WILLIAM C. HANDY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

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W.C. Handy has been often been called the "Father of the Blues" because of his enormous contribution, in 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 transcribed them and presented them to a worldwide audience. This rather modest claim probably understates the importance of Handy's role in the development of blues music and even jazz and folk. William Christopher Handy was born in 1873, in Florence, Alabama and grew up in a log cabin built by his grandfather. As a young child he showed great aptitude for music but this was not encouraged by his family who regarded musical talent, especially the playing of musical instruments, as not being suitable for a good Christian youth. Despite his family's opposition, Handy joined a local band as a teenager, playing the cornet, but he kept this secret from his parents. An exceptional student in school, he qualified as a teacher but low pay forced him to take manual work in a factory. During his spare time, he organized a small string orchestra and taught musicians how to read notes, and also formed a quartet called the "Lauzetta Quartet".

Handy later moved to Evansville, Indiana where he joined a successful band which performed throughout the neighbouring cities and states. In 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 when he accepted an offer to direct a black band called the Knights of Pythias in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In 1909, Handy and his band moved to Memphis, Tennessee where they established their headquarters on Beale Street. Handy's 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, began to influence his music more and more, igniting what would later be called "the blues." Handy composed a song about a Memphis mayoral candidate, one Mr Crump, which he later titled "Memphis Blues". It became so popular that Handy published it in 1912. Although he sold the rights to the song, his musical style had been defined and two years later, at the age of 40, he published his most famous composition, "St. Louis Blues." He then began to write and publish prolifically, and he opened his own publishing business and worked steadily throughout the 1920's and 1930's despite problems with his vision. In 1943 he fell from a subway station platform which caused him to go totally blind.

In addition to composing his own songs, Handy collected blues tunes which he published in a book called 'Blues, An Anthology' in 1926. He later published 'Negro Authors And Composers of the United States' (1935), and 'Unsung Americans Sung' (1944). His biography, 'Father of the Blues' was published in 1941. Handy's wife died in 1937 and in 1955 Handy suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. He died on March 28, 1958 at the age of 84. Many notable figures attended the funeral service and an estimated 150,000 people lined the funeral route. "His personal blues are now finished. No more the problems of Beale Street. No more the irritations of Memphis. No more the vexation of the St Louis woman. No more the cynical ôLove, Oh Love, Oh Careless Love." Funeral tribute, New York Times, 3 Apr 58. There have been many honours bestowed upon Handy since his death. In Memphis, a city park is named after him and in his hometown of Florence, Alabama, the log cabin where he was born has been restored and turned into a museum which houses mementos from his life.