- NAME: W.C. Handy
- OCCUPATION: Songwriter
- BIRTH DATE: November 16, 1873
- DEATH DATE: March 29, 1958
- EDUCATION: Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Florence, Alabama
- PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
- Full Name: William Christopher Handy
- Nickname: "Father of the Blues"
- AKA: William Handy
- AKA: William C. Handy
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W.C. Handy was an African-American composer and a leader in popularizing blues music in the early 20th century, with hits like "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues."
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W.C. Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama. He played with several bands and traveled throughout the Midwest and the South, learning about the African-American folk music that would become known as the blues. Handy later composed his own songs that would popularize the form and come to be major commercial hits, including "St. Louis Blues," "Memphis Blues" and "Aunt Hagar's Blues." He died in New York City in 1958.
"I've always felt that the blues deal with an epoch in our history, and coming from the same people that gave us the spiritual, they reflected a nominal freedom. All the blues that I've written are either historic or folklore or folksong."
"Whenever I heard the song of a bird and the answering call of its mate, I could visualize the notes in scale ... all built up within my consciousness as a natural symphony."
"Life is something like this trumpet. If you don't put anything in it, you don't get anything out. And that's the truth."
Composer, musician and music publisher William Christopher Handy was born on November 16, 1873, in Florence, Alabama, to Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Barnard Handy. The son and grandson of Episcopalian ministers, the young Handy showed his love of music at an early age, and was supported in his pursuits by his maternal grandmother. His father had other ideas, however, and was staunchly opposed to secular musicianship for his son, only agreeing to pay for organ lessons. Nonetheless, Handy held fast to his love and took up the cornet, also enjoying a cappella vocal lessons at school.
Some reports say that Handy joined a minstrel show—a theatrical production of the time that featured African-American music, generally in caricatured form—at the age of 15. The troupe disbanded after several appearances, and Handy later studied at the Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama, receiving his degree in 1892. He then became a schoolteacher and briefly worked in a piping company, but ultimately decided to pursue his music career.
Handy's contributions in shaping what would be called the blues were influenced by the African-American musical folk traditions that he experienced during his travels and performances. Handy formed a band called Lazette Quartet that intended to make its mark at the Chicago World Fair, but when the fair was postponed, the band was forced to split. Handy ended up in St. Louis, where he experienced difficult days of poverty, hunger and homelessness.
Yet he held fast, continued to play the cornet at shows and made his way to Kentucky, where he was hired as a musician by the well-to-do in the city of Henderson, and was influenced by the teachings of a musical director. In 1896, Handy joined W.A. Mahara's Minstrels as its bandleader, staying with the group for several years.
In 1898, Handy wed Elizabeth Virginia Price; the two would have six children and remained married for decades, until Price's death in 1937.
Handy played with a few other bands and settled in Memphis by the end of the first decade of the 1900s, after having lived in Clarksdale for some years and experienced the region's blues music. He also formed a partnership with singer-songwriter Harry H. Pace.
In 1909, Handy wrote what was to become a campaign song called "Mr. Crump," named after Memphis mayoral candidate Edward H. "Boss" Crump (Crump won the election, although the lyrics of the song weren't the most flattering). The song was later reworked and became "Memphis Blues." Handy made a deal to get the song published in 1912, and henceforth became a trailblazer in bringing the form's song structures to large audiences.
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