Handy, W.C. 1873-1958
W. C. Handy 1873-1958
(Full name William Christopher Handy) American composer, autobiographer, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The self-proclaimed “Father of the Blues,” Handy was the celebrated composer of the blues classic “St. Louis Blues” (1914). A well-known performer and bandleader, Handy wrote “Memphis Blues” (1912), one of the first published songs in the blues genre, which features musical laments and mournful jazz improvisations derived from African-American folk music. In all, Handy published some 150 spirituals, blues, and folk songs. Additionally, Handy edited two works on the Harlem Renaissance, The Blues: An Anthology (1926) and Book of Negro Spirituals (1938), and wrote a noted autobiography, Father of the Blues (1941).
Handy was born in Florence, Alabama, where he attended the Florence District School for Negroes for eleven years. As a child Handy secretly purchased a guitar, but when his disapproving father, a Methodist minister, discovered the instrument, he forced Handy to return it. The two came to a compromise, and Handy was allowed to study the organ; meanwhile, he clandestinely learned to play the cornet. By the age of fifteen, Handy was touring with a minstrel troupe. After determining to become a music teacher, he enrolled at the all-black Agricultural and Mechanical College in Huntsville, Alabama. Handy completed his studies in 1892, only to realize that he could make more money as a day-laborer; he found work in a pipe works and performed other odd jobs while pursing music independently. By 1896, however, he had landed a job in Chicago as a cornetist and arranger for W. A. Mahara's Minstrels. He taught music in Huntsville between 1900 and 1902, then began to tour the South again with his band. In 1908 Handy and the singer/lyricist Harry H. Pace formed the Pace and Handy Music Company. The following year, he composed what was to become his first published blues song. Originally entitled “Mr. Crump,” the song was written for the Memphis mayoral campaign of Edward H. Crump. Later, when Handy sought a publisher for the work, its title was changed to “Memphis Blues.” He eventually succeeded in 1912, selling the song copyright for $50. The work proved a modest success and was followed by Handy's breakthrough piece, “St. Louis Blues,” which earned him nationwide recognition in 1914. Many more blues arrangements followed. Meanwhile, Handy and his partner moved the Pace and Handy Music Company to Chicago and then to New York City in 1918. The company's songs were popular but earned disappointing financial rewards until blues music began to grow in popularity by the mid-1920s. During this time, Handy was increasingly troubled by failing eyesight, although this had little effect on his accelerating career. He edited Blues: An Anthology in 1926, and in 1931 the now-celebrated musician was honored in Memphis, Tennessee, with the construction of W. C. Handy Park. He published his autobiography Father of the Blues in 1941. In his later years Handy's temporary bouts with blindness became permanent. The well-known entertainer continued to perform when possible until his death in 1958.
Handy cannot be credited with the invention of blues music; the genre instead had its origins in woeful black folk-songs that were being performed in New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta region long before Handy's compositions. Nevertheless, as a blues composer and performer, Handy wrote a number of popular songs using a twelve-bar pattern and three-line verses of melancholy lyrics; Handy's famous blues song “St. Louis Blues” began with the lyric “I hate to see de evenin' sun go down.” Musically, the form contains flat third and seventh notes—called “blues” notes—and features so-called musical breaks, which allow for improvisation and other variation. In addition to Handy's many compositions, he edited Blues: An Anthology, a significant document concerning Harlem Renaissance musicians. Handy's autobiography Father of the Blues recounts the details of his life and the development of his career, as well as describing black-white relations in America at the turn of the century. His other short nonfictional works on African-American music include Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (1936) and Unsung Americans Sung (1944).
Commentators have acknowledged that Handy's long and difficult rise to success as a blues composer culminated in a significant infusion of African-American folk music into mainstream culture. Both a popularizer and a musical innovator, Handy is regarded as a seminal figure rather than an inventor of the genre, which is derived from older sources. Still, critics consider his “St. Louis Blues” a masterpiece of popular music. And while some dispute the appellation “Father of the Blues”—notable among them, Handy's rival Jelly Roll Morton—most regard him as one of the great figures of American music.
The Blues: An Anthology [editor] (nonfiction) 1926
Negro Authors and Composers of the United States (nonfiction) 1936
Book of Negro Spirituals [editor] (nonfiction) 1938
Father of the Blues (autobiography) 1941
Unsung Americans Sung (nonfiction) 1944
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SOURCE: “I Created Jazz in 1902, Not W. C. Handy,” in Down Beat, Vol. 61, No. 7, July, 1994, pp. 10, 12-13.
[In the following essay, originally composed in 1938, Morton claims that blues music predates both himself and W. C. Handy, and maintains that he—rather than Handy—was the originator of jazz.]
Dear Mr. Ripley:
For many years I have been a constant reader of your (Believe It or Not) cartoon. I have listened to your broadcast with keen interest. I frankly believe your work is a great contribution to natural science.
In your broadcast of March 26, 1938, you introduced W. C. Handy as the originator of jazz, stomps, and blues. By this announcement you have done me a great injustice, and you have also misled many of your fans.
It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be creator in the year 1902, many years before the Dixieland Band organized. Jazz music is a style, not compositions; any kind of music may be played in jazz, if one has the knowledge. The first stomp was written in 1906, namely “King Porter Stomp.” “Georgia Swing” was the first to be named swing in 1907. You may be informed by leading recording companies. “New Orleans Blues” was written in 1905, the same year “Jelly Roll Blues” was mapped out, but not...
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SOURCE: “W. C. Handy,” in Men of Popular Music, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1944, pp. 65-76.
[In the following essay, Ewen summarizes the blues technique employed by Handy, recounts the musician's life, and calls his “St. Louis Blues” “one of the undisputed masterpieces in our popular music.”]
To the texture of what soon was to be known as jazz had been added the element of ragtime. Other elements in harmonic and melodic color and in tonality were to be contributed by the blues of W. C. Handy. For years before Handy wrote his classics, “The Memphis Blues” and the “St. Louis Blues,” music similar in general character to the later blues had been in existence. But it was Handy who stylized its form, gave it nationwide recognition, and established it permanently.
The blues was, after all, the “sorrow music” of the lower strata of Negro society—gamblers, prisoners, prostitutes, beggars, shifting laborers. It was the deep-throated lament of those harassed people bewailing their misfortunes. The blues was the simple, poignant cry of woe, and it was fraught with the profoundest feelings. With Handy, its elementary structure—as simple as the nature of the people who sang it—made it easy to remember. One line was repeated, then a new line was added to complete a three-line stanza, in the following manner.
I had been a bad, bad girl, wouldn' treat...
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SOURCE: “William Christopher Handy, Father of the Blues,” in Jazz Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, March, 1971, pp. 10-12.
[In the following essay, Kay examines the early publication history of blues songs other than Handy's, but concludes that “the greatness of William Christopher Handy remains unchallenged.”]
The place was a Harlem Baptist Church. The time was Wednesday afternoon, April 2, 1958. A trumpet solo to his favourite hymn Holy City, played by jazz trumpeter Cootie Williams, closed the funeral service for William Christopher Handy, 84, internationally acclaimed ‘Father of the Blues’.
From his pulpit, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., paid homage to Handy and his blues in words expressing the sadness, sunshine and bitter-sweet humour associated with the blues and jazz of the American Negro. ‘His personal blues are now ended. From this pulpit I have buried King Oliver, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and now Bill Handy is with them … what a jam session!’
The night before, over 1,500 persons crammed the Prince Hall Masonic Temple to participate in the Masonic rites for Handy who had been a Mason since 1907. Sprawling Harlem, with its dreary fronts of ancient brownstones and narrow streets bordered by littered gutters, offered a little relief from the sadness and solemnity of the occasion. Thousands of mourners...
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SOURCE: “From Jazz Syncopation to Blues Elegy: Faulkner's Development of Black Characterization,” in Faulkner and Race, edited by Doreen Fowler and Ann J. Abadie, University Press of Mississippi, 1987, pp. 70-92.
[In the following essay, Davis investigates the influence of Handy's music on William Faulkner's characterization of blacks in his novels.]
Listening to W. C. Handy's 1916 blues song “Ole Miss,” recorded by jazz pianist James P. Johnson in 1922, I am reminded of the way in which blues and jazz intermingled in the music of that period. Southern-born Handy, called “the father of the blues,” and Northern-born Johnson, father of the hot piano, did not single-handedly invent the music that they composed and performed; instead, for creative inspiration, each drew upon traditional black music, secular and sacred, during a time when, following Scott Joplin's successful ragtime compositions at the turn of the century, black American musicians laid claim to all the possibilities of their multicultured heritage. I am reminded, too, that “Ole Miss” is Handy's tribute to the University of Mississippi where, as a Memphis bandleader and cornetist, he frequently played for campus dances and balls.
One of the Oxford youngsters attending those dances was William Faulkner. In describing Faulkner's social activities during the fall of 1915, Joseph Blotner points to dances in the...
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SOURCE: “‘They Cert'ly Sound Good to Me’: Sheet Music, Southern Vaudeville, and the Commercial Ascendancy of the Blues,” in American Music, Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 402-54.
[In the following essay, Abbott and Seroff trace the origins of blues music in southern vaudeville and consider the growth of popular blues.]
The era of popular blues music was not suddenly set into motion by Mamie Smith's 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues.” By the time Mamie Smith was allowed to walk into a commercial recording studio, the blues was an American entertainment institution with an abounding legendry and a firmly established father figure. The history of the commercial ascendancy of the blues is partially preserved in sheet music, and although this field has been well plowed, new insights still crop up in the furrows. A more important, but far less explored, platform for the blues' commercial ascendancy was the African American vaudeville stage, the history of which is embedded in the entertainment columns of black community newspapers. As soon as there was a visible network of black vaudeville theaters in the South, the first identifiable blues pioneers appeared before the footlights. Working through disparate cultural impulses, these self-determined southern vaudevillians gave specific direction to new vernacular forms, including the so-called classic blues heard on the first crashing wave of race...
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SOURCE: “Faulkner in Context: Seeing ‘That Evening Sun’ Through the Blues,” in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 50-58.
[In the following essay, Gartner explores William Faulkner's portrait of a blues singer in “That Evening Sun Go Down” in the contexts of Handy's “St. Louis Blues.”]
When Faulkner published “That Evening Sun Go Down” in the Spring 1931 American Mercury, his readers would have immediately recognized the reference to W. C. Handy's “St. Louis Blues.” When the story appeared that fall with the shorter title, “That Evening Sun,” in Faulkner's first short-story collection, readers must still have picked up the allusion, thanks to America's “blues craze” (Bakara 148). From its beginning, like Faulkner himself, they could have heard Handy and his band, or other singers or bands, playing the popular new blues. At the height of the craze, the radio and phonograph brought Bessie Smith and other blues singers into homes all over the country. For “the first time in our history … we developed a national consciousness about a popular music” (Eberly 4).
Faulkner's use of the blues, with the “St. Louis Blues” as a specific referent, gives “That Evening Sun” a context with its own set of images and symbols. Other writers, most notably Thadious Davis, have studied Faulkner's use of the blues in the development...
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Aschmann, Charles O., Jr. Review of Blues: An Anthology, edited by W. C. Handy. The Reprint Bulletin: Book Reviews XXXII, No. 1 (1987): 10.
Positive assessment of Handy's historical and critical anthology of blues music.
Edmonds, Anthony O. Review of Father of the Blues. The Reprint Bulletin: Book Reviews XXX, No. 3 (March 1985): 54.
Mentions the significance of Handy's autobiography as a social history of black-white relations.
Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. New York: Viking Press, 1981, 310 p.
Study of blues music history; includes a bibliography and discography.
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