William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues,was born in Florence, Alabama, on November 16, 1873. Both his father and grandfather were ministers. He got his first lessons on the cornet in a barber shop, not an unusual spot for musical lessons at the time. Handy taught school before he was 19, but then left home to work in a factory in Bessemer, Alabama, because it paid more. Around 1893, he organized a quartet that performed at the Chicago World's Fair, an exposition which attracted a large number of musicians, including many rag-playing pianists like Tom Turpin and Scott Joplin.
After the fair, Handy traveled the country, trying to make a career in music. For a time, he taught music at A. & M. College in Huntsville, Alabama. However, he was not satisfied with teaching and left to join Mahara's Minstrels as a cornetist, eventually becoming leader of the troupe. While with Mahara's, he traveled extensively and even performed in Cuba. Handy's nickname from these days was "Fess." Usually short for "professor," it suggests the respect other musicians had for his musical knowledge.
In 1902, Handy formed his own band in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This group was as much a marching band as a dance orchestra, and they performed for whites and blacks alike. At one of the performances for a white audience, Handy was asked to "play some of your own music." When he began to play, the audience loudly protested that he was not honoring their request. He and his group were asked to step aside. Then three local black men came on stage with string instruments and performed a type of primitive blues. It was obvious to Handy from the crowd reaction that he had missed something in his musical education: the rural sounds had both musical merit and crowd-pleasing potential. It was a lesson that would change Handy's life.
Handy's strengths as an artist were his strong musical background and his ability to remember any song he heard. The roots of the blues he created lay in black folk songs, and he freely acknowledged these origins. In an interview, he said:
Each one of my blues is based on some old Negro song of the South....Something that sticks in my mind, that I hum to myself when I'm not thinking about it. Some old song that is a part of the memories of my childhood and of my race. I can tell you the exact song I used as a basis for any one of my blues.
In 1909, Handy and his band were asked to play for the campaign of the Memphis political boss, Edward H. Crump. At the time, the most popular song in their repertoire was a piece called "Mr. Crump" which contained some lines not exactly complimentary to their patron:
Mr. Crump doan allow no easy riders here.
We doan care what Mr. Crump doan allow,
We gonna Barrel-house anyhow.
Mr. Crump can go and catch himself some air.
But Boss Crump was not interested in the lyrics if he ever even heard them. What he was interested in was the drawing power of Handy's music, which proved so successful that Crump won the election. Later new words by George Norton were added, and the title was changed to The Memphis Blues.
It was the first blues Handy ever wrote. Many consider it to be the first blues song in history, although due to Handy's problems finding a publisher it was preceded in print by Baby Seals Blues by Artie Matthews, in August of 1912 and the Dallas Blues by Hart A. Wand in September of the same year. Handy's song, which had been released as an instrumental in 1910, came out at the end of September or the beginning of October 1912, when Handy finally decided to publish it himself.
Selling the song to retailers was not much easier than selling it to a publisher, and one major white music retailer flatly refused to purchase Handy's work. Handy wrote:
At the time I approached him his windows were displaying
Racial prejudice was clearly a factor in making Handy's songs difficult to sell, but so too was the blues' unfamiliarity to most mainstream music publishers. However, this same characteristic also worked to the music's advantage by keeping it from being watered down by Tin Pan Alley. Any composer could take the title "blues" and turn it into something it wasn't, but most found it hard to write in the real blues style.
The Memphis Blues quickly became popular throughout the country. Florenz Ziegfeld liked the song so much that he later told Handy he gave a party every time he heard it. Black composer Will Vodery told Handy that he was personally responsible for putting five black bands on Broadway--the peculiarities of the song made it too difficult for white musicians to interpret.
According to Noble Sissle, The Memphis Blues inspired the Fox Trot, created by Vernon and Irene Castle. They were one of the most famous ballroom dance teams of the day, and their musical director was James Reese Europe. Most of their material was fast paced, but during intermissions, while the Castles caught their breath, Europe played The Memphis Blues at a slow tempo. He did this regularly, and the Castles became fascinated by the song's rhythm. When Europe suggested that they originate a slow dance adapted to it, the Castles liked the idea, and the new dance, introduced as the Bunny Hug, was soon after renamed the Fox Trot.
Another early song by Handy was the Beale Street Blues, named for what he said was "the colored thoroughfare in Memphis" where you could "find the best and worst of the Negro life." According to Handy, the song was inspired by a fellow musician:
As I was walking down Beale Street one night, my attention was caught by the sound of a piano. The insistent Negro rhythms were broken by a tinkle in the treble, then by a rumble in the bass; then they came together. I entered the cheap cafe and found a colored man at the piano, dog tired. He told me he had to play from seven at night until seven in the morning, and rested himself with alternate hands. He told me of his life, and it seemed to me that this poor, tired, happy-go-lucky musician represented his race. I set it down in notes, keeping faith with all that made the background of that poor piano thumper.
While in Memphis, Handy also wrote the St. Louis Blues, which proved to be his best-selling number and one of the most recorded songs in the history of music. Its popularity was not confined to the United States: England's King Edward VIII once asked Scottish bagpipers to play it for him, and in the thirties, when Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, it became the Ethiopian battle hymn. Forty years after it was first published, it was still supplying Handy with annual royalties of nearly $25,000.
After mild success with his Memphis-based publishing firm, Handy and his partner, Harry Pace, decided to move their operation to New York City, where they started publishing in 1917. During the twenties, Handy continued to write songs, and in 1926, he wrote Blues: An Anthology, which contained many of his earlier compositions and explained their origins.
During the thirties, Handy composed a number of spirituals, and in 1938 he published a book entitled W. C. Handy's Collection of Negro Spirituals. Later that year, he was given a tribute at Carnegie Hall. In 1939, at the New York World's Fair, he was listed as a leading contributor to American culture. W. C. Handy died in New York City on March 28, 1958. In 1969, he was honored posthumously by the United States Postal Service with a commemorative stamp. A park in the Beale Street area of Memphis is known today as W. C. Handy Park with a statue dedicated to him.