W.C. Handy biography
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.
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.
Hardships and First Blues Song
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.
"Memphis Blues" was a big hit, but Handy didn't get to reap the financial rewards of its success because he had sold the rights to the song, falling prey to exploitative business practices. He then decided to set up a structure to retain ownership of his songs and create his own publishing venture. He released his next hit, "St. Louis Blues"—outlining the hardships he'd experienced years before in the titular city—in 1914, under the Pace & Handy Music Company, which later became known as the Handy Brothers Music Company, after Pace left the venture. "St. Louis Blues" became a massive success, and would be recorded many times over the next several years. Other Handy hits include "Yellow Dog Blues" (1914) and "Beale Street Blues" (1916); he would eventually be credited with composing dozens of songs.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1918, Handy moved his business to New York to escape Southern racial hostilities, and later scored success with the composition "Aunt Hagar's Blues." He continued to promote blues to large audiences in the 1920s, editing Blues: An Anthology (1926), a book containing blues arrangements for vocals and piano, and organizing the first blues performance in New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1928.
Handy continued working steadily throughout the 1930s, publishing Negro Authors and Composers of the United States in 1935 and W.C. Handy's Collection of Negro Spirituals in 1938. A few years later, in 1941, he published an autobiography, Father of the Blues. Having experienced problems with his eyesight for years, Handy was blind by the mid-1940s due to a skull fracture—the result of a fall from a train platform.
Handy married his longtime assistant, Irma Louise Logan, in 1954, and lived to experience his works performed by popular jazz greats. The blues composer died of pneumonia in New York City on March 29, 1958, at the age of 84. Only months after his death, his life story played on the silver screen in theaters across the country in the film St. Louis Blues, which starred singer Nat King Cole as the legendary composer.
Handy's legacy continues to shine in the annals of music, with his songs continually reinterpreted in idioms of blues, jazz, pop and classical music. Dubbed the "Father of the Blues," Handy's pioneering vision also lives on through Alabama's annual W.C. Handy Music Festival.