William Christopher “W.C.” Handy
November 16, 1873 – March 28, 1958
William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was born in Florence, Alabama to the formerly enslaved Elizabeth Brewer and Charles Barnard Handy. He developed a passion for music at an early age that was encouraged by his maternal grandmother. The interest was somewhat discouraged by his father who was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. As a compromise, his father would not allow him to pursue secular music but did agree to pay for Handy to take organ lessons.
Yet, Handy continued to explore his interest in music without his family’s knowledge. He saved money he earned with hopes of purchasing a guitar that he saw in a store window. When Handy bought the guitar he went home and proudly showed off his acquisition and his father promptly had him return the guitar and exchange it for a dictionary. As a teen, he took acapella singing lessons at school, secretly joined a blues band, and bought a cornet which he practiced earnestly in secret.
After obtaining a teacher’s certificate from Huntsville Teachers Agricultural and Mechanical College, Handy moved to Birmingham where he passed the exam required to become a teacher. Unfortunately, the job provided little pay so Handy quit and found a better paying job at an ironworks company in nearby Bessemer.
Around this time he formed a quartet with which he toured with aims of reaching and performing at the Chicago’s World Fair. At one point the quartet was left stranded in St. Louis, Missouri where they dealt with a lack of money, food, and shelter. The pressure resulted in the group disbanding after which Handy headed to Henderson, Kentucky where he met and married Elizabeth Price.
For a while, the newlyweds were based in Chicago, Illinois where Handy joined the “Mahara’s Minstrels”, a traveling minstrel show that toured the South, Cuba, and Canada. The years that Handy spent with the group allowed him to grow as a musician as in addition to becoming a soloist performer he also functioned as an arranger and band director. In stops along the way, he was exposed to ragtime and tango which combined with folk songs he’d heard while in St. Louis would have a great impact on his musical style.
Handy taught at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College but grew tired of classical music being regarded as superior to the styles of music that had developed in America. Frustrated, he accepted an offer to move to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and become band leader for the Knights of Pythias. The town was wealthy and the band often played at cotillions and balls which allowed Handy to also observe how White people responded to traditionally Black music styles of music.
The Mississippi Delta and Clarksdale in particular would produce several key blues musicians but at this time the genre was still in its infancy. One of Handy’s first experiences with the blues was when he saw someone play slide guitar. During the six years that Handy spent in Clarksdale, Handy soaked up the many variations of the region’s blues.
In the first decade of the 1900s, Handy along with his band and family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. Beale Street was the city’s entertainment area and a music epicenter for the South. Handy and his band became regular performers at the clubs on Beale Street. In 1909, a local politician was running for mayor for whom Handy wrote a campaign song entitled, “Mr. Crump”.
Handy rearranged the song and released it as “Memphis Blues” which is considered the first blues song to be published though some categorize it as being closer to ragtime. In a sort of foreshadowing of what was to come in the future of music, Handy was having financial difficulties and sold the publishing rights to the song for $100. At the time many songs were sold as sheet music rather than records. The purchaser added lyrics that mentioned Handy and the band which brought them some fame and the buyer a small fortune when the song became a hit. A different arrangement of the song also served as inspiration for the popular foxtrot dance.
Having realized his mistake in selling his publishing, two years later, Handy formed Pace & Handy Music Company with his business partner Harry Pace, a businessman, and lyricist. Their partnership was one of the first, if not the first, Black-owned music publishing companies. Together, the two published “The St. Louis Blues” which eventually became an even bigger hit that produced royalties for years to come. This song was unarguably in the blues genre but allowed for versatility that resulted in the song being adapted for different genres.
For the next nine years, the company published and acquired more blues songs that became hits, formally launching the blues as a genre. Despite his creative and financial success, Handy still felt the sting of Southern racism and moved to New York City in 1918 with hopes of escaping discrimination. A few years later, Handy and Pace parted ways after which Pace formed the first Black-owned record company, taking most of the writers with him. This threw the original company into a tailspin but with help from his brother and sister-in-law, Handy turned the company around and relaunched as Handy Brothers Music Company.
The latter half of the 1920s would see Handy release the music songbook, Blues: An Anthology, and hold the first blues concert at Carnegie Hall. But when the Great Depression began, the business was once again forced to deal with a myriad of problems. Yet, its financial stability allowed the company to survive and it began reliably generating revenue again by the late 1930s. 1940 would see him reacquire the rights to “The Memphis Blues,” the song that started it all but had managed to slip away.
Handy would continue to have ups and downs. He and his music became ever more popular as he published more songbooks during the 1930s as well as a 1941 biography, Father of the Blues. Unfortunately, Handy’s wife died in 1937 and one of his daughters passed away around that time as well. Handy had experienced vision problems since childhood which became increasingly worse as he got older. But in 1943, he fell from a subway platform and while fast-acting passersby helped get him to safety which saved his life, his skull was fractured which resulted in him becoming completely and permanently blind.
Handy remarried in 1954 to his assistant but died four years later on March 28, 1958, of acute bronchial pneumonia at the age of 84. His church funeral which was held in Harlem was attended by thousands with an estimated 150,000 people lining the streets for the funeral procession.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2020. “W.C. Handy.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 28, 2020. https://www.biography.com/musician/wc-handy.
- Hurwitt, Elliott S. 2018. “William “W.C.” Handy.” Encyclopedia of Alabama. July 30, 2018. http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2042.
- Nager, Larry. n.d. “W.C. Handy.” Memphis Music Hall of Fame. Accessed June 5, 2021. https://memphismusichalloffame.com/inductee/wchandy/.
- “W.C. Handy.” n.d. University of North Alabama. Accessed June 5, 2021. https://www.una.edu/library/collections/w.c.-handy—biography.html.
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