: An Autobiography. Collier Books (USA), 1970