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W. C. Handy and the Birth of the Blues

People | June 21, 2019

Portrait of jazz and blues pioneer W.C. Handy (1873 - 1958), blowing on his trumpet, mid twentieth century. Source: (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

African American composer and bandleader, William Christopher Handy, better known as W. C. Handy, is often associated with the birth of the blues. Today, there are blues awards, blues festivals, and blue music venues bearing his name. But Handy’s distinction as the “Father of the Blues” may be misleading. Let’s see how the clever musician discovered Delta blues and capitalized on a regional sound.

Was W. C. HAndy the true father of the blues? Source: (blackamericaweb.com)

Who was W. C. Handy?

Handy was born in a rural log cabin in 1873 in the town of Florence, Alabama. His father, a pastor at the local church, thought that musical instruments were the devil’s tools and forbid his son from playing. Young W. C. saved the money he earned picking berries and nuts and bought first a guitar and then a cornet. As a teen, he joined a local band but didn’t tell his parents. Instead, he snuck out of the house to play his music. As a young man, Handy taught at the Teachers Agriculture and Mechanical College in Huntsville and played in a string quartet on the side. As the group got more and more gigs, he quit his teaching job to be a musician. He performed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and traveled with minstrel shows. 

Playing the guitar with a knife was called the Hawaiian style. Source: (cigarboxnation.com)

On the Hunt for New Sounds

In 1896, Handy was hired as the musical director for a traveling minstrel show called Mahara’s Minstrels. Handy sought to expand the musical offerings of the group and was on the hunt for new sounds. While waiting for a train at a station in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903, Handy heard just the musical sound he was looking for. A man was set up at the train station, playing his guitar with a knife – a technique called the “Hawaiian style." As Handy listened and made notes, the unknown musician played a three-chord progression using flattened 3rds and 7ths, a method called “blues notes.” The lyrics of the tune repeated three times. This was the type of music played by African Americans in the bayou country of the deep South, but Handy believed this regional genre could have worldwide appeal. 

W. C. Handy's Memphis Orchestra in 1918. Source: (patrickmurfin.blogspot.com)

Handy and the Memphis Blues

A politician named Edward Crump commissioned Handy and his band to create a catchy, memorable campaign song ahead of the 1909 election for mayor of Memphis. Handy penned the bluesy sounding “Mr. Crump” and Crump won the election. Handy liked the tune of “Mr. Crump” so much that he rewrote the lyrics and changed the tune and turned it into “The Memphis Blues,” one of his signature hits. When he published the sheet music for “The Memphis Blues,” Handy essentially introduced Handy’s 12-bar blues style. This style is said to have greatly influenced the foxtrot. Handy followed up “The Memphis Blues” with “St. Louis Blues”, “Yellow Dog Blues”, and “Beale Street Blues,” all in the 12-bar format. 

W. C. Handy started his own music publishing company that is still in business today. Source: (npr.org)

W. C. Handy as Music Publisher

Handy moved to New York City in 1917 and started a music publishing company. Within two years, folks were calling Handy the “daddy of the blues” and the founder of the Golden Age of the blues. Handy worked to include women in the recordings of blues songs. Many of his compositions featured a blend of blues and jazz, another genre Handy loved. More importantly, he helped to elevate that African American music to a new level, legitimizing it and showing the importance of music to the African American experience of the first half of the 2oth century. 

Handy penned four books about the blues. Source: (mywrittenstuff.blogspot.com)

W. C. Handy as Author

Handy was a scholar of music and kept a careful record of the sources and inspirations for his songs. He felt strongly that it was important to capture the sounds of the South and preserve them as an important part of Americana. In 1926, he penned, Blues: An Anthology – Complete Words and Music of 53 Great Songs. He later published three more books – Unsung Americans Sung, Book of Negro Spirituals, and Negro Authors and Composers of the United States. All four of his books were Handy’s way of preserving and commemorating the music and culture of African Americans in the South. 

Handy's influence is still felt in the music industry today. Source: (visitflorenceal.com)

Handy’s Influence on Music

In his later years, W. C. Handy lived in Harlem. His eyesight declined and he relied on his second wife to care for him. He died after a battle with pneumonia on March 28, 1958. More than 150,000 people gathered to pay their respects in the streets surrounding his funeral. W. C. Handy’s influence is still felt in the music industry today. He may not be the true father of the blues, but he was the first to recognize the cultural importance of the African American sound and the first to publish it for a widespread audience. He continues to be an inspiration to other musicians. 

Tags: famous people | Jazz | music | the blues | w.c. handy

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.