W.C. Handy : The Father of the Blues

William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama. W.C. Handy, the man known as “The Father of the Blues”, is one of the most significant songwriters in the US and credited to bringing the Blues to a wider audience. His parents and grandparents were slaves, freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.  By 1902 Handy had traveled throughout Mississippi where he was exposed to various styles of popular black music. He was intrigued by the way the culture of the rural town was so heavily influenced by music, particularly on the cotton plantations of the Mississippi Delta. He was able to transcribe much of the music he heard during his travels from memory.

Handy’s work was groundbreaking, he was one of the first blacks to achieve economic success from publishing. In 1909 Handy and his band started playing in clubs on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Soon Handy was asked to write a campaign song for Memphis mayor candidate and politician Edward Crump. Inspired by the popularity of “Mr. Crump”, Handy changed the name to “Memphis Blues” and self-published the song in 1912. The “southern rag” hit became Handy’s first successful composition and could be heard in dance halls worldwide. “Memphis Blues” is also credited as the inspiration for the Foxtrot dance step by Vernon and Irene Castle. The song launched the blues to the masses and would transform the future of popular music, contributing to the rise of jazz, swing, and boogie-woogie.

After the formation of Pace and Handy Sheet Music, Handy encouraged many performers including Al Bernard who became one of the first white singers to record blues songs. In 1914, Handy composed another 12-bar blues piece with a 16-bar habanera section called “St. Louis Blues”. The song was first recorded by Bernard for nine different record labels before he released it on Victor Records with the Dixieland Jazz Band.

After the Pace and Handy Sheet Music company dissolved, Handy ran the company as a family business and in the 1920’s founded Handy Record Company in NYC. Handy continued to publish works of other black composers as well as his own. In 1926 Handy wrote a book called ‘Blues: An Anthology’, one of the first recordings that describe how the blues became an integral part of the south and its influence on American culture.

Handy helped popularize what is now known as ‘blue notes’, many of his compositions contain 8 or 16-bar melodies between the 12-bar verses. His style of three-line, a 12-bar pattern with a flat third or ‘blue’ note variation. Commenting on the three-chord basic harmonic structure of the blues Handy said, “It was already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk, piano players, wanderers and others of the underprivileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf, and had become a common medium through which any such individual might express his personal feeling in a sort of musical soliloquy.”

W.C. Handy’s goal with “St. Louis Blues” was to combine classic ragtime compositions with traditional melodies.  The “St. Louis Blues” became known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet” because of the massive influence it had on many legendary musicians. The song became Handy’s most distinguishable composition and a jazz standard played by Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Etta James, Herbie Hancock, Django Reinhardt, and many others.

In 1925 Bessie Smith covered the song with Louis Armstrong on Cornet, the cover was so popular it inspired an RCA motion picture of the same name and starring Bessie Smith in the lead role. The film was shown in theaters from 1929 to 1932. Bessie Smith’s version of “St. Louis Blues” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993 and then Louis Armstrong & his orchestra released their version which was inducted in 2008.

In 1954 Louis Armstrong And His All Stars also released an entire album of Handy’s compositions called ‘Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy’. Handy died in 1958, that year Paramount Studios released “St. Louis Blues” a movie based on Handy’s life starring Nat King Cole. By the 1960’s blues had massively influenced the development of jazz and rock and roll.

Handy’s presence is still visible today, at his birthplace in Florence you can visit his childhood home. A hand-hewn log cabin made by his grandfather in the 1800s which is now the W.C. Handy museum and library. Since 1982, his hometown in Florence has held the annual W.C. Handy Music Festival, a week-long celebration of the musical heritage of Alabama. On Beale Street in Memphis, you can tour his turn of the century home which is now the W.C. Handy Memphis Home and Museum. Handy’s efforts led to Memphis becoming “Home of the Blues” and in 1977 Congress made it official.

Handy did not create the genre of the blues, but he was an important historical force in making the genre what has become today. He is credited with introducing the blues to mainstream America, giving a voice to the music of the Mississippi Delta, and broadening the appeal of black music. The Blues Award, which is the most prestigious award for blues musicians, was known as the W.C. Handy Award up until the name changed in 2006. Over the course of Handy’s career, he wrote over 60 music compositions, popularized 12-bar blues, and his music publishing company was the first of its kind and to this day is the oldest black-owned music publishing company in the world. After 40 years of evolving the blues, Handy helped make it a cornerstone of American music.


Devon Ebersold for Keeping the Blues Alive

Help us with our mission of Keeping the Blues Alive in schools! To learn more or donate to Keeping The Blues Alive, visit our website at http://keepingthebluesalive.org/

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