W.C. Handy

Jun 8th, 2010 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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wc handy1873-1958  W.C. Handy used his musical knowledge and deep appreciation for rural black folk idioms to develop a new form and style, known as the blues. It would become the most popular genre of its time, and a foundation for nearly all subsequent popular music. As such, his importance cannot be overestimated.

Minstrel Shows and Worlds Fairs

Handy was born William Christopher Handy in 1873 in Florence, Alabama, the son of former slaves. His father was a local parish minister, and the church had a deep influence on Handy’s early musical development. The precocious boy learned the sounds of local songbirds and riverboat whistles, and had soon taken up (and mastered) the cornet. He was an excellent student, and after graduating near the top of his class, he passed a teaching examination in Birmingham in 1892, and accepted a position there. Finding better pay at a factory, he changed jobs, and in his free time he trained three other musicians to read music and organized a string quartet.

The quartet journeyed to Chicago to perform at the 1893 World’s Fair. Stopping in St. Louis on their return, conditions were bad and the quartet disbanded. Handy then relocated to Evansville, Indiana where he joined a successful band that toured locally. He met Elizabeth Price at a performance in Kentucky and they married in 1896. In that same year, Handy was invited to join a traveling band, Mahara’s Minstrels, on cornet. He and his new wife would spend the next three years on the road, ranging from Texas in the west as far as Cuba in the south, with Handy becoming leader of the band. When the group passed near Handy’s home town in Alabama, he and Elizabeth decided to remain in Florence. There the couple’s first of six children was born in 1900. In the same year, Hardy accepted a music teaching position at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, then the only black college in the state.

Dissatisfaction with both his compensation and the school’s emphasis on European (over American) music led to his 1903 decision to rejoin Mahara’s Minstrels on a Midwest and Northwest tour. Handy was then made leader of a black band in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Colored Knights of Pythias, which played for (segregated) audiences of all races. He would remain there for the next six years, absorbing much of the African American rural idiom into his encyclopedic mastery of music, and observing white audiences’ reactions to black forms. In 1909, the band relocated to the thriving music center of Memphis, Tennessee, and the main entertainment district on Beale Street.

Birth of the Blues

Here the synthesis that would mark Handy’s seminal contribution took place. The first known instance was a campaign song composed for a local politician, “Mr. Crump,” later retitled “Memphis Blues.” The tune became hugely popular. In order to have it published, Handy sold the rights for $100 in 1912, but his name and indelible style had been established. In 1914, he wrote and had published his most famous composition, “St. Louis Blues,” which would become one of the most-recorded tunes of all time. In response to both economic hurdles and racial prejudice in the white-dominated industry, Handy joined an accomplished black businessman, Harry Pace, to form the Pace & Handy Music Company, which began publishing Handy’s copious output. His “Beale Street Blues” appeared in 1916, and in 1917 Handy’s 12-piece Orchestra of Memphis recorded for Columbia Records in New York City. He relocated his entire operation to New York’s Broadway the following year, and with the departure of Harry Pace, created a new entity, the Handy Brothers Music Company, which would publish both his own and other black composers’ works.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Handy continued to produce hugely popular songs, while struggling with vision problems and the death of his wife in 1937. The blues genre with which he was synonymous rose to ever greater prominence and influence, ignited by Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues.” The blues was credited with inspiring the Foxtrot dance, and adopted by white jazz orchestras and mainstream audiences everywhere. Bessie Smith’s recording of “St. Louis Blues” with Louis Armstrong in 1925 is considered one of the finest of the decade. She starred in a short subject film of the same name for RCA Pictures in 1929, on which Handy was a collaborator. Handy also applied his energies to scholarly compilations. In 1926, he published “Blues: An Anthology,” which catalogued 53 classic songs and attempted to explain their derivation. This was followed by “Negro Authors and Composers of the United States” in 1935, “W.C. Handy’s Collection of Negro Spirituals” in 1938, and “Unsung Americans Sung” in 1944. Handy’s own autobiography, Father of the Blues, appeared in 1941.

In 1943, a fall caused him to lose his vision entirely. Handy remarried at the age of 80 in 1954, to Irma Louise Logan. A stroke one year later confined him to a wheelchair, but did nothing to reduce his fame and popularity. Over 800 people attended his 84th birthday party, held at New York’s elite Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1958, and in that same year Nat King Cole starred in the biographical film, “St. Louis Blues.”

Handy died before he could see the film in March of that year. His funeral service was attended by over 25,000 people, and it is estimated that 150,000 lined his funeral route. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Handy was acknowledged as a “leading contributor to American culture.” Revered as the Father of the Blues, Handy’s legacy permeates modern music. He copyrighted over 150 spiritual and folk songs and 60 blues compositions. His street in Memphis has been renamed W.C. Handy Park, and the annual W.C. Handy Blues Awards are the highest honor bestowed in the genre.

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