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W C Handy

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W.C. Handy


William Christopher (W.C.) Handy (16 November 1873, Florence, Alabama - 28 March 1958, New York, New York) was an American blues composer and musician. He was widely known as the "Father of the Blues."

His parents were former slaves, and both his father and grandfather were ministers. As a child he learned a few rudiments of music at the Florence District School for Negroes, but he preferred to experiment on his own by fashioning rhythm instruments out of a horse’s jawbone, a broom handle, and his mother’s kitchen pots and pans. He fell in love with the sound of a comet and managed to buy a rotary-valve model from an itinerant musician for one dollar. He learned to play the instrument without any instruction, and by the time he was 20, he was a cornet soloist at the Chicago World’s Fair.

He also studied guitar and organ but was admonished by his father to play and sing religious music only. He sang in church choirs, but during his high school years he rebelled and began playing in the local brass band and singing with minstrel groups. He left home as a teenager and performed for a time with a traveling minstrel troupe but was forced to return home by hopping freight trains when the company went broke. Realizing the need for more education, Handy entered Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, graduating in 1892. He taught for a time, but the meager pay caused him to take a job in a steel foundry where he organized a brass band. When the foundry closed, he went back to full-time music and in 1896 became cornetist, arranger, and bandleader with W. A. Mahara’s Minstrels.

Handy directed the band at Alabama A & M from 1900 to 1902; toured with Mahara into Canada, Mexico, and Cuba during the next season; organized and toured with the Negro Knights of Pythias Band in the Mississippi Delta region until 1905; and then moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to form a new dance band. He later became a booking agent and the co-owner of a music publishing company. From Memphis he moved to Chicago and then to New York (1918) where he formed his own publishing company and continued to tour with orchestras. An accident in 1943 left him totally blind, but he continued with his business and his composing. He was awarded many honors during the latter part of his life, and shortly after he died in 1958, a film version of his life The St. Louis Blues appeared, starring Nat King Cole.

Handy first heard the music of the blues sung by an aged black man at a deserted railroad station. Later, when he heard the enthusiastic audience response to a local jazz band playing the blues in Cleveland, Mississippi, he admitted that “those country black boys taught me something that could not possibly have been gained from books.” He composed his first blues Mr. Crump in 1909 to help the song’s namesake become mayor of Memphis. Three years later he published it as a piano piece entitled Memphis Blues (after being assisted in notating the tune by the composer-cornetist Eddie V. Cupero), but he made the mistake of selling the rights to a shrewd New York publisher for $50. With new lyrics by George A. Norton, the song brought the publisher a fortune. In addition to his other famous song St. Louis Blues, Handy wrote The Beale Street Blues and over 150 other songs and arrangements (mostly blues) for instruments, voice, piano, chorus, and band.

A highly respected author as well as musician, Handy published several books, including his autobiography Father of the Blues.

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  • Smith, Norman E. (2002). Program Notes for Band. Chicago: GIA Publications, pp. 268-69.