W.C. 1873-1958 Handy Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.